Sunday, April 6, 2003

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33 

Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.

When I was young I took many art courses in school, and over the years I learned how to use many different types of materials. We did projects with clay, ink, paint and even garbage. Each class was designed to help us see how the materials could be used as well as to help us find our niche. I loved to work with ink but never could do calligraphy well. I like to paint but I couldn't grasp the use of watercolors. Over the years, some of my favorite projects included the use of clay, yet it was the one medium with which I had the most trouble.

I remember one project in high school that I did three times. One time the project shattered in the kiln. The second time someone bumped the project on the way to the kiln and it fell apart. By then the clay was too dry, I could not get it to reform. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get the clay to do what I wanted. When it was time to go in the kiln, it was cracked and drying unevenly. It too would have shattered in the kiln, just as the first. By then, I was so discouraged I almost gave up but my teacher encouraged me to start one more time. He took the mess I had made and threw it in the container with the fresh materials and then he gave me a new piece of smooth moist clay. I quickly made the project and everything went well. The pot came out well and I still have it today. The only way I could make that pot was to start new, with fresh clay. The clump I was using was dry and impossible to work; it could not be repaired with a little water. Everything worked out much better when I started fresh.

Have you ever had some project to do, but found it impossible to get it accomplished? I know it has happened to me in many areas of life - when I'm writing, planning a bible study, doing some sort of craft project. I have even experienced this when trying to clean the house or do the gardening. Sometimes we have to just give up what we are doing, take a break from it and then start fresh. It may mean junking all our hard work, but the end result will be much better. Too often we try to salvage a disaster when we should really try something new.

So far in this church year we have seen the light revealed. It began with Advent when we heard the prophets promise the light that was to come. Then Jesus was born at Christmas, the light made flesh. At Epiphany the light was revealed to the Gentiles and the entire world. He has been presented at the temple, baptized by John and transfigured before His closest friends. Very soon the light will be extinguished as our Lord Jesus suffers the final humiliation on the cross. In today's Gospel lesson we hear Jesus talking about death.

How could this be? How could God allow the Israelites' only hope to die in such a horrible manner before He even accomplished the salvation that He promised? It is interesting to note that the passion story as told by John is somewhat different than those told in the synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell that in the final hours of Jesus' life, the earth became dark. Yet, in this passage from John, we see God's glory in that darkest hour. Though Jesus prayed that His heart was troubled, He knew it was not an option for the hour to pass. His purpose was to be lifted on the cross, so that we could look to Him for eternal healing. Jesus said, Father, glorify thy name!

There came therefore a voice out of heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.

It is nearly impossible for us to see how anything good could come out of something so bad. Yet, with God everything is possible. Things were not working. His people had so messed up things in this world and their relationship with the Creator that it seemed hopeless. No lambs or bulls could take away their sin. They could not obey the Law as given to them by Moses. It was like my clay pot -- they kept trying to make something good, but it kept falling apart. The only way to make it work was for God to start over.

That's why God made the promise we see in Jeremiah. "Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah." A new covenant. The old ways were not working. The sacrifices were not cleansing the hearts of the people. They were like the old dry clay I tried to use for my project.

The promise in Jeremiah is an incredible one. "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more."

This new covenant was to be the answer to the prayer of the Psalmist. "Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from thy presence; And take not thy holy Spirit from me.  Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; And uphold me with a willing spirit." This is what God intended to do with His people. He is going to make them new, to restore their relationship with the Father and give them the Holy Spirit. He will start fresh and make everything new.

They were expecting a king, but they were going to be changed. They were expecting a deliverer, but they would be cleansed and filled. It wasn't enough for Jesus to lead them, to teach them or to be a good role model. As He said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit." New life would come only through death, His death on the cross. God's greatest moment of glory would come in the darkest moment of Jesus' life, because it was at that moment that sin and death was defeated forever. The blood of the lambs and bulls was never enough; another sacrifice was always required to atone for the sin of men. However, when the perfect Lamb of God perished on the cross, God's promise was fulfilled. In Christ, God forgives our wickedness and remembers our sins no more.

As we have watched the story of Jesus unfold through the seasons of our church year, we have watched along with the people who followed Jesus in that day. They saw Him face to face, witnessed the miraculous things He did and heard the words He spoke right from the mouth of God. Yet, they did not totally understand. Even today there are many who think Jesus was just a great prophet and teacher. They believe He is nothing more than a great priest who just did things more perfectly than the others. But Jesus was more. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, " So Christ also glorified not himself to be made a high priest, but he that spake unto him, Thou art my Son, This day have I begotten thee." We first heard these words spoken to Jesus at His baptism, when God said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

"Though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation; named of God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek." Jesus learned obedience to God rather than to the world. Though Satan tested Him, He submitted to God's purpose. Though the people tried to get Him to be what He wanted, He never left the path God ordained.

As we consider the great thing He has done, we remember that we in no way deserve His incredible mercy and grace. The Psalmist cried out for mercy according to His love and so do we for we are unable to save ourselves. In the old way, the hearts of men were still far from God even when everything looked good on the outside. But we now see our transgressions are deep and pray God to cleanse us to the very depths of our soul. And that's just what He did on the cross. He answered the prayers of His people, fulfilled His promised and made everything new.

Thanks be to God. 

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