Here is the message that I gave for the 5th Sunday in Lent, April 9, 2000, at Walker Valley (NY) UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34, Hebrews 5: 5 – 10, and John 12: 20 – 33.
The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the covenant that God will make with his people. The main difference between this covenant and the others before it are that God initiates it. In doing so, God is assuring its effectiveness. This is also the prophecy that predicts Jesus’ birth and ministry.
And as Jesus pointed out to his disciples in the Gospel reading for today, the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. The time has come to set the covenant into action.
Like all the covenants of the Old Testament, this is an agreement between two parties, In this case the two parties are God and us. As Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading for today, if the covenant is to be fulfilled, we must follow Him. In verses 25 and 26, Jesus points out that
“He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father, will honor. (John 12: 25 – 26)
When I got home Wednesday, Ann told me that I had received a note from my mother telling me of the death of someone. At first, I could not identify who the person was and initially thought it was one of the older members of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. But when I read the article that my mom sent, I realized that it was a classmate of mine from high school who had died rather unexpectedly.
I do not grieve for the loss of this friend of mine from thirty years ago. I know that she led a good life and it was a life in Christ so I do not worry. But death has a way of making us think about our lives and about what Jesus asks us to do in giving up our life.
Only very late do we learn the price of the risk of believing, because only very late do we face up to the idea of death.
This is what is difficult: believing truly means dying. Dying to everything: to our reasoning, to our plans, to our past, to our childhood dreams, to our attachment to earth, and sometimes even to the sunlight, as at the moment of our physical death.
That is why faith is so difficult. It is so difficult to hear from Jesus a cry of anguish for us and our difficulties in believing, “Oh, if only you could believe!”
Because not even he can take our place in the leap of Faith; it is up to us. It is like dying! It is up to us, and no one is able to take our place.
This mature act of faith is terribly, uniquely personal. Its risk involves us down to the core. (From The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)
The phrase that Jesus used, “loves his life”, describes those who serve only themselves. Shortly after he spoke these words, he gave his disciples the opportunity to identify this problem in their own lives. This was when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples prior to the Feast of the Passover. The phrase “hates his life” involves serving Christ. Each believer must establish his or her own priorities. We cannot give ourselves fully to a life on earth and yet be committed to the life that is to come. To follow Christ is to follow Jesus example of self-sacrifice when He, the teacher, washed the feet of His disciples. Jesus set the example of “hating” His life in this world so that He could accomplish eternal purposes.
The world needs more than the secret holiness of individual awareness. It needs more than sacred sentiments and good intentions. God asks for the heart because He needs the lives. It is by lives that the world will be redeemed, by lives that beat in concordance with God, by deed that outbeat the finite charity of the human heart.
Man’s power of action is less vague than his power of intention. And an action has intrinsic meaning; its value to the world is independent of what it means to the person performing it. The act of giving food to a helpless child is meaningful regardless of whether or not the moral intention is present. God asks for the heart, and we must spell our answer in terms of deeds.
It would be a device of conceit, if not presumption, to insist that purity of heart is the exclusive test of piety. Perfect purity is something we rarely know how to obtain or how to retain. No one can claim to have purged all the dross even from his finest desire. The self is finite, but selfishness is infinite. God asks for the heart, but the heart is oppressed with uncertainty in its own twilight. God asks for faith, and the heart is not sure of its own faith. It is good that there is a dawn of decision for the sight of the heart; deeds to objectify faith, definite forms to verify belief.
The heart is often a lonely voice in the marketplace of living. Man may entertain lofty ideals and behave like the ass that, as the saying goes, “carries gold and eats thistles.” The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.
The integrity of life is not exclusively a thing of the heart; it implies more than consciousness of the moral law. The innermost chamber must be guarded at the uttermost outposts. Religion is not the same as spiritualism; what man does in his concrete, physical existence is directly relevant to the divine. Spirituality is the goal, not the way of man. In this world music is played on physical instruments, and to the Jew the mitsvot are the instruments on which the holy is carried out. If man were only mind, worship in thought would be the form in which to commune with God. But man is body and soul, and his goal is to live that both “his heart and his flesh should sing to the living God..” (From God in Search of Man by Abraham Joseph Heschel)
That is why we find it so hard to give up everything and to follow Jesus. But if we are to be successful in the coming years, if we are to be His servants, then we need to understand this point. Too often, evangelism is presented as simply bringing people to Christ. Evangelism is about breaking down the barriers that mankind has erected over the years. It is about overcoming prejudice, poverty, political irresponsibility, and international tribalism. Yes, evangelism means to bring people to Christ. That will always be the first and most important part of the job. But we must also be aware that a call for a decision for Christ must be related to a call for a decision in Christ, a call to show Christ working in this world.
The events of the last week reminded me of what the Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes 3.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)
There is a time and a season for everything. And for us this day, the time is now.
There is a time to be born, a time to die. As it turns out, Sunday, April 30th, when we celebrate the baptism of four children, will also be the day that every United Methodist Church celebrates each heritage. Normally, Heritage Sunday would be celebrated on April 23rd, the day in 1968 when the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. But with Easter on the 23rd this year, the celebration of our heritage will be celebrated on the 30th. And what better way to celebrate such a heritage than to baptize those four children and bring new members into the church.
This is also a time to build up. I received a note from Reverend Winkleblack telling me that Walker Valley United Methodist Church will receive the $22,000 that it requested. The good news is that $4,000 will be in the form of a grant, meaning that the total loan will only be $18,000. That is why the Finance Committee will be meeting on April 30th. Though the Trustees will undertake the majority of the work being covered by this loan, having this loan means that we can do other things as well. And those we must make the appropriate plans through the Finance Committee.
The prophet Zechariah wrote,
“The Lord of Hosts says, ‘Get on with the job and finish it! You have been listening long enough! For since you began laying the foundation of the Temple, the prophets have been telling you about the blessings that await you when it’s finished. Before the work began there were no jobs, no wages, no security; if you left the city, there was no assurance you would ever return, for crime was rampant. But it is all so different now! For I am sowing peace and prosperity among you. Your crops will prosper; the grapevines will be weighted down with fruit; the ground will be fertile, with plenty of rain; all these blessings will be given to the people left in the land. ‘May you be as poor as Judah,’ the heathen used to say to those they cursed! But no longer! For now ‘Judah’ is a word of blessing, not a curse. ‘May you be as prosperous and happy as Judah is,’ they’ll say. So don’t be afraid or discouraged! Get on with the rebuilding the Temple! If you do, I will certainly bless you.” (Zechariah 8: 1 – 14)
God, through Zechariah, speaks of a great future, one that renews the covenant that God made through the prophet Jeremiah. Our celebration of communion this day marks our acceptance of that same covenant, the one that Christ offered to us so many years ago. As he told his disciples, as we drink from the cup, we drink of the new covenant. This is the time that we begin this new covenant. It is a time to celebrate those being born; it is a time to mourn the passing of those who died. It is a time to build up; it is a time to break down. It is a time to accept Christ in our hearts and by our acts and actions show others the presence of Christ in this world. Christ’s actions were to move us forward, to a better life. It is up to us at this time to close the covenant.