This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 30 March 2003. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34, Hebrews 5: 5 – 10, and John 12: 20 – 33.
I have a note that says this is supposed to be the 4th Sunday in Lent but the scripture readings are for the 5th Sunday. Since I have a message listed for the 4th Sunday in this sequence, I think that I have the date for this message wrong; it should be 6 April 2003.
The scriptures for the last few weeks have spoken of the covenants God has made with us. God made covenants with us through Noah following the flood, Abraham following his move to the Promised Land and reaffirmed when he was tested at Mount Moriah and then finally Moses during the Exodus. The old covenants demanded adherence to regulations that the people were unable to keep. Above all other commandments, the people were commanded to love and serve God and abandon all other others. This they did not do. The history of Israel as the chosen people is permeated with idolatrous activity, only occasionally broken by periods of true faithfulness to God. The people seemed incapable of acting in sustained obedience.
As I look at what is happening around us, I have to wonder if we are not repeating some of the same mistakes. After all, we presume to be God’s people, our politicians regularly invoke God’s blessing on our actions. But our actions show that our beliefs are only momentary and only when it is convenient for us. In a world in which we have been commanded by God through Christ to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the needy and lift up the oppressed, it seems that we are more concerned with our own self interests than the needs of others. And I am not speaking of the nation as a whole but as a nation of collective individuals.
We seem more interested in what we have now and protecting it than we are in insuring that we have a future. I fear that our actions today, if continued, will destroy any hopes for the future.
Just as in Jesus’ day, those who have power use it for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of all. Just as in Jesus’ day, many of today’s spiritual leaders interpret the scriptures so as to enhance their own positions and power. What I fear is that the religious leaders who dominate the world viewpoint today have done more to drive people away from Christ than to bring them to Him.
These same individuals tell us that the Bible’s words are fixed in meaning and it is a meaning that only they and a select few others can understand. But this view is contradicted by the fact that the words that they say are fixed are written in English so that we can read them. But the English was translated from Latin and the Latin was translated from the Greek and the Greek was translated from the Aramaic, which leads me to wonder just exactly what were the actual words in the first place. We are presented in the world today with a view of Christians who claim Biblical justification for opposing abortion yet seem to almost worship warfare when it is done in the name of God. It is not the words of the Bible which we should be looking at but rather the thought and context of the words.
We must look around us and we must look at ourselves. Are we doing what is required of us or is what we are doing what we think is required? Is our God something “out there” in the great beyond or is He part of our daily life? I wish that today’s reading had included the 11th verse of the 5th chapter of Hebrews, because it goes a long way to explaining who we are and what we have become.
After explaining who Jesus was and why his mission to mankind was so important, the writers of Hebrews chastise us, adding that there was much to say about Jesus’ priesthood but that the readers would not understand because they had become dull of hearing. In this case, the word “dull” means “sluggish” and implies that the readers were not quick to accept God and had grown even lazy in their faith. Thus understanding the truth as presented to them through Jesus would be difficult.
The writer or writers of Hebrews point out that Jesus did not make Himself the Chief Priest but rather that God called him to the office. But this calling, which allows Jesus to be the mediator between God and us forever, required that Jesus experience all that a person goes through in life. Through His life on earth, He came to know and understand how difficult it is to obey God completely and that the attractions of temptations can lead one away from God. But he continued in obedience to God. In doing so, in carrying out God’s plan for Him, Jesus was better able to understand our weaknesses and thus intercede before God in our behalf.
Each of those covenants was made with mankind in general, speaking to the responsibilities of the nations. In each of these covenants, corporate responsibility was emphasized in legal and moral matters, though individual accountability was not overlooked. Now, in Jeremiah, focus is placed on the responsibility of the individual for his or her own iniquities.
The call to the ministry given to the early disciples and to us today is one that calls us to make a choice. It is a choice between what we have done and what we can do. We must now answer for what we have done, both good and bad. Jesus challenges us to make a choice between the life we have lived and the life we are going to live. “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12: 25) In those words, Jesus speaks of the future for all that would hear his words. Those that love their own life serve only themselves and would lose their life and all that they had gained. Those who hate their life saw life in a different view, choosing to serve God. Each one of us, hearing the words of Jesus, must decide what our priorities are to be. We cannot give ourselves fully to this life and be committed to the life that will come.
That is the most difficult decision that we will ever have to make. No decision that we make will ever come close to matching the one that comes when we decide whether or not to follow Christ. And the longer we wait, the harder it becomes.
When Abraham was first a father, God commanded that he take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him. Abraham had committed himself by covenant to be obedient to the Lord and had consecrated his son Isaac to the Lord. The Lord put his servant’s faith and loyalty to the supreme test, thereby instructing Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants as to the kind of total consecration the Lord’s covenant requires. The test also foreshadowed the perfect consecration in sacrifice that another offspring of Abraham would undergo in order to wholly consecrate Abraham and his spiritual descendants to God and to fulfill the covenant promises. The other offspring was, of course, Jesus and the sacrifice was to be on Calvary. Abraham’s devotion is paralleled by God’s love to us through Christ as related by the Gospel reading from last week, John 3: 16.
But we are not called to make such an ultimate sacrifice for it has been done for us. We are called, however, to sacrifice what we feel is the most important parts of our life for a life in Christ and for Christ. And if we cannot distinguish between what is of this earth and what is of Heaven, then I fear we will not have understood what the coming days, beginning with next Sunday, are all about.
There were those who heard the words of Jesus and left at that time, for they were not willing to sacrifice their lives in order to insure the future. There were those who left when Jesus died on the cross that Friday evening because death was death and there is no tomorrow. But the empty tomb shows that death is not the final statement and that there is hope for tomorrow.
The hope for tomorrow lies in what is done, individually and collectively, today. The church must model a new paradigm of possibilities, not simply a restatement of current thoughts and processes. It has been said that Sundays are for the seeker, for the person seeking a refuge in a world of despair and darkness. And when they come to a church, they should find a revitalized people celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ through community, prayer, and song. What they should not find is a place that mimics society. Because society places more importance on performance than it does substance and where actions contradict the words spoken. “If one thing has become clear in this global society’s advanced age, typical ‘religion’ has become like some kind of college football frenzy, with cheerleaders in all quarters screaming ‘Hooray for our side!’ and with many wolves wearing sheep’s’ uniforms.
Ross Werland wrote in a Chicago Tribune article,
“Most of the major religions are taking one heck of a beating in public relations at the moment, yet spiritual giants inhabit all of them. These people are the ones who daily defer their own wants and needs to help others find their own spiritual bounty.
The real power in churches and synagogues and mosques and temples is the honest-to-God believer whose religion is this simple: love, not hate. (Ross Werland, Chicago Tribune, December 29, 2002)
You can hope that it will be a different time or a different place when you have to make the decision that will change your life. You can try to put off this decision. But that can never be the case. Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Those who put off making the decision to follow Christ, trusting in their own judgement of life and putting their faith and assurance in the material gains found in this world will quickly find that time runs quicker than they can control.
There can never be another time or a different place in which to find Christ and the hope for tomorrow. Jesus came and died so that we would know that God is a part of our lives, here and now. You are here right now and that is all that is needed. And that is the challenge for today.