Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The One God. Amen.
When I was doing my graduate work, the worst thing I had to endure were all the language exams. Hebrew was going to be one of the most difficult exams because it was closed book, and I was dreading it. The Saturday morning exam day arrived and I was given the Hebrew text to translate. It was short, only four verses, but I had no idea where the text was from in the Hebrew Scriptures, so I sat down and started to translate the text. The text was prose so I knew it was going to be a lot easier to translate than poetry.
The first few words came easily, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” I could not believe it. Could it be Jeremiah 31:31–34, that great new covenant text of Jeremiah, that text in which God says that “I will write [the law] on their hearts”? I immediately scanned the text and, indeed, the Hebrew word for covenant, berith, was there. Jeremiah 31:31–34 was a text that every seminarian in my day had to memorize, and that Saturday morning I was never happier in my life that I had had to memorize that text. However, 35 years later I must confess to you that my “A” on that exam did not accurately reflect by ability to sight read and translate the Hebrew Scriptures.
However, I would like to suggest today that Jeremiah 31:31–34 are four of the most important verses in the Hebrew Scripture about the law. These verses were certainly intimately known by Jesus and were critically important to him in his earthly ministry. For that matter, Jeremiah scholar William L. Holladay went so far as to say that “Jesus had Jeremiah on the brain.” I suspect he was right.
Jeremiah had a radical understanding of the law and the covenant. The law was not simply on a scroll to be taken out of the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem to be read, but the law was at the very core of ancient Israel’s understanding of who it was. But Jeremiah knew that the law was something ancient Israel had broken, but even then the Lord says in the most intimate way to Israel, “though I was their husband.” The Lord then promises a new law, this time a law not written in stone (a reference to the Ten Commandments at Sinai), but the law that was going to be written on the people’s hearts.
The prophet Jeremiah introduces a new understanding of the law when he called the people of ancient Israel to a new understanding of God’s nature and at the same time God will forgive them of their sins.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah gives us a glimpse into what the early church understood that the coming of Jesus would mean. Ancient Israel was a rebellious house, constantly battling God, constantly battling other people. But Jeremiah tells us that the day will come when they will know the Lord, and that the Lord will call those rebellious and sinful people to be God’s own. God will forgive them of their sin and God will not remember their sin anymore.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
We as Christians believe that Jeremiah’s “New Covenant” gives a new meaning to the person of Jesus Christ. As we come closer and closer to Jesus’ passion, and next week we begin our holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem, we are reminded time and time again that the road we are on is the way to death and resurrection. Every time we participate in the Eucharist we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The road Jesus walked that first Palm Sunday and Good Friday was not an easy walk. Our road, too, can be long, sorrowful, painful, and even humiliating at times.
The Gospel for today looks forward to that journey that Jesus will make on Good Friday. Some Greeks were in Jerusalem and they told Philip that they would like to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew went and told Jesus that two Greeks wanted to see him, but Jesus’ response was not what anyone had expected. Jesus responded to this request by telling his two disciples what it really means to see Jesus: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it will bear much fruit.” Or, even tougher: Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Then Jesus concludes his statement about what it means to see him by saying: “Who ever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also.”
How do we—living in this 2009 world—unpack Jesus’ words? How do we understand what Jesus is saying to us living in the relative comfort that all of us experience in this city and in this nation? What Jesus is saying to us in the Gospel today is that we have to walk the Good Friday walk with him. We have to be willing to die to ourselves, to die to our egos before we can be a true follower of Jesus, before we will be able to bear much fruit.
I will never forget one of the Bible studies at the time of the Lambeth Conference in 1998. The then Anglican Bishop in Iran, Bishop Iraj, gave the reflection in his Bible study on what it means to die to self. He told his own personal story.
The time was the Iranian Revolution. The Iranian forces came to Bishop Iraj’s home and arrested him. Bishop Iraj said: “Well, the first experience which I had [after being arrested] was that I am really nobody…and that was very helpful, because usually we are not conscious how much pride is in us. And so that experience brought me down to earth.”
Bishop Iraj continued: “I sometimes felt [in jail] a little lonely. And the thing I needed to do was cry. I could not. I walked around my cell and asked God, please God, give me some tears. And suddenly tears gushed out. And I was released. And I was joyful. I could sing. That released some of my tensions which had accumulated within me.”
In that prison cell Bishop Iraj became aware how important tears were so he could be truly human.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
As we look forward in seven days time to Holy Week, I am always taken back to Jerusalem for the unfolding each year of the divine dream there. For those of you who know me well, you know that one of the Stations of the Cross that has truly affected me is the sixth station, where the Church remembers Veronica coming out of her home to wash the face of Jesus. I am always personally challenged by that station.
I would love to think that I would have come out of my home on that first Good Friday to wash Jesus’ face had my home been on the Via Dolorosa, but my guess is that I would not have done it. Jesus, carrying his cross from the place of judgment to Calvary/Golgotha, was exhausted as he climbed the steep steps in the Old City of Jerusalem. Three hundred feet before Veronica’s home Jesus had fallen and Simon of Cyrene was asked to help Jesus carry his cross. By the time Jesus got to Veronica’s home he was no longer the handsome, strapping young man who is so often depicted in our religious art. Instead Jesus was exhausted and dirty, rejected and despised by the political and religious authorities. Jesus was a common criminal. What good Jew would want to defy the religious authorities on that Good Friday to come out of his home to give any comfort to this common criminal, much less to wash the face of Jesus? What good citizen of Rome would want to defy the political authorities on that Good Friday to come out of his home to give any comfort to this common criminal, much less wash the face of Jesus?
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
But the question I have to ask myself, in the first century: would I have really wanted to see Jesus? Today, twenty one centuries later, the same question must be asked: do I really want to see Jesus? Am I really willing to stand up to the religious and political authorities so I can see Jesus today? Am I really willing to give up my life for Jesus?
The Jesus we are called upon to see today is:
…the face of a prisoner
…the face of one who has just lost a job
…the face of one who is living in anxiety because of the stock market
…the face of a 94-year-old aunt who is given three months to live because all of her body systems are simply closing down
…the face of a black family living in southeast Washington who is being touched by this Cathedral
One of the first things one learns when participating in the Cathedral’s homeless ministry program with the Church of the Epiphany Street Church is that one does not call homeless people “homeless”; instead they are called “friends.’ And how appropriate, for all of us are called to be “friends of Jesus.” One also quickly learns that there are as many different categories of “homeless/friends” as there are people. There are those who are homeless by choice; but the vast majority are homeless because they simply have had a horrid turn of bad luck.
I am sure many of you saw CNN this last week on how people in this economic downturn today have lost their homes and families are now living in a single motel room for $39 a night. A new whole set of “homeless” friends of Jesus have been created in the last year.
I truly believe the Gospel today sends us to join the people from the National Cathedral who are involved in homeless ministry, be it Samaritan Ministries, Prison Ministry, Martha’s Table, Jubilee Jobs, or the Washington Interfaith Network. The National Cathedral is involved in rich partnerships around the city; but we can not rest on our laurels, the Cathedral partnerships must continue to grow.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
Yes, we will see the face of Jesus in Mitchell, a beautiful young man who is a poet, singer, and a person who is always ready to support the volunteers who come to serve the meals in the different shelters. You will see the face of Jesus in Snowden who is homeless by choice. He is always ready to boil the water to make soup or to find a coat for a person who is cold. Both of these people are real people living in this great city. Both Mitchell and Snowden are indeed friends, and in them we will see the face of Jesus.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reminded us on September 12, 2001, that God speaks a different language, not a language of revenge and retaliation, but a common language “by God sharing with us the experience of terror and death. And when we speak to God the language of hatred and rejection, nails and spears, mail-bombs and airstrikes…God refuses to answer in that language.” But then Archbishop Rowan said, “How hard for us really to believe we are free to speak God’s language.”
The Prophet Jeremiah records the words of God telling ancient Israel that God is now writing the law on our hearts, not on stone. Veronica invites us to join her when she comes out of her home to wash the face of the despised and rejected Jesus.
God’s language is of the heart. God’s language is when we reach out to the poor and the oppressed. God’s language is when we reach out to the despised and rejected in Washington, Darfur, or Gaza. God’s language is when we empty ourselves of all our pride. When we empty ourselves of our egos. When we are liberated by our tears.
In the Name of God. Amen.