Sermons That Work

Oh, to Have Been around…, Lent 5 (B) – 2000

April 09, 2000

Oh, to have been around to hear the conversation Philip and Andrew had about the Greeks’ request! Surely they were having a lively discussion about these outsiders who were bold enough to approach Jesus to speak with him. It seems that Philip and Andrew went together to hear Jesus’ reaction, wondering what their Jewish teacher and master would say about these Gentiles, who lacked the cultural benefit of a heritage under the Law.

John doesn’t tell us what exactly these Gentiles were doing at the Passover festival in Jerusalem, except that they came with others who were there to worship. All we know is that it was a mixed-up society, like ours is today, with people of all sorts of religious and cultural persuasions passing through, some staying, some vying for dominance, others wanting simply enough space to survive. John doesn’t tell us what the Greeks’ questions were, but we can guess from Jesus’ answer that it might have had something to do with their place in his message of salvation. Was Jesus’ message only for the Jews? If so, which Jews? Was it for the Gentiles, too? If so, which Gentiles?

Part of our Lenten journey has been about wrestling with rules in the wilderness. If we have to follow rules, whose rules? Our own? The church’s? God’s? So much controversy in the church recently has been around these issues, and when the debate gets really heated, all sides start quoting chapter and verse to support their own set of rules, their own version of what it means to be Christian. Like those ancient Greeks wanting to see Jesus, we want to know who’s really saved, who’s got the answers, who’s living the right life. And, if we’re not fairly unusual, we’ve each been spending Lent trying to figure out the answer to that question, so we know whose understanding of the Gospel is correct, just so we can get our acts cleaned up in time for Easter.

We receive some comforting words from the ancient prophetic voice of Jeremiah today. At least we know that our controversy over rules is nothing new. Jeremiah spoke at a time when the Babylonian empire had decimated ancient Israel. The Hebrew people were plucked up from their homeland and scattered in foreign countries, surrounded by strange religions. Without their central place of worship, the Temple in Jerusalem, the Hebrews were asking difficult questions about the source of their identity. Like us, they wanted to know what rules they should follow, the standard of behavior that would keep them in contact with their God and hold them together as a people.

Jeremiah’s response is as frustrating as it is hopeful. He speaks of a new covenant, one which will be written on the hearts of God’s people, one that will bring such intimate knowledge of God that, in fact, all the old rules will no longer be necessary. It’s a beautiful image, but it is far from easy. Christianity has struggled for two thousand years trying to reconcile itself with this new covenant. If church history says anything at all, it tells us how much trouble we’ve had believing that God’s law is in our hearts. We are so much more inclined to write canon laws and set up regulations for everything from our liturgies to our altar guilds, rather than to take Jeremiah’s call seriously.

This is a terrible way to leave us near the end of Lent. Just when we’re supposed to have all our ducks in a row and ourselves prepared for Easter, we are confronted with some sense that our effort to follow rules is all backwards. Today’s readings are telling us that all of us are missing the point in our theological and ecclesiastical disagreements, our bitter disputes over what constitutes “right” behavior, our tireless pursuit of perfecting ourselves when every “correction” seems to raise a multitude of new problems.

The Good News today is that Jesus Christ understands exactly where we are, both individually and corporately. John’s Gospel has Christ saying, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

If we are troubled by the present state of things in the church and in the world, we are exactly where we need to be at the end of Lent. If we are confused and disturbed by our own lack of certainty about things, then that is precisely how we ought to feel. It is because of our very confusion that we are actually more inclined to stop and listen for the voice of God, the thunder that the bystanders hear in today’s Gospel, the thunder that comes rolling into the midst of our unsettled hearts and announces God’s presence with us.

And then we are called simply to serve and to follow, the only instruction that Jesus seems to give regarding the Greek visitors. That’s all that Jesus asks of each of us; that’s all that Christ demands of the church. But we all know what that means. Following means giving up the security of our rules. It involves walking the path to the cross, a place where our confusion and Christ’s confusion come together in a terrible moment of pain and suffering, a place where our rules don’t work at all anymore and all our systems break down.

It’s a grim message, but one that seems worthy of the last part of Lent. So we must follow, we must listen to the confusing thunder of God’s voice in our lives and bear our agitated hearts in the way of the cross. It does not promise to be a fun time for any of us, for we all know what it means to suffer.

But Christ’s promise never leaves us without hope, for although the deadly judgment is coming, we are told that Christ will rise again and draw us together into the heart of God. It is this hope in Easter that will be our strength through the coming Holy Week. It promises, in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, to write God’s law of love within us, in the very depths of our hearts. And, above all, it promises to show us finally that it is God’s effort and strength that will give us new and abundant life-if only we will follow.

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Christopher Sikkema


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