Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Readings for the day

As Lent progresses we are called to turn our thinking from repentance, our work at the start of Lent, to Jerusalem – specifically Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem… a journey of sacrifice that leads to crucifixion. Today’s scripture readings are clearly part of that shift.

The shift is not just a call to think literally about the city of Jerusalem and the pending crucifixion. Embedded within the shift is a call to change the way we think about God.

We start with Jeremiah… “I will make a new covenant… I will write it in their hearts… I will forgive their sins and remember them no more.” There is a prominent school of theology that holds Jesus died to pay the price of our sins. It’s not a school that says much to me, but for those who hold it dear, I’d suggest a very careful reading of the Prophet Jeremiah. The Prophet tells us that long before Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins are forgiven.

Our relationship with God is not transactional. Jesus’ crucifixion is not a payment for services. God is the God of love and Jesus’ sacrifice is a sacrifice of love. As we focus on the journey to Jerusalem, we need to focus on love – God’s love for us and our love for God, for others, and for ourselves. And just because we are moved by love does not mean we won’t hurt people.

Our relationship with God is transformed by the act of Jesus’ incarnation. But long before Jesus, Jeremiah is already telling us that God is changing the relationship. The ancient relationship was transactional – we did bad things and God punished us. We did good things and God rewarded us. The new relationship, new from Jeremiah, is built on loving forgiveness, on grace. But the call is more urgent in Jesus’ time. Jesus is the embodiment of the new covenant that Jeremiah is talking about.

It’s also worth noting that Jeremiah is talking about us… we are the beneficiaries of grace, of salvation. This dreadful walk that Jesus is making is, after all, for us.

John’s telling of the Gospel brings us up to date on events just before the Crucifixion. A crowd is assembling for the festival – that would be the Passover Festival – when faithful Jews remember the release from slavery in Egypt, the story told in Exodus.

Jeremiah tells us about a new covenant of forgiveness – of freedom from bondage to sin. And John tells us about events taking place during the ancient festival that celebrates the freedom of Jews from bondage in Egypt.

Clearly as we journey with Jesus through the events we know are coming, the underlying message is one of freedom and release, not sorrow and remorse.

John’s narration begins with some Greeks… we don’t know much about them, how many they were, who they were. These details are, apparently, not important. What they do tell us is that this Jesus Movement has outgrown its roots in Judaism. These folks are Greeks… Gentiles… They are here to see Jesus. Passover is not their holiday. The early followers of Jesus thought of the movement as a movement within Judaism. John is showing us that its bigger. Here come the outsiders…

John is subtly telling early Christians too expand their view of the Jesus Movement. This is a message we still need to hear: Just as the Jesus Movement outgrew the identity of the early faithful, today’s Jesus Movement may be outgrowing the Church as we know it. But that’s a different sermon for another day…

The events John describes seem a bit clumsy. The Greeks find Phillip and tell him they want to meet Jesus. Philip doesn’t take them to Jesus but instead goes to find Andrew… and then Andrew and Phillip go to find Jesus and tell him. What do they tell Jesus? We don’t really know, but it’s probably along the lines of “Hey Jesus… there are some Greeks here who want to meet you.”

Jesus gives an answer that seems a non-sequitur. “The time has come”, he says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” What has this got to do with some Greeks who just wanted to say hi… We get no help on that because Jesus continues with a discussion of death, seeds, fruit, and eternal life. But there is a purpose here – Jesus’ identity as messiah is being revealed to the world. The secret is out.

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” By now our Greek chorus is probably saying “OK, we’ll just be going …” But Jesus isn’t done. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

Jesus gives some clear clues that sorrowful times are at hand and then seems to tell God what to do: “Glorify your name.”

And God answers… “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.” Part of me hears God saying “Jesus – don’t tell me what to do…” Part of me hears a threat – “I will Glorify my name and then we’ll see how you like it…” Apparently, much of the crowd can’t even recognize the voice of God – they just hear thunder.

Jesus clarifies that God is speaking for our benefit. How much we are like that crowd? How many times does God speak and we only hear thunder? Or something… anything but the voice of God. How often do we dismiss the voice of God as something else?

Jesus goes on: “Now is the time of judgment! Now the rulers of this world will be driven out! I will draw all people to myself.”

The situation feels ominous, even dangerous. Thunderclaps from God precede a tirade from Jesus. But if you focus on Jesus’ words and ignore the thunder, we could understand Jesus to say he will embrace all of us – draw us all to himself. From the cross he will wrap his arms around us and draw us close in a wonderful and loving embrace.

That is sandwiched in between “I will be lifted up” and “Jesus said this to indicate what type of death he would have.” As we turn toward Jerusalem it’s hard not to think about crucifixion. John seems to be underscoring that thought. But if we remove the bread from the sandwich, we have a message of love from Jesus – all of us will be drawn in. How inclusive. How expansive.

Jesus puts no qualifiers in his statement. I’m ready to hear “I will draw all ‘faithful’ to myself…” “I will draw all ‘right thinking’ or ‘right living’ people to myself… I will draw all Christians to myself… Or perhaps all monastics… But there is no qualifier. I will draw all people…

Jeremiah tells us that God will be written in our hearts – not in our minds. And Jesus tells us about a pending embrace when we all get drawn in. Gone is the God who punishes our sins. Gone is the angry God. Gone is the God who favors our tribe and destroys the others… Faithful people for generations have known God by studying the law. Now they must look to their hearts. As must we.

John gives us this discussion by Jesus of seeds falling into the ground and dying, only to rise again. Certainly, part of what John is telling us is about the near-at-hand death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. But if that was the only story John wanted to tell, he certainly could have been more direct.

I think John wants us to hear a larger context. Death and resurrection is not only about Jesus. It’s about all of us. Our understanding of God must die so that a new understanding, a new way of knowing God to take its place.

Our ways of living and ordering our lives and culture must die so that a Jesus-oriented life can come into being. Ultimately, we must die in order that we can be free of death – death being our attachment to things of this world. This is the Glory of God.

As Lent gives way to Holy Week and Easter the question we can ponder is how can we die? What of my own attachments can get nailed to the cross with Jesus? What pieces of myself can I toss into the tomb? Can I kindle a bonfire of my own vanities at the Easter Vigil? What space can I clear for resurrection to fill? What seeds can I drop into the ground? And what might spring up from them?

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