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Bible Study: Lent 5 (B) – March 17, 2024

March 17, 2024

RCL: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13 or Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Even though the book of Jeremiah is set amid times of extraordinary suffering for the people, including war and exile, a recurring image is one of intimate relationship between the people and God. It is a relationship of a household bound by a marriage bond – but a bond has been strained to the breaking point. In this passage, God proclaims a renewal of the relationship, yet the renewal is based on a new kind of covenant. God will write God’s law on the hearts of the people, and “all shall know [God].” This knowing in the heart, both individually and collectively, provides for the people a new kind of secure connection to God, in the wake of the destruction of the temple in the war with Babylon. Now the people can know God anywhere, under any circumstances, and know that God will keep the covenant and forgive. God’s action to instill knowledge directly in the hearts of the people can be empowering, especially for those who may not be recognized as possessing or deserving access to knowledge. Here we see that relationship with God will not be obstructed by human systems of hierarchy and power.

  • How might Jeremiah’s imagery of intimacy with God in your heart affect how you pray?
  • How does God make Godself known in your heart, and how might that empower you to show that in the world?

Psalm 51:1-13

The psalmist prays to God for mercy in the context of offenses, wickedness, transgressions, and evil. Note that the prayer is not just for mercy, or even for a neutral relationship, but for joy. Joy is named twice, in verses 9 and 13. First, the psalmist prays to God to make them “hear of joy and gladness.” There is perhaps an initial distance, a request borne of humility, of intense self-reflection on how the psalmist has missed the mark. But later, it is as if the psalmist has grown in courage, based in faith in a loving and forgiving God, so that by verse 13, the prayer develops to a bold request: “Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.”

Whereas the psalmist begins with an honest acknowledgment of sin, not shying away from the harsh reality of the human condition, the counter-balancing reality of a God who shows “loving-kindness” breaks in, as light breaking into darkness. Note too that forgiveness here is not just offenses blotted out, but true transformation. This is not about a cosmic balance sheet; it is about renewed, loving relationship with God. The psalmist expects to be changed, as we hear in the prayer “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

  • How have you experienced healing from sin in your life? If joy is integral to this healing, how might you look for healing amid joy, and joy amid healing?
  • The psalmist seems to grow in courage and faith. How has prayer helped you in your life to grow in your courage and faith in God?

Hebrews 5:5-10

This passage links several important ideas for us: humility, prayer, obedience, and priesthood. Although priesthood is here ascribed specifically to Christ, we believe that in our baptism we are all called to the priesthood of all believers. This brings both privilege and responsibility. The privilege is secured for us by Christ, that just as he “was heard because of his reverent submission,” so may we be heard by God. But our commensurate responsibility is to recognize and live according to our proper relationship with God, which is one of loving humility and obedience. In other words, we may follow Jesus’ example in offering up “prayers and supplications,” even with “loud cries and tears,” but we must remember that our prayers are best offered with the reverent submission of that same example. Likewise, we may rightly rejoice in the privilege of participating in the priesthood of all believers, yet we are taught to follow Christ’s example by not glorifying ourselves. As we pray, the kingdom, the power, and the glory are God’s.

  • What does (or could) “reverent submission” to God look like in your life?
  • In this passage, priesthood is bestowed by God. What privileges and responsibilities do you feel God has bestowed upon you?

John 12:20-33

Rhetorically speaking, in this passage we are presented with three different ways of considering the relationship between life and death. First, Jesus refers to what we might call the natural order of things in creation: all that lives dies, and life often comes from what has died, as in the example of the grain of wheat. In one sense, it is not up to the grain of wheat to live or die; both life and death, and then life from its death, are inherent in how it was created. Second, Jesus refers to the fact that we, so much more than a grain of wheat, have the blessing and burden of choice. The message is clear: while we cannot choose to live or die any more than the grain of wheat, we can choose the manner of our living. The better choice is to live in such a way that we are like the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and brings new life that “bears much fruit.” Third and lastly, Jesus refers to his own death, a death that is entirely his choice, but is in the context of a life lived to the glory of God. By bringing these three layers or levels of existence together (the grain of wheat, human beings, Christ), this passage at once reminds us that we are created and are utterly at the mercy of our creator, and that we are called to exercise our extraordinary gift of free will to choose how we live, to follow the example of Jesus in loving God and loving our neighbor.

  • If you are like a grain of wheat, what or where is your patch of earth in which your faithful choices might bring forth new life? Where can you make a difference today?
  • Jesus says that he will “draw all people to [himself].” How does Jesus draw you?

The Rev. Phillip Lienau is a seminarian at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

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Christopher Sikkema


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