Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.

We do a lot of things wrong. We lie, we cheat, and we steal. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are doing it. We are jealous of our neighbors and covet what they have. We may seem to be living a good, righteous life; our neighbors may think we are kind and generous, moral and upstanding citizens. And perhaps we are. Yet we still do a lot of things wrong. We don’t always love. We sometimes hate. We don’t share everything we have. We are, at times, selfish. We get angry for all the wrong reasons. We do not forgive. We forget to do what is right. We sin in thought, word and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. That’s our human nature: we are sinners and we do a lot of things wrong.

We know that we do things wrong because of the covenant God made with His people, as we saw in the scriptures a few weeks ago. The Ten Commandments gave us a foundation on which to build the lives God wants us to live. Our actions are meant to follow those rules. We are meant to honor our father and mother and all authority. We are commanded not to kill, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. Most of us can do a pretty good job at checking off these commands and perhaps according to the letter of the law they are doing what is right. I don’t know anyone who has killed someone, although I do know people who have wished others dead. I do know a person or two who has committed adultery, but I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t lusted over some sexy body. Jesus once told the crowds that it isn’t enough to avoid doing the things that God has commanded against: He said that we shouldn’t even think about it.

The Commandments, and the rest of the Law, help us see what we are doing wrong so that we might try to live a better life. The covenant God made with His people at Sinai demands that they live accordingly or He will turn His back on the nation. Each of us has learned in our own way how hard it is to live by those laws and how we suffer when we don’t. We’ve experienced broken relationships, punishment, sickness and even death because of our failure.

In today’s scriptures, however, we learn that there is a new covenant. Jeremiah writes God’s word, “…not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them…” The first covenant had to do with flesh and blood and land. God promised to make them a great nation, to guard them and to prosper them. He took them by the hand and led them out of slavery into a new homeland and promised that if they continued to live in the commandments, He would be with them.

But through Jeremiah, God promises a new, better covenant. This is a more personal covenant. It is not given to the whole people; it is given to every person. It is a covenant that has no ifs, no conditions. It is a covenant that does not require good works or right living. It is a covenant that can’t be broken because it is fulfilled and finished by God Himself.

Jeremiah writes, “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 covenant promises that God will be with each of His people, dwelling in their heart, writing His Word on the very depths of their soul. This new covenant is not about obedience, it is about God changing His people so that they will live naturally according to His will.

Let us not presume, however, that we do not need one another to know and experience God. It might be easy under this covenant to separate ourselves from the community of faith, knowing that we no longer need someone else to teach us the words that have been handed down for generations. We need one another so that we stay on the right path. The Law is still helpful to guide our lives. The words still matter. But under this new covenant, something is very different. Instead of gaining our forgiveness, justification and sanctification in the old way, as a nation through sacrifice, we are each forgiven by God Himself, and our failures are forgotten.

While the old covenant focused much on the way we live, the new covenant is entirely about our relationship with God. The psalmist writes, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.” We sin against our neighbors every day, but the reality is that all our sins are against God. When we do what we shouldn’t do or fail to do what we should do, we sin against God. We turn from Him, we go our own way, we do our own thing.

The new covenant is not national, it is personal. The sins we do affect the community in which we live, but the root of all our problems is that we are separated from God by our sinful nature. The new covenant is given to restore that relationship and make us into the people He has always intended us to be. According to this new covenant, God loves us and dwells within our hearts so that we can love Him and love our neighbors as He does.

That new covenant comes to us through Jesus, and it is not just for some people: it is for all people. In the beginning of this week’s Gospel lesson, some Greeks (read Gentiles) came to the disciples and asked to see Jesus. These were most likely men who believed in the monotheistic God and the moral attitude of the Jews. Yet, Judaism was as much a nationalistic religion as it was a way to honor the One True God. Being a Jew meant being part of a whole people, not just part of a way of thinking. Many Gentiles, like these Greeks, loved and feared God even though they were unwilling to take on a new citizenship.

Jesus recognized that the appearance of the Greeks was a signal of the ushering in of the new covenant. This was the hour. Everything they knew was about to die so that something new could come. Jesus, the old covenants, even the nation of Israel’s special relationship with God would pass away as something new and better came into force. The sacrifice that was about to be made was not for one sin, or one nation’s sin, but for the foundation of all sin: the broken relationship between God and His people. In this one act, this final sacrifice, the debt would finally be paid, iniquity forgiven and sin forgotten forever.

We are finally seeing God’s plan come together, the plan that has slowly revealed throughout Lent. Noah was promised that there would be no more floods, yet the flood prefigured a different kind of washing. Abram was promised that He would become the father of many nations, and now we see that the plan of God is meant to reach beyond one people. Moses was promised God’s protection as long as the people honored Him in accordance with the Law. Now we understand that the Law is meant to be seen in the simplest of terms, “love God and love your neighbor,” these two laws fulfill all of the law and the prophets.

As we get closer to the cross, we still wonder why it had to be this way. Jesus Christ lived fully the law of God, and He lived it perfectly. Of all men with flesh and blood, Jesus Christ was the only one who did not deserve death. Why the cross? When did Jesus have to be lifted on that pole?

It is no wonder, then that we hear Jesus praying, troubled by the torment to come. He wonders if He should even ask to be relieved of this work. “What shall I say? Father, save me from this hour. But for this cause came I unto this hour.” Jesus knew that obedience was the only way. It was necessary for one last sacrifice to finish the work that was started in the Old Testament covenants. The New Covenant would come when the Son was glorified, and His obedience made everything right. We think that the cross is a horrible moment, but it was the moment of glory. Jesus’ obedience glorified God’s name.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was not self-appointed. He was called by God, called the Son of God with God’s own voice. He was not following His own will but the will of the Father. Because of His obedience, God made Him Priest and King over this new covenant. He did not choose these roles, God fulfilled His promises in Jesus. These were not earthbound titles given for a brief period of time; He would be Priest and King forever.

The journey we’ve traveled during this Lenten period has helped us see, and accept, that we have truly sinned against God. We have done what we should not do and failed to do what we do in thought, word and deed, and while our sins have been against our neighbors, the root of our problem is the sin that keeps us separated from God. Our failures make us unable to pay the debts we owe one another and our God. But God promised to take care of it all and He fulfilled that promise on the cross. Now we do not need a priest or a king to intervene on our behalf because we have Jesus. God forgives our iniquity and forgets our sin because He was obedient.

We are still going to sin. It’s a fact of life that our flesh is weak and susceptible to temptation. Every day we will fail to do what is right. These sins are rarely anything major; we seem to be good and upright to the world. But sin is sin, and the effect of sin reaches far beyond our own lives. Though the work is complete, we still have reason to join in the song of David, seeking God’s mercy and grace. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin.” We pray these words because we know that we sin against God; we need Him to change us.

We do a lot of things wrong. We sin in thought, word and deed by what we do and what we leave undone. That’s our human nature: we are sinners and we do a lot of things wrong. When we do, we can trust in God’s faithfulness to keep the New Covenant, and turn to our Lord Jesus for His forgiveness. In His great mercy and love, He has provided for our reconciliation with God, which then makes it possible for us to reconcile with our neighbors and all creation. He forgives us, forgets our sin and dwells in us, guiding our resurrection journey along the path He has ordained for each of us.

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