Date: March 25, 2012
Title: Pathway of Obedience
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
“The days are surely coming, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…” God is doing a new thing – or so says the prophecy of Jeremiah, about six centuries before Jesus. God is doing a new thing – or so we say, about 200 centuries after Jesus!
So how can something so old be called “new?” What is there for us in this vision of covenant which the world has not already seen or heard, judged and rejected? What could there possibly be for us in this day, that could excite us to our feet with shouts of hosanna and the recognition that here, at last, is something “new and improved”?
Perhaps we cannot answer that question for ourselves without first answering it for Jeremiah. Remember now, Jeremiah is preaching to the people of Israel at a time when everything has fallen apart all around them. His proclamation of a new covenant is given in the midst of agony – agony at the failure of the old covenant. That one now lies broken in the dust, where judgment and anger would certainly be justified if God considered only how far the people had drifted between the intention and the practice of their covenant relationship.
There is plenty of reason for God to be angry. And yet this morning what Jeremiah brings is a word of hope. He speaks of rescue and release, of restoration and return. Here, Jeremiah is done with the scolding of his last 29 chapters. Here, Jeremiah says that God will have compassion on the people, and that God is offering us a core experience, a core identity, which is based upon God’s forgiveness.
Biblical scholar Walter Bruegemann says of this passage, “Israel is now completely unburdened from the past,” because of a relationship in the present moment. And Martha Spong puts it this way when she writes:
“Oh, I suppose you could make the argument that God plans it that way all along, that God is unchanging in relationship to the people. But that is tirelessly stubborn. I prefer to make the claim that this God we worship is so clearly relational…”
God is so clearly relational with this offer of a core experience of forgiveness, and a core identity of covenant. I am reminded of an old song as I think of Jeremiah and his prophecy of hope. The song goes like this:
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. Blackbird fly, blackbird fly … into the light of the dark black night.”
As if to suggest that you and I can fly into the light which we know is still shining somewhere – even in the midst of our darkest night. As if to suggest that we can fly, even when it feels as if everything around us is falling apart. Or that we can fly, believing that God is still there to catch us, to meet us, or at least, to fly with us!
Now I know there is something deeply satisfying in the notion that God is the one who sets before us an external measure by which we must live. There are many who find satisfaction in placing an object law or set of ethical and cultural norms between themselves and God. There are plenty of folks who want to see God in terms of certain moral and behavioral expectations, so that whatever happens in our lives is understood as a consequence of having fulfilled, or failed to fulfill, the divine will. The problem with that kind of thinking is, what happens when I have done my level best to follow, to be faithful, to be obedient … and things still fall apart?
In our good days – in our clear-thinking moments – we are reminded of Jeremiah’s vision. And we see that our relationship with God is not in the nature of a tit-for-tat transaction – If you do this, then I will do that. Rather, God is as intimate to us as our innermost fantasy and our most deeply felt fears. And it is only really possible to know God as we come to know our own internal life – including that whisper of conscience, that childlike delight in all that is mysterious, that undying fascination with surprise.
And when we take Jeremiah seriously, we begin to see that Christian faithfulness – beginning with Christ himself – is not a matter of some sterile act of duty. Rather, it is an obedience of love. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day did their duty superbly. But Jesus laid down his life out of love. The Pathway of Obedience is ultimately a pathway of love.
Preparing for worship today, I ran across a great little commentary by a New Testament scholar, Dr. Karoline Lewis, who suggests:
“Here on this last Sunday in Lent, we best not kid ourselves. We can make every attempt to understand or argue or apologize for Jesus’ death on the cross; but if we take it for granted that it is about some sort of divine agreement or placation of our sins, we are sorely mistaken…
What Jesus wants us to know about his death on the cross is nothing else than what has to happen when you are human … What becomes human must die. What becomes incarnate, must realize its end.”
Jesus took the Pathway of Obedience in part because he knew that it was inevitable.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; if it dies, it bears much fruit.” To be transformed, to truly be changed, requires letting go and risking loss, whether we like it or not. We cannot become new people by trying to hang onto what is old. Adventure requires letting go of security, justice requires going beyond self-interest and risking change for the sake of others. And peace requires losing our grip on fear, and laying aside our addiction to anxiety.
Michael Coffey puts it this way:
“Either way you’re going to die: clutching your seed in your fist, Buried in your Sunday suit,
The lid sealed shut with a rubber gasket – watertight lifetime guarantee, Impermeable to the forces of nature.
And the darn thing (that seed in your fist) sprouts…
And its pale stem pushes through your dried fingers
And urges upward, straining for sunlight…
Until it bumps the steely casket lid and bends and arcs downward, Finally surrendering.
Either way you’re going to die:
You can open your hand and let loose the grain of love you bear. You can open your protected soul to life and death
And mystery in the breathable air
You can plant your seed in the welcoming earth and die to your fear And let something uncontrollable grow.
Either way you’re going to die: but if you let your seed go And die before you die, there will be wheat and flour enough To bake bread with wild holy yeast and feed the hungry world Which gives thanks for your small grain
To the One who made you to die for the fruit of love.”
So Jesus reminds us today – before Holy Week – that his death is not the end at all. Again, in Dr. Lewis’ words:
“It is no accident that Jesus helps us make sense of the resurrection before he helps us make sense of the cross. The whole order of things is mixed up … life is death and death is life. The cross is not the answer. It’s the question. It’s not the moment, but a moment in the entire Jesus event – his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. All of that is God so desperately wanting to be in relationship with us.”
God is so desperately wanting to be in relationship with us, that God is willing to write God’s self into our very hearts. And perhaps the only question remaining for us is – are we willing to meet God there? Are we willing to meet God here(within each of us), in order to walk the Pathway of Obedience, and understand it as a pathway of love? God is desperately wanting to be in relationship with us even now. Thanks be to God! Amen.