A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor ©2018
Fifth Sunday in Lent/B • March 18, 2018
Jeremiah 31:31-34 • Psalm 51:1-12 • John 12:20-22
Click below to hear the sermon preached
One of the great gifts I received when I was called as the pastor of a church in Michigan was the opportunity to be present right after my youngest grand-daughter Bridget was born. There is a picture of Bridget and I, taken when she was about 30 hours old, I value beyond all the wonderful photographs hanging on all the museum walls in the world. I had just been handed her and I remember exactly what I was thinking when Jacquelyn took the shot: “She’s perfect, completely perfect.”
Of course, now I know Bridget a lot better and it turns out she isn’t perfect after all. She’s messy, for one thing; a piece of advice I’d offer is don’t stand too close when Bridget is eating chocolate cake. She has a stubborn sense of order that can drive you crazy. When she was small, one of her favorite games was to take the furniture out of the dollhouse and get me to put it back. The game goes like this: I put a piece of furniture in the dollhouse; Bridget lifts it up, says, “No, Grampa Jim, not there,” and puts it where she believes it should be. Perfect is hard to find, harder to sustain. Are you perfect?
God is perfect and working with this imperfect world. What is God doing? We’re nearing the end of Lent and it’s time to step back and ask how it all fits together. Sometimes we can miss the Word God is speaking because we get so focused on the words. A few weeks ago we read the story of Noah and God’s rainbow covenant, a promise never again to start over, wiping everything out. We read the story of how God started with Abraham and Sarah the whole long, painful promise of reclaiming the world from darkness, restoring it to a place of praise, a community of joy, a shining story of justice. We’ve read God’s attempt in the Exodus and the Ten Commandments and we know how profoundly this failed, how the community of faith God hoped went astray.
Today we read how God began again in the words of Jeremiah.
…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. [Jeremiah 31:33-34]
In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of the will. The verb “know” means to experience intimately, fully. To say God’s covenant will be written on their hearts is to say they will naturally want to fulfill it; to say they will know God is to say they will have a direct, immediate connection with God. No temple, no clergy, no king, nothing else needed.
Why is God doing this? Jeremiah spoke these words to a people already defeated in their hearts, people who have already acknowledged they don’t deserve anything. They were an imperfect people and they knew it. You can hear it in the words of the Psalmist: “…I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” [Psalm 51:3] If even this people know they don’t deserve another chance, what’s going on here? Why is God trying so hard?
The answer seems to be the concluding line of the Psalm we read: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” [Psalm 51:12] God is trying to bring about a joyful community which will naturally praise, naturally worship, naturally live out God’s justice. When we look at the whole sweep of the story, we discover God is bringing the perfect, heavenly life through a new covenant by working on the least perfect. Jesus is the method.
That is certainly what is happening in the Gospel reading. A group of Greeks are in the crowd around Jesus; they approach Philip and ask to see Jesus. What do you suppose they hope to see? What do they expect to find? Greeks worshipped through the images of a variety of Gods but the central theme of their spiritual life was the notion of the perfect. The Olympic games were a display in which the goal was to display perfect bodies doing athletic things perfectly. Greek philosophy suggests that everything in the world exists as a reflection of a perfect reality in a spiritual world. Even in their political life, it was important that a leader be beautiful; beautiful and perfect were equivalent.
Jewish spiritual life also focused on the perfect. There were hundreds of religious rules and spiritual life was built around trying to observe every one of them perfectly. But few people could or did live up to all the commandments. In Jesus’ preaching, the requirements become even more daunting; he tells them that the commandment against murder, for example, is violated when we get angry at someone. In one way or another, both understand God is perfect and both believe the answer to getting nearer to God is to be perfect also.
What are Jews hoping about Jesus? That he will act in perfect accord with the law. What are the Greeks hoping to see? A perfect man, whose perfection mirror’s God.
This is why Jesus confuses and angers them: he offers a completely different path to God. Jewish leaders are already angry; we hear over and over again about Jesus, “This man eats with sinners.” Perfect people only ate with other perfect people; it’s scandalous that Jesus will have lunch with anyone at all. He embraces God’s joyful provision and his disciples gather food on the Sabbath; he heals on the Sabbath and tells the leaders that Sabbath is a gift, not a burden. Now he turns to the Greeks and tells them something that must have left them gasping. He tells them he’s going to die.
Jesus answered them,
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [John 12:23-25]
We are so familiar with the story of Jesus’ death that it fails to shock us. But perfect people didn’t get crucified; perfect Sons of God didn’t die. When Jesus embraces his life and speaks of dying, they must have been stunned. When they hear this is how he is going to represent God, they must have been confused. But Jesus knows the truth. He says that this is the new covenant in his blood: by his death, he shows what covenant faithfulness looks like. This is the picture: a life freed from death through trust in a loving, forgiving creator God.
Jesus offers in place of perfections what the Psalmist calls “God’s steadfast love.” In his teaching about community, Jesus stresses something we talk about but have a hard time practicing: the role of forgiveness. The Greeks measure spirit by perfection; Jesus measures it by love. Here is how things work in the joyful community of Jesus: we’re equally brothers and sisters, we recognize in each other the image of a child of God, and when that child does something wrong, stumbles falls, even falls way down, we respond by encouraging repentance and offering forgiveness.
Jesus says that what we ought to do is stop trying to be perfect and start learning to forgive each other. How many times, his disciples ask? “Seventy times seven”, he responds, a way of saying: endlessly. The rhythm of life in Jesus is a constant sea of love where the waves peak and we are carried closer to God and the waves recede and we forgive and are forgiven.
This is what church life is supposed to look like. Of course, it often doesn’t, because we’ve often copied the world around. In this world, we increasingly hold out an image of perfection and then savagely attack those who seemed to embody it but fall short. We see it in politics, we see it in sports, we see it in the cult of celebrity. We see it in the screaming commentators on TV; we see it in the constant “gotcha” ping-pong of news. We have become Greeks and we use Jesus to help us look more perfect.
But what God hopes is that instead, we will let Jesus use us not to make the world more perfect but to teach it how to love, and how to forgive. God hopes we will teach the world the fundamental reality Jesus preaches here: that we can’t bear fruit except through an unfolding process, a process in which our imperfect seeds sprout and change and produce. That’s how God is working out this great purpose; that’s how God is perfecting the world, by teaching us that instead of being perfect, we can be loved as we are. Like a parent laughing at a child who has gotten dirty and summoning them to a bath, God knows we can always be cleaned up; God remembers who we really are underneath.
I’ve led a couple of churches with preschools and floating through the walls of my study, every day there would be a song signaling the end of the day:
Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share,
Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.
Things get messy; people get dirty. I don’t honestly know that everyone does do their part; I do know I love the song. In Jesus Christ, God is singing this same song, summoning all God’s children to clean up, clean up, asking all God’s children to do their part. If Bridget isn’t perfect, she is perfectly lovable and perfectly loved. So are you: so am I. In Jesus Christ, God is offering us forgiveness, cleaning us up, and getting us ready to sing the songs of glory in our heavenly home.