Sermon for March 21st

Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Epistle Reading: Hebrews 5:4-10

Gospel Reading: John 12:20-33

New Hearts from the Heart of God

Our prayer of confession this morning was taken from Psalm 51. The superscription to this Psalm tells us that it was written by David after the prophet Nathan had confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. You remember the story – David has stayed in Jerusalem in the Springtime, while the army is off campaigning and while walking around on the palace roof he sees the beautiful Bathsheba bathing a little ways over. Well, the rest goes on in an unfortunately familiar way. They commit adultery together and when she turns up pregnant, David compounds his sin by sending secret instructions to have Uriah killed in battle when he was unable to make Uriah think the child might be his. When Nathan comes to confront David by means of a parable, he is convicted in his heart and this Psalm is the result.

This psalm has a special place in the observance of the season of Lent, since it expresses the problem of sin in an especially powerful way. Note how it begins, with an appeal to the grace of God whom he calls merciful, loving and compassionate. This is where our scriptural journey starts this morning and where we will end up – in awe and wonder at the God who loves us with such a great and unfailing love, so much so that God comes and pursues us to bring us back, no matter how far we wander away. David’s words echo God’s own. Recall back to another time of great sin and separation from God – when the Ten Commandments were first given. While Moses was up on the mountain, the Israelites were down worshipping the golden calf! Moses went back up the mountain to receive the commandments a second time after he had shattered the first set in anger at their sin. In response to Moses’ request, God shelters Moses in a cleft of the rock and proclaims his name as he passed by: “…The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; …”. These titles for God tell us much about the nature of the God we worship and tell us of the consequences of sin and the alienation it threatens from a God who loves us so.

Looking back again at the Psalm – See how David appeals to God to take away his sin. He piles up a series of terms – Blot out, wash away, cleanse me. His sin made him feel dirty and guilty. David goes further and notes that even though he had directly acted against Uriah, it was also and ultimately against God that he had sinned, and that God was right to judge him. He makes no excuse that this was only a momentary lapse, David knows that somehow this was part of his nature all along – he says “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” His sin, and ours, is a serious problem, the result of a fundamental and universal rebellion against the nature of God. From the time of Adam and Eve’s first yielding to pride and sin in the garden, we have suffered from it. David knows it and owns it. He offers no shallow excuses. David knows better, He knows that only God has the solution to his situation. He knows that if God washes him, he will be “whiter than snow”.

With your indulgence, maybe an analogy or two can serve to illustrate this newness. As you know, my family enjoys snow skiing out in Colorado, matter fact, we plan to head out there right after Easter. The weather is often beautiful, with warm sun and blue sky’s this time of year and the snow and trees look spectacular. But there are hazards. That warm weather also means that soon the snow doesn’t look so white any more. Thin spots begin to appear with the melt and wear and tear of many skis. The dirt below is exposed in places and is spread over the surrounding surface, making the problem much worse.

Always those spots first appear in the difficult places where the is a sudden drop or a narrow spot in the trail. Warmth is contrary to the nature of snow, just as sin is contrary to the nature of our relationship with God. The nasty stain of mud on the clean white snow somehow looks all the worse because it is set in that dazzling brilliant white surroundings. In comparison to the the pure brightness of God’s Holiness, David’s sin and our sins look pretty bad. Our sins often appear in those times of difficulty and temptation. There are certain places and times where we know we are likely to find trouble, yet we slid on down the hill anyway.

The other problem with the warm weather and skiing is that it causes some unfortunate changes in the surface that you ski on. First the surface gets very mushy (like mashed potatoes) and what was gentle gliding before, now becomes heavy and difficult. Even worse is the next morning, after that slush refreezes and now becomes hard, icy and very treacherous. A little bit of fresh snow on top only camouflages the hazard. The ice is still there, you just can’t see it. Surface solutions are no solutions at all. The solution the David prays for is the same for us – renewal and a fresh new brightness. He asks God to Create a pure heart in him. Creation is an act of newness, not just wiping away a smudge or two, but starting over from scratch. Like a whole new season of fresh snow, deep and soft and wonderful. This is the ultimate act of grace from God. The result of this is Joy and union with the Spirit of God. We experience peace with our Creator who makes all things new.

This process of making things new was what Jeremiah was writing about in our Old Testament reading this morning. He wrote to the exiles in Babylon of promised the restoration of their nation and a new relationship with God. Unlike the one they broke so quickly at Sinai, which was written on stone; this one God promises to write on their hearts. Listen again to Jeremiah’s word’s from God:

Jeremiah 31:31-34 [31] “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. [32] It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors 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 people 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 they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘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.”

To know God in a new and richer way with both our Hearts and Minds is the promise made here. The universal knowledge that Jeremiah describes still waits for its full completion, but for we Christians, it points us to the new covenant made with all who believe in our Lord Jesus, the Christ. The old relationship that God sought with Israel was special, exclusive and loving, but for many it was reduced to one of thou shalt and thou shalt not’s. Forgiveness was demonstrated through the ritual sacrifice of animals at the temple and with the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Ark.

But in Jeremiah’s day, that old system had been destroyed. The temple was in ruins and many of the people and leadership carted away to Babylon as punishment for their disobedience and idolatry. But still, the everlasting love of God had not disappeared. Something new and wonderful was coming, something that would fulfill the old sacrificial system with a brand new covenant that would offer forgiveness as startling as the fresh fallen, brilliant white snow that David wrote about. Next week, we will celebrate Palm Sunday and enter Holy week. It is at this time of year that we remember the means by which the grace of this new covenant is made possible. The final sacrifice, made by God himself – his own son and our Lord – Jesus.

As I draw to the close of this message, I want to look briefly at the Gospel reading from John. This passage falls in the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, just after the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem. A group of Greeks, in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, asks Phillip to take them to see Jesus. We know almost nothing about these Folks, except that they represent those outside the close Jewish community – they represent us. At first it, seems that Jesus ignores them completely, but on deeper inspection, he is telling them something important about who he really is and what is about to happen. They said “We want to see Jesus”. Truly a request for all the ages and one that is carved on the inside of many pulpits. The answer they are given is who that Jesus really is and what his work is all about. Listen to the last part of Jesus’ reply again: (John 12:27-32 NIV)

[27] “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. [28] Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” [29] The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. [30] Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. [31] Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. [32] And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Who is this Jesus? He is the one who makes the love and forgiveness of God real and visible in this world. He is the very Son of God, Lifted up, as atonement for my sins, for your sins, and for the sins of the whole world. He is the one who says, as the book of the Revelation tells us: “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5) It was for this very purpose that he came and why he is coming again to claim his own. We will ponder about the cross much more in the coming days, but for now, let us join David and ask for new hearts, created pure and clean by God himself. Let us also ask to see Jesus, to know him more fully with our hearts and minds so that we are drawn to his cross and the glories of Easter beyond.