The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 22 March 2015
Psalm 51:1-13 or Psalm 119:9-16
St. John 12:20-33
Background: Looking Ahead
In a recent conversation about the upcoming ceremonies and observances of Holy Week and the Triduum, I found my worship committee strangely spooked by the Passion side of the Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday liturgy. Later I saw a post from one of my most favorite Deacons, who alerted me to a similar discussion on Episcopal Café. The Christian Century had published an opinion piece by Karoline Lewis, “Against Passion Sunday.” If you wish to read it, you can read it here. It’s an interesting dilemma. The argument revolves around the “convenience” of the combination of Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. It sees this match as a concession to those who will not attend the services of Holy Week or the Triduum. My people commented that the “triumph” of Palm Sunday is trounced by the difficulties of the Passion Narrative, normally read at these services. A commentator on the Episcopal Café called this “False Hope Sunday”, in that the triumphal entry of Jesus does give way to the purpose for which he entered Jerusalem, his death on the cross. Which do you prefer? What will happen in your parish? I’d be interested in your views.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Most of the commentators I consulted on this wonderful passage from Jeremiah commented on the Christian distortion of the text, namely the assumption that the new covenant = Jesus, and that the “covenant that I made with their ancestors” was the “Old Testament” covenant. A deeper reading of Jeremiah can lead us to understand that this is not how his hearers would have understood his word. The “new covenant” is the covenant made to the returnees from exile – a covenant of words written on the heart – a covenant without temple or sacrifice. It is indeed a change. The clue lies in the way God describes God’s actions, “to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” And “the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days.” This is a covenant and relationship that is not realized in an exterior fashion, but rather as an interior reality. The people coming out of Babylon and Persia had learned to but the “Words” within themselves. Jeremiah underscores this with the comment, “Know the Lord.” The closing statement makes clear why the people will remember and “know the Lord.” “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” The people remember because God chooses not to.
Breaking open Jeremiah:
1. What do you go to find God?
2. What do you know about God in your heart?
3. How do you “know the Lord?”
Psalm 51:1-13 Miserere mei, Deus
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.
For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
The introduction to the psalm is elided from the liturgical text, but its information can be helpful to us in understanding the psalm and its intents, “For the lead player, a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” Later references in the psalm to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, and the lines that suggest the offering to God “a broken spirit instead of sacrifice” would indicate a more spiritual understanding of the covenantal relationship common in later prophetic writing. None-the-less, this is the penultimate penitential psalm. There is an initial understanding of offense and unrighteousness, “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” It is an understanding of sin worthy of Saint Augustine. Through several verses the psalmist paints his ontological situation with broad strokes, and only later begins to plumb the depths of understanding God’s intent. It is a worthy commentary on Jeremiah’s understanding of the spiritual relationship between God and humankind. The psalmist understands “hidden things”, perhaps understandings of self that are indeed beyond our own knowing. What does register, however, is the realization of a need for cleansing, understanding, and renewal. Given the reality of sinfulness, the author asks God not to “cast away” individuals from God’s presence, and not to undo the Spirit’s presence in the midst of life. The verb “to cast away” has a much more violent meaning in the Hebrew, a meaningful contrast to the “joy of your saving help.”
Breaking open Psalm 51:
- In what ways do you feel that you are a sinner?
- What do you do with your emotions surrounding this?
- How do you deal with your sinfulness?
Psalm 119:9-16 Beth: In quo corrigit?
How shall a young man cleanse his way? *
By keeping to your words.
With my whole heart I seek you; *
let me not stray from your commandments.
I treasure your promise in my heart, *
that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD; *
instruct me in your statutes.
With my lips will I recite *
all the judgments of your mouth.
I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees *
than in all manner of riches.
I will meditate on your commandments *
and give attention to your ways.
My delight is in your statutes; *
I will not forget your word.
In contrast to Psalm 51, this section of Psalm 119 presents us with an innocent, a “young man” or “a lad”. This has all the flavor of a wisdom psalm, with the initiate wanting to learn how to live life by “cleansing his way.” Like psalm 51 there are hidden things, but here they are hidden because as we learn in verse 18 (not included in the liturgical selection) his eyes have been veiled. Thus there is a need for God to reveal to this young person what are God’s promise, commandments, statutes, and judgments. These things, now revealed, become the content of the young person’s meditation and devotion. This is not the only reaction, however, “My delight is in your statutes.”
Breaking open Psalm 119:
1. In what ways is your faith childlike?
2. In what ways is it not?
3. What faith and wisdom has time given you?
Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
"You are my Son,
today I have begotten you";
as he says also in another place,
"You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek."
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Here the author of Hebrews makes use of his extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and of the powerful symbols of the priesthood (which he assigns to Jesus.) The author knows Jesus as the Son of God, but also sees him as the perfect priest, “The Great High Priest”. In this reading he emphasizes that understanding and identification by quoting both Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110. Here the ancient character of Melchizedek, who offers bread and wine to Abraham, is introduced – a model of priestly service. That identification is applied to Jesus as well. What we have then is a priest who not only pleases God with priestly service, but with existence itself – the very existence of the priest, the priest’s being God’s son, these are the things that please God. And what does the priest Jesus offer? His offerings are of prayers, supplications, loud cries and tears – but most of all “his reverent submission” and obedience. These offerings we will understand better in the readings of Holy Week.
Breaking open Hebrews:
- What specific things does a priest do?
- Where do you see those actions in Christ’s life?
- What is priestly in your life?
St. John 12:20-33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. 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.
"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. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
This is the text that immediately follows Jesus entry into Jerusalem, and the reality of Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem immediately comes to rest. It is interesting that the request to see Jesus comes from the Gentiles – a signal of the ministry that is to come. When John was written this ministry to the Gentiles was already an over-whelming reality, which is reflected in how the author presents this situation. It is to these Gentiles that Jesus offers the look into the future – to his passion and death. In the other Gospels Jesus is portrayed as being anxious about the coming trials, but in John Jesus is resolute, “I have come to this hour, Father, glorify your name.” The example of the grain of wheat (I am the bread of life) is quite telling and compels us to understand the true nature of Jesus’ gift of himself. Last Sunday, the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, and now, as Jesus promised Nicodemus, it is Jesus who is lifted up, and who draws the attention of all who would be saved. The image is not only one of his death on the cross, but also the attraction of that cross to all those who would be saved – a bittersweet image.
Breaking open Gospel:
1. How do you feel about Jesus’ all-too-human emotions?
2. What is the glory of Jesus’ death?
3. What thoughts does the image of the buried grain bring to you?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
All questions and commentary copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller