Sermon on 18th March 2018

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUN 18 MAR 18

REVD ANDREA PRICE

May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you our Lord and Saviour. Amen

 

Today’s readings offer us some rather mysterious topics:

  • a great prophecy
  • a great high priest,
  • the hour come for Jesus

We sense that here we are listening to things central to our faith, but at the same time: don’t they make us worry? This is not the normal way of things!

Let me try to unpack our readings a little.

  1. Jeremiah 31,31-34: Our OT reading is a passage from the so called “book of comfort” in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet in Israel and Judah around 625BC until after the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC. Jeremiah like Hosea had spent his life warning people and their leaders to lead a godly life or face the consequences.

 

Much of his book is a collection of these warnings. Towards its end we find chapters 30-31, the “book of comfort”, which is a collection of promises from God to cheer Israel. By then had been taken into exile in Babylon. This Jeremiah understood to be the punishment because they had broken the covenant God had made with their forefathers. Real despair threatened to swallow up the people of Israel.

Jeremiah gives them word of hope: God will make a new covenant. It is given out of the sheer grace and mercy of God, who forgives and forgets. God will write his law into Israel’s heart. God will be known by everyone.

Nowadays we think (in a non scientific, symbolic way) that the heart is where our emotions lie. Not so in ancient Semitic thinking. The heart was the place where the will was placed.

God’s law written on our hearts was thus not an emotional commitment but more like the reprogramming of a person. The heart was giving the marching orders and in the new covenant those will come directly from God. No more teaching is necessary and all will know God and the will of God. God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven!

Imagine: What a great promise. Angus or I would not have a job – we might just want to meet to glorify God together but each one of us would know God’s will. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord….”

 

  1. Hebrews 5, 5-10: And was Jeremiah right? Have the days come? Well, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews would say yes and no. Yes, the days have come because Christ, the son of God our saviour has come. But also no, they are not complete yet because not everyone obeys God yet. Not everyone’s heart contains the will of God yet.

Christ is in this letter compared to the Jewish High Priest. After the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD Jews had to rethink their worship fundamentally. Those who had known and learnt the teachings of Jesus came to different conclusions than mainstream Judaism.

Jesus we are told today was in many ways like the former temple High Priest: he was chosen and appointed. He mediated between God and people with gifts, prayers and sacrifices.

However Jesus exceeds the former High Priests. Firstly because God himself appointed him (remember Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration).

Jesus too forms the bridge between God and humankind in prayer and dialogue with God. With cries and tears we are told Jesus communicated with God (remember Jesus withdrawing regularly to pray, his prayer at Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha)

Jesus also exceeds the former High Priests because he suffered and yet remained in every way obedient to the will of God. Jesus, human like us, suffering did not deviate from the will of God but was obedient and submitted to God’s will. Thus he was made perfect, Jesus the perfect human.

Here is an uncomfortable statement: Jesus learnt from his suffering and was made perfect by it.

Jesus suffered and through his faithfulness to God in his suffering “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

 

Well, that is nice. As Jesus’ followers can we thus not just take part in that perfection and be done, get a heart transplant to use Jeremiah’s image and live happily ever after?

However we all know that life is not like that. Life is a mixed bag of joys and sorrows. And every one of us will have high times and low times. How we deal with the challenging times will test our mettle, test our faith and our faithfulness.

A long time ago I worked alongside a hospital chaplain who encouraged me to read a book with the title: Illness as Opportunity. Naturally we regard suffering as part of evil. Yet is it not true that in this mixed up world suffering is an unavoidable ingredient of living?

Now to be sure Christian faith does not court suffering, but neither does it shy away from it. Instead we who follow Christ are encouraged to face suffering when it is unavoidable with love and strength like Jesus.

Part of the Lenten journey is the challenge to think about our attitude towards suffering and dying. But in doing so we are actually encouraged to think more about our attitude towards living, of which dying is a part. In Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection dying has been shown its place by the power of life and love.

 

  1. John 12,20-33: Today’s gospel passage is John’s version of Jesus telling his friends that he will have to suffer and die before the resurrection can happen.

Jesus compares his life with a seed. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 

 

Simone Weil, the French philosopher commented:

“Except the seed die…It has to die in order to liberate the energy it bears within it so that with this energy new forms may be developed. So we have to die in order to liberate a tied up energy, in order to possess an energy, which is free and capable of understanding the true relationship of things.”

 

This is not the recommended way in our age. Our culture encourages us to consume and to safeguard life in order to save our lives and live self-fulfilment. Suffering and laying down our lives serve as extraordinary news items of the unusual and outrageous.

Yet if we follow Christ and his way of dealing with life it will include a different attitude towards suffering.

A Chinese proverb put it like this:

“The diamond cannot be polished without friction, nor the man perfected without trials.”

 

So are we scared and put off Christianity? Surely life is to be treasured not to be laid down!?

True indeed. John reports Jesus to say: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (10,10)

But as this world is not a painless universe but brings to everyone its share of pain, sorrow and tears, how we deal with testing times is the question.

Do we hide and refuse to learn? Or will we follow in the footsteps of our Lord, the great High Priest who offers a heart transplant, teaching us the way of love even in the most trying of circumstances until in laying down our life we will come through the door of death into the new life in God’s presence.

 

The Scottish novelist and physician A J Cronin, and the author of the book forming the basis of the TV series Dr Finley’s Casebook, grew away from Christian faith during his medical training.

He recounts in his autobiography that he had become an agnostic: “When I thought of God it was with a superior smile, indicative of biological scorn for such an outworn myth.”

During his years of practice in Wales, however, the deep religious faith of the people he worked among made him start to wonder whether “the compass of existence held more than my text-books had revealed, more than I had ever dreamed of. In short I lost my superiority, and this, though I was not then aware of it, is the first step towards finding God.”

 

In his book Adventures in Two Worlds, which draw on his experiences as medical officer of a Welsh mining company he wrote:

“I have told you of Olwen Davies, the middle aged district nurse who for more than 20 years, with fortitude and patience, calmness and cheerfulness, served the people of Tregenny. This unconscious selflessness, which above all seemed the keynote of her character, was so poorly rewarded, it worried me. Although she was much beloved by the people, her salary was most inadequate. And late one night after a particularly strenuous case, I ventured to protest to her as we drank a cup of tea together: ’Nurse, ,’I said, ‘why don’t you make them pay you more? It’s ridiculous that you should work for so little.’ She raised her eyebrows slightly. But she smiled. ‘I have enough to get along.’ ‘No really,’ I persist, ‘you ought to have an extra pound a week at least. God knows you’re worth it.’

There was a pause. Her smile remained, but her gaze held a gravity, an intensity which startled me. ‘Doctor,’ she said, ‘if God knows I’m worth it, that’s all that matters to me.’”

 

  • a great prophecy of a new covenant with a heart transplant giving us God’s will to live by
  • a great high priest, Jesus perfected through suffering to be for us the source of life, now and always, in joy and sorrow
  • the hour come for Jesus, an hour for suffering and glory, death and new life, a seed releasing energy for new life

 

May we know God and his covenant of love by heart and may God know us through Christ our Lord worth his sacrifice.

Amen