Living into New Things (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Revelation 21:1-5; John 12:20-33)
As I looked back three years to see what was happening the last time these readings from the Lectionary came up, I discovered that Maxine and I had just been through the death and funeral of Maxine’s sister Betty’s husband Dennis. Most everyone here knows that Maxine’s sister Mary died and was buried just over a week ago. In addition last Sunday night Maxine and I attended the closing of my home church in Eau Claire – the place I came to faith, the place I was baptized, the place I will always picture in my mind and heart when someone says the word “church.” Another funeral of another kind, and although Lent is a time of introspection on our lives, and death is a part of life. I must tell you that I’m tired of death and the end of things. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible because Holy Week is coming. In the face of this, it has seemed especially important to me to affirm one of the great promises of the Bible, found, among other places, in our Epistle Lesson from the Book of Revelation. The more I have read this book, the more I realize that it’s not about the end of the world at all, unless, by the word “end” we mean the “goal” or “purpose” for which God made the world. This New Testament book uses language of a popular form of literature in the centuries in and around the time of the earliest church to paint a picture of the struggle for new life in the midst of death all around, death that is often aided and abetted by people in powerful places. By the time we get to our lesson, the visual spectacle in the book is almost ended, and it’s been a dirty, exhausting, bloody, unfair struggle. In its symbolic way, the tale unwinds as the story, not only of the human tendency to do harm, but of what seems also to be the tendency of the world itself to conspire in doing harm by such things as earthquakes and plagues. We know all of that is not confined to the “long ago,” but is with us today and every day. But, in spite of all the terror, unfairness, fear, and horror that the world and people can do, Revelation 21 is clear about the goal and purpose to which God is beckoning the cosmos. Here it is again.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adored for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne saying, See God’s home is with people, God will dwell with them as their God, and they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them personally to wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the earlier things have passed away.
And then come words from the “throne of the universe” that describe what God has been up to in the world for ages and eons: “Look I am making all things new.” When there seems no hope or help on earth, there is still this, that God promises what is new, and I have found that to be quite a bit of help. I cannot always see clearly how what is happening right now really forwards any kind of good things, let alone new things for people who need them, but I have the assurance of God that, with or without my recognition, with or without help, God is making all things new. It’s happening!
Now, Greek has two common words for new, one that means “new in time, never seen before,” and one that means “new in my experience and appreciation,” and it is the second of these that is used here in Revelation 21 to describe God’s ongoing work in creation. God is bringing us to newness, to new appreciation, to new experiences, to new things, even though the world may carry on with its same old harmful ways that are difficult to understand, God is bringing newness to our hearts. Newness can come gently or almost violently, wrenchingly. But whichever it is, it comes to our experience and, if we can accept it, it can turn a corner for us. Having said that in a personal and theological way, let me give an illustration of it from our Old Testament Lesson in the Prophecy of Jeremiah.
Most of Jeremiah’s book is bleak and full of judgment, and Jeremiah’s own context was equally bleak and deserving of judgment. Our text belongs to a group of texts right in the middle of all this destruction that speak words of hope. These words of hope were spoken at a time when the people seemed fresh out of it, as is common with biblical words of hope. These words really were written after many years of reflection on Jeremiah’s words of bleakness, with newness of life as a distant dream. The human situation of the readers and hearers of these words was, politically, economically, and, even more importantly, spiritually, hopeless. The tradition about covenant had been interpreted as a very specific set of commands to follow certain prescriptions; a list. Very able religious folk had thought that they could “fix” themselves and everybody else if they just did “the right” things. They looked at their stories and traditions, they looked at their scriptures, and, in the name of practicality, rather than engage them and struggle with them, they thought of them simply as a “to do list,” rules to keep.
They had turned what were intended to be relationships with one another and God into rules. For Jeremiah, that meant that the former covenants – never intended to be rules – had been so misunderstood as to lie broken. What was needed, therefore, was a New Covenant. It was a good thing that, even in that ancient day, God was in the business of bringing new things to old life. These words from Jeremiah promised that God would, indeed, give a new covenant, just as God had given the old ones. So, Jeremiah was not, in that sense, denying their stories and traditions. This covenant, like those old ones, would still aim at creating a reconciling, loving community that reached out to the whole world and would have the same loving instruction (or Torah) at its heart. Unlike the old and broken covenants, however, God’s loving instruction would be implanted in people’s hearts. To us the heart is about feelings. To the Hebrew, however, the heart was the place where feelings, thoughts, and actions were all brought together. It was the core of our personalities. In the New Covenant, God would no longer risk our misunderstanding relationships as rules because the relationship would be placed at the very nub of what makes “us,” who we are. It would be incised on the soft tissues of the heart.
Up to this point, all this is about methods. What is absolutely crucial about this New Covenant, however, goes back to our inability to be and to do what we need to – our inclination to do harm to ourselves and others. Put this as you will. Our parents called it our sin. That word seems overly “churchy” to me. The whole basis of the New Covenant is that it depends upon God’s own decision to forgive and forget. God not only weaves our own forgiveness into the fabric of our hearts, but also our own ability to forgive and forget what others do. The bad news of all this is that that surgery on the soft tissues is usually painful. It’s not an easy thing to forgive and forget – for God either, I should guess. If there’s anything to think about at Lent and Passion week, it is probably such things as this.
This divine forgiveness and forgetfulness applies to what most translations call “iniquities” and “sins.” The first word seems equally “churchy” to me and to apply to things only religious types care about. But really, that first word comes from a word that means “to twist.” It is our twistedness, our intentional harmful action against others. The second is a word that means missing the point, or the boat, or a target. It is what we do because we make mistakes. These are the two poles of our “inclination to do harm,” and the writer means to include not only these, but anything and everything in between.
The Gospel Lesson is a series of short narratives and sayings that conclude John’s account of Jesus’ public ministry. Some of these pieces are also found in the other Gospels, but John gives each its own distinctive flavour. All these pieces are tucked in between the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (at which we’ll look next week), and Jesus’ farewell to his disciples, and beyond it the cross, and the empty tomb.
All through the Fourth Gospel, beginning at the Wedding Feast in Cana, we hear of Jesus, in God’s name, bringing new things to people. From that early feast to this point, Jesus has been speaking of his “hour” which is not yet here. By this he meant his critical time, his moment in the spotlight, his time to make a decisive difference. In this passage, Jesus’ “hour ”is finally brought to be by the appearance of some Gentiles in a crowd looking to “see” him, in the sense of meet with him (vv. 21, 23). The world is at Jesus’ door in these people. We never really learn whether they got to meet Jesus, but we learn that their appearance is the catalyst that ushers in the hour for the glorification of both God and Jesus (vv. 23, 28). One of John’s favourite ways of speaking about Jesus’ death is as his “glorification,” and this hour is all about Jesus’ death and resurrection (vv. 24, 32-33). As Jesus had spoken of himself as the good shepherd who both lays down his life and takes it up again on behalf of “other sheep, not of this fold” in chapter 10, so here those “other sheep” appear. Even in the time when John was putting his Gospel together at the end of the first century, it was unclear whether discipleship to Jesus was really going to point to a new way, or simply be an interesting part of the Jewish way. In Jesus’ words and actions here, we might say that God was keeping with that goal of making things new. In Jeremiah’s day, the new covenant was wide enough to include both Israel and Judah, former rivals, who had once been together. God was going to make all things new between them. Here, in Jesus’ own “hour” we see the covenant promise to make things new, to forgive, to forget widened even further. God renews covenant here in a way more inclusive that our Jeremiah text. There the vision only went as far as the ancient people of God. Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v. 32). “Look, I am making all things new.” The door is open. Inclusion is complete.
Jesus had said earlier in the passage, that a grain of wheat remains solitary until it falls into the earth and ceases to be one grain, but germinates and bears much fruit. Jesus was speaking of what his death accomplished, and what he expects of disciples. Jesus is not self-protective. Those whose love is simply to maintain their identity as that one grain of wheat, separate, and pure, will simply lose their lives by doing that. They may be wonderful examples of single grains of wheat, but there’s no growth, no sharing, no inclusion, no newness, and sooner or later the grain of wheat simply rots and ceases to be. This applies to people and churches. Whoever wants to be like Jesus, must be willing to be like Jesus in this, to end isolation, to die to self, and to bear fruit in ways that makes sense to people. Once again, as in Jeremiah 31, God’s people are expected to imitate God by cooperating in God’s project of newness. They are to push the envelope of inclusion, to refuse self-protective behaviour, and to decide to follow Jesus by basing all of life (including our daily business lives) on forgiveness as an alternative way to the cultural values of greed and manipulation or punishment and reward to get our way. As the covenant with Noah was a covenant with the whole world, in a sense, so is the new covenant that Jesus sets out to mediate.
Do we live this way? Mostly not. Is all this Utopian? Impossible? Well, remember, Jesus’ words, “With God all things are possible.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.