Author: Lueking, F Dean
Date published: March 21, 2012
Sunday, March 25
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
IT'S THURSDAY afternoon or later, and Sunday is coming. For a pastor, the push is on to compose a sermon with application that's relevant to its hearers, along with compelling stories that illumine the connection to daily Ufe. I do not disparage these pressures; I know them myself. But instead of asking ourselves, "What must I get on with?" Duke Chapel dean Samuel Wells urges us to ask a different question when we're probing the biblical text: what's God up to? With this question in mind, we can create connections to daily life that have cosmic consequences. What God is up to, after all, is nothing short of making all things new.
The lesson from Jeremiah 31:31-34 forms a hinge point of towering importance. What God is up to here is a complete makeover of religion, from a calcified external form to an inner vitality alive to God. The Latin roots of the word religion- re and ligio- mean "tying together again." That's what covenant, the key word of the text, implies. The old covenant, made by God with the people he delivered from Egypt, collapsed under the weight of an externalized, corrupted religion of form that lacked content. That ancient nemesis- a formalized religion with God left out- is still with us.
Yet Jeremiah, the prophet/preacher who embodied personally the woes of the broken covenant, proclaimed that God was up to a new covenant that would be written not on stone tablets but upon the heart: gut-located, heart-centered, mind-penetrated. At its core is what God is forever up to: forgiving sin and creating the community of the forgiven with a calling in the world. Christians hail the arrival of the new covenant in Jesus, who is God with us. In him we already Uve by signs and sacraments that point to the greater fullness still ahead. By the grace of the new covenant in the Lord Jesus, religion comforts rather than terrorizes, possesses a soundness that's beyond political partisanship and welcomes the stranger instead of scorning her in her differentness. We preachers must ask ourselves, "Where would Jeremiah see evidence of what God's up to in our world? Where could that discernment lead?"
As one example, it can lead to a starting point for fresh engagement among Christians, Jews and Muslims who long to listen, learn and serve together in their communities. In Chicago, Eboo Patel initiated Interfaith Youth Core, a group that is doing just that. Groups led mainly by young adults are finding ways, as "People of the Book," to get at what God is up toputting his law within, writing it on the heart- and catching glimpses of it in community service. We're being nudged toward a new grasp of what Jeremiah 31:31-34 promises. It's good to know we're not alone.
Now we're on the cusp of Holy Week. The Hebrews 5 lesson sets forth a very human Jesus who "offered up prayers and supputations, with loud cries and tears . . . [and who] learned obedience through what he suffered." Who understands those words at first hearing? Exposition explains it this way: God never gets tired- never tires of the heartbroken nor of those who are exasperatingly adrift. He never gets tired of preachers who get tired of people who don't get it. The Letter to the Hebrews is for tired believers, those dubious about the grace of a second chance and in need a fresh grip on what God is up to. Nowadays, when the very word priest can furrow the brow, Jesus' priesthood vivifies and deepens pastor-to-people connections.
One way that happens is when preachers visit people at their workplaces, on their turf, for the purpose of knowing what life is like between Sundays for those in the pew. Mutual empathy grows from such visits. I recommend using this hermeneutic learned in the workplace as one part of sermon preparation.
The John 12:20-33 reading offers a half dozen hints as to what God is up to. Each is promising, although the verses of the passage come one after the other in a disconnected jumble. One starting point for a sermon is tucked away in the final two verses, embedded in the verb draw-elkuein, if your Greek is alive and well (note three other Johannine references to the verb with interesting contrasts: 6:44, drawn to God; 18:10, swordsmanship; 21:6, fishing).
Jesus does not force, bribe or dazzle; he draws people to know and love him. A whole theology of evangelism and ecclesiology rises from this word on how he goes about doing what God is up to. From his uplifted cross, the place where suffering love put him, he draws to himself all who wiU come. This is foUy and scandalous to everything derived from human religiosity. Yet this scandal is the good news of Christ's eternal priesthood: he forgives our sins. He brings us to God. He brings God to us. The medical profession has its caduceus with its shape that resembles a cross. Christians have Christ, uplifted on his cross, as their heahng Lord. With all the grinding brouhaha over our nation's broken health-care system, here is healing that is deeper and infinitely more inclusive than any time-bound cure. And it's free.
We're drawn into the heaŁng community of the forgiven-not yanked or cajoled or sweet-talked. Pondering what God is up to in such gentle, magnetic, sure-handed drawing, we can allow our preaching to be assured rather than shrill, persuasive more than demanding, and patient in awaiting God's outcomes. Reflections on the lectionary
Sunday, April 1
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
THE GOSPEL READING this week tells the poignant story of the nameless woman's anointing of Jesus at the house of Simon the Leper.
Its poignancy is all the more striking because it is the last deed of kindness done to Jesus before his death. Picture him reclining on low couches with the disciples. She enters, breaks a flask of costly perfume and pours it upon his head- not a few drops as custom would call for but all of it, the equivalent of a year's income. Mark notes that some were angered by what they saw as waste. Matthew identifies them more specifically as "the disciples" (26:8), and we can imagine their eyes narrowing as they condemned the act as shocking. Not so Jesus. He not only accepted the act but lifted it to a place of unprecedented honor as one that "will be remembered wherever the good news is preached in the world." We remember it today.
Jesus praised the woman for the spontaneous extravagance of her bold gesture. He says, in the NRSV translation, "She has performed a good service." The Greek here is not agathos, implying utility and moral correctness, but kalon, implying something not only good but lovely, gracefully winsome in its uniqueness. "She has done a lovely thing" reads better. She knew in her heart of hearts that if she did not honor Jesus at that moment, it would be too late. Blessed is the believer, the congregation, the church that can adorn the gospel with "lovely things." Years ago I gained that insight from William Barclay.
The context of the Philippian reading reveals this truth about every Christian congregation, whether in first-century Philippi or today: there are some who are the church and some who use the church. Paul addresses the sins of pettiness, selfish ambition and conceit. He shows a pastoral heart for the congregation, however, with his commendation of its members' love, generosity and striving for one-mindedness. What does this saint-and-sinner mix of believers need? Nothing less than the mightiest of God's mighty deeds, expressed in just two sentences that are fairly bursting with glorious profundity as witness to who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. The mystery of God's kenosis, the humility of Christ's servanthood, the scandal of his cross, the glory of his exaltation, the harrowing of hell, the final doxology on every tongue- it's all there in 2:5-11. How many theological writings and councils have pondered it! And how many controversies have arisen from attempting to grasp it- all this from a pastoral appeal to a congregation caught up in squabbles.
This monumental summary of the human Jesus as the exalted Lord was not a lecture or a textbook but a hymn sung by first-century Christians. The truth of the living God is singable truth- and if not singable, then suspect.
I learned to appreciate this easily overlooked fact when as a seminarian I lived with a non-Christian Japanese family. After coming with me to visit the little Yokohama mission congregation I was serving, they exclaimed: "You Christians sing your faith!" I've not forgotten that and recommend their amazement for all that it means.
Think of what goes on as people sing the faith. We adore the living God. We encourage and teach each other. We sing truth to ourselves in a healthy way. Yes, hymns can be sung mindlessly. We ought not do that, as for example when singing, "Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold," and then withholding plenty. Amid all the current back and forth about traditional versus contemporary worship styles, isn't attentiveness to what we're confessing while singing the great thing? Where else does that go on week after week, year after year?
Hymns offer life-changing moments. One morning a man told me that he sang a hymn he'd known from childhood but felt its truth as never before. "God never will forsake in need / The soul that trusts in him indeed" was the hymn passage. For years following the birth of their son his wife had suffered a postpartum depression that had descended into full-blown oblivion: she knew no one, rejected everyone. His care for her was unfailing. In that worship service, while singing that hymn, he was given the freedom of grace finally to care for himself and the fine woman he had married.
In my late teens, unsure of what path I should take into my future, I attended a Sunday evening service in a country church. I was exhausted after a Sunday of baling hay and altogether unprepared for what was coming. Then I sang, "Here am I, send me, send me," and the Lord took me up on it. Years later I'm grateful that the Christ of Philippians is still calling and still sending.
The Christ of Philippians is still sending and still calling.
The author is F. Dean Lueking, a Lutheran pastor living in River Forest, Illinois