A sermon written for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 12.20-33 & Jeremiah 31.31-34
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent, and we are only two weeks away from Easter Day, although it may not feel like it with more snow having arrived over night!
In contrast to Advent, it seems to me, where every Sunday we light one more candle until it is Christmas, in Lent, the mood gets darker and darker as we approach the end of the season. Indeed, Good Friday still stands between us and Easter at this point. Personally, I find myself often conflicted in these last weeks before Easter: part of me is eagerly anticipating the joy of the Easter celebration, whilst another part of me knows there is still more work to be done before I am ready to appreciate the fullness of Jesus’ Resurrection. I almost feel like I’m watching a solar eclipse on the horizon: the shadow of Good Friday slowly moving to cover the glory of Easter, only to be seen again in all its fullness when the shadow has passed.
This morning’s readings help us to reflect on this dynamic: the interplay of dark and light in our own lives, the cost of recommitting ourselves, the pain and the joy that are part of God’s covenant with us. Using an image from our Gospel reading: ‘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.’ We need to go through some sort of transformation in our own lives to be able to flourish and become the people we are called to be.
There is one more comment I’d like to make, before looking a bit closer at this morning’s readings. That is that the need for transformation is not only necessary in our individual lives, but also for our society at large. Recently, a number of books has been publishing on the ‘common good’, and what the role of the church may be in the transformation that our society needs. Also here, I think, our readings can shed some light.
During Lent, in our Old Testament readings, the covenant between God and His people has been a central feature. We heard about the covenant between God and Abraham, God and Noah and God and Moses. Today’s passage from the prophet Jeremiah provides not an example, but gives us a description and a promise what the new covenant looks like.
God’s law will be written on our hearts, and we shall all know him; our faults will be forgiven and our sin no longer remembered. On the surface it sounds like the ideal covenant, as there is not much asked of us. It is an unconditional promise, and it almost sounds like we will be ‘reprogrammed’ so to speak, to recognise and know God.
However, that is not what this prophecy means. No; we won’t recognise God because we have been given some super-knowledge, but because God came to us as a human being, in whom we recognise our own humanity. Because he is one of us, we recognise the pain and cost of his obedience. However, just as we are unable to keep our part of God’s covenant, so are we unable to follow Jesus’ example fully. But we know that through him our sins are forgiven and that in him we know the sureness of God’s everlasting presence with us.
God’s glory is revealed not through heroic acts, but through suffering and service. That is the message of our Gospel reading today. The Greeks who want to see Jesus, want to see a king, a hero, a superman. But that is not who Jesus is. He won’t escape his death miraculously, but is committed to his calling through his death on a cross. What was a symbol of humiliation will become a sign of hope, and a glory that is beyond imagining.
They are difficult words ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’. These words maybe easily misheard by those who would like to accuse religion of fundamentalism and inviting hatred and violence. But that is not what is meant here. Because they are followed, not by a call to fight, but a call to service. ‘Whoever serves me, the Father will honour’.
I think we sometimes can forget that Jesus’ message is one of service: ‘the first will be last’, and ‘blessed are the meek of heart’. In a time where individualism and the need to fulfil our potential as individuals seem to be the basis of the society we live in, it can be easy to gloss over this part of the Christian message.
For example, think about the difference between mindfulness and prayer. For some, they have become almost synonymous: a way to achieve a calmer state of being, and thus a better spiritual health. However, that makes us forget a crucial difference between the two. Namely, mindfulness is about the individual, whereas in prayer, we tend to look outward. Mindfulness encourages us to reconnect with our individual thoughts, feelings and bodies, whereas in prayer we connect to something utterly beyond us. Prayer is not about being in control, but letting go, handing things to God, and indeed, praying on behalf of others not just ourselves is an essential aspect of Christian prayer too.
Being in control is one of the things of which I certainly need to let go at times. Having the patience to let a grain of wheat fall into the earth and wait what fruit it will bear, instead of having the tendency to keep digging it up, so to speak, to see what’s happening. And I’m sure that’s true for others here too.
That brings us then back to where we started, as we draw further into Lent. What is it that still stands between us and Easter Day? What is it that has slowly emerged over the last weeks that we need to let go off before we are ready, or as ready as we can be, to celebrate the Resurrection.
Maybe one final thought, and that is that maybe also our world at large needs a bit more patience to see what transformation is already happening without us seeing it. Which are the grains that are already taking root, but not quite yet bearing fruit. This doesn’t mean that we should be complacent and deny the urgency of the need for change in our world. But maybe, instead of reacting to what happens around us, we should take back a step, and recommit ourselves to the service of God and one another. Because, in Jesus’ words: where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
On Maundy Thursday, we remember how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, how he shared the bread and wine. Jesus’ last acts before his death were acts of hospitality, generosity and service. That is how we live up to our side of the covenant, that is how we follow Him, and it is through these acts that we will be transformed, ready to receive Him in glory when He comes.