5th Sunday in Lent – 3/17/24

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Jeremiah 31:31-34 31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the LORD. 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

John 12:20-33  20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

The Road to Glory

Hasn’t it been lovely and warm this lately? I love this time of year. I enjoy the drive from my house to Aston because I can see many signs of spring along the way.  I see bright yellow forsythias. The magnolia trees are blooming. In my own yard daffodils are blooming, the hyacinths are just starting to flower. The tiger lilies are poking up out of the ground.

When my kids were little this was the time of year we would go out to the duck pond and look for the baby ducks and geese.  We just loved seeing the babies swimming after their mommies in the water and waddling after her on the ground.  I love all the signs of new life in spring.  They always serve to remind me of the new life we have through Jesus Christ.  Jeremiah points to this in our Old Testament lesson.

Jeremiah spoke of the old covenant, the tablets of the law written on stone and given to Moses.  The people have broken that covenant yet again in Jeremiah’s time, it seems we were incapable of keeping it.  Then Jeremiah says a day is coming when God will make a new covenant with us, God will write the law not on stone but on our hearts.  Before God writes the new covenant on our hearts, he first erases our sin so our hearts are clean when he writes on them.  We hear this truth every time we celebrate communion when we hear again Jesus’ words, “this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” The forgiveness of our sins is what makes possible the renewal of our hearts,

Jeremiah promises that when the new covenant is written on our hearts we will all know the Lord. This type of knowing speaks of a deep, trustful intimacy, an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty over all our lives.  God, through Jesus, calls us to a new covenant, a new relationship, a new life.  Jesus Himself is the new covenant.  

Jeremiah had said the day is coming and in our scripture from John’s gospel this morning Jesus now says that day is at hand.  When Mary wanted Jesus’ help at the wedding in Cana he said, My hour has not yet come (John 2:4).  Now Jesus says the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Yet Jesus’ road to glory is not what we might expect.  There are no parades or cheering throngs on his road.  Oh, there will be some next week on Palm Sunday but as we will see next week, the celebration doesn’t last very long.  Listen as Jesus describes his road to glory, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  

In studying our passage this week I read a theologian who suggested we focus on this agricultural metaphor, we consider the cycle of life we see with plants. I think that’s a good idea and that is what we are going to do this morning.

As I write this sermon I am sitting on my front porch with all the signs of Spring around me. In my yard daffodils are blooming. Bushes are budding and leafing out. Yet this vegetation is covered with pine needles that fell last fall. I know within the dirt life is stirring. On Friday I cut down dead stalks from last year’s flowers and found new growth underneath.

I love gardening. Working in the soil, planting new green plants, smelling the flowers, caring for them can teach us to be more aware of plant life. Working in our gardens we can also learn about the importance of accepting decay or death. As human beings, we are often fearful of our own death because, as Christians, we have one life to live with a clear expiration in sight. And yet, plants can teach us that decay, death is not the end. They grow their leaves during spring, blossom their flowers during summer, lay down their leaves during the fall, and accept the slumber during winter. Then they rise again as the spring season awakens.

Plants can also teach us about resurrection. Jesus often used agricultural metaphors such as four types of soils, mustard seeds and vines, the acts of planting seeds and grafting vines when He taught since His audience would have been very familiar with these things, His society was largely farming. So when He said, “to lose one’s life is like a grain falling down on the earth, dying, sprouting into life, and bearing much fruit His audience would have known exactly what He meant.

Moreover, the plants probably helped them understand that decay in Christ leads to everlasting life. Death in this life is not the end. As plants germinate after a period of dormancy, having faith in the Son of Man is having faith in God who is the vine grower (15:1). Abiding in God will lead to life that bears eternal fruit (15:5). Moreover, Jesus promises that those who hear and believe in his word shall not remain in the darkness (12:46). The spring of eternal life will come because Jesus is the light of the world (8:12; 12:35–36).

Jesus continues saying, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  Jesus’ road to glory passes through suffering. There is no path to glory without it. 

Here is the paradox of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. The path to eternal life in Christ leads through death. 

We live and die in Christ because we believe in Christ’s promise of renewed life. This renewed life recognizes the joys and pains of previous days, the deaths that we have had in the past, while believing that we will see, like the newly emerging life in spring, the rays of divine light and the joys of blessed rain in our lives. In all of these, we are invited once again to let go of all of ourselves so we can be buried and be resurrected in Christ.

Jesus goes on to say, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”  In these verses we are given a glimpse into Jesus’ mind and his struggles over his fate of going to the cross.  We can take comfort from this, knowing that our Savior struggled as we struggle with difficulties, trials and temptations.  Hebrews 4:15  says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”  Dying to ourselves is not easy.  Our basic nature rebels against it and it will be a lifelong struggle.  How good it is to know that Jesus is with us, cheering us on, encouraging us as we try.

Jesus will be glorified by God when he is lifted up through the cross.  You see, glory is not something light or frivolous.  When we look back at the Hebrew word for glory it also means heavy.  The glory of God has weight.  Glory is not something easy to bear.  We can speak of the weight of glory as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 4:17 when he speaks of the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. Jesus’ road to glory was a hard and difficult one.  We are called to follow Jesus.  This is not always easy.  We are promised glory at the end but the road to glory is difficult, painful, hard.  

We are called to follow Jesus, he puts it quite plainly here, there is no escaping it.  “Whoever serves me must follow me.”  

Now one thing these verses do not advocate is suffering just to suffer.  Suffering by itself does not give glory to God.  I think of the monks during the Middle Ages who used to whip themselves so they could suffer like Christ or some cultures who nail themselves to crosses in imitation of Christ.  God does not want this.  God will redeem suffering, he will bring good out of our suffering but God does not call us to suffer pain needlessly, that is not what losing one’s life is all about.  God calls for a sacrifice of self, God calls us to put others first.

There is a hard message contained in these verses.  One we probably don’t want to hear.  I know I don’t want to hear it.  Jesus died so we could obtain eternal life.  We must, in a sense, die to our love of our own lives, unless in loving ourselves above all else we lose our lives and paradoxically destroy ourselves.  Losing our life in order to find it; doesn’t quite make sense does it?  Or is it just that we don’t want it to make sense?  

Lent is a time of repentance and reflection on Christ’s sacrifice and our salvation.  It is not a time to be comfortable but a time for a holy dissatisfaction with our lives.  A time to cry out to God to rescue us from complacency and an ordinary life and ask how we can become true followers of Jesus.  It is a time to ask God to show us how we can become better disciples.  

Now how do we lose our lives here in Aston?  There is no danger in being a Christian here, we do not face persecution such as the early church did, we will not be killed for our faith.  These verses do not necessarily mean physical death.  We need to live not for our own glory but for the glory of God.  What we need to die to is our love of our own comfortable lives, of our comfortable Christianity, of our complacency and acceptance of the way things are, our love of being right, of having the last word, of judging others, the ways in which we put ourselves first.  

That’s something I do on a regular basis.  I think of myself first.  Here’s one small example. I hate grocery store lines.  There is something in me that says I shouldn’t have to wait in a line.  Instead of thanking God that I have the money to buy food and live in a place where food is readily available, I complain about having to wait a few minutes in line.  This is just one example of how I want to put myself first. I can think of many more and I’m sure each of you can think of examples where you do the same. This is not how we are to live. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves and live for Him.

As we seek to do this in our daily lives we are transformed and we will receive glory.  Listen to Paul in 2Coorinthians 3:18 “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”  This is what will happen when we die to ourselves and live for others.

Let me end with a story I read a number of years ago during a time when tornados ravaged the mid-west.  It was about Stephanie Decker, a mom from Henryville, Indiana.  When the tornado threatened their home, Stephanie along with her eight year old son, Dominic and her five year old daughter, Reese took shelter in the basement.  Stephanie wrapped the children in a blanket and shielded them with her own body during the tornado.  The house was totally destroyed and two steel beams fell and crushed her legs which required amputation.  Miraculously the children were not even scratched.  The article included a picture of her as she was being transported from the hospital to a rehab center where she will need to learn to walk again without legs.  Stephanie protected her children and willingly shielded them from the tornado.  She gave her legs so her children would live.  Jesus protects and shields us from evil and death, he gave his life so we can live.  Contemplate this week how you will live in response to this gift.  How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure.