As is usually the case, our scriptural readings for the service today have a central theme.Today being the last Sunday of Lent, leading up to Palm Sunday next week, these readings begin to focus much more directly on the imminent events of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In our first reading, Jeremiah is prophesying to the Jews in Babylon. Jeremiah lived through the implementation (and eventual failure) of the so-called deuteronomistic reforms that were introduced in the Kingdom of Judah during the reign of Josiah. These extreme reforms were inspired by the kind of traditions found in Deuteronomy, the Book of the Law. In supporting the reform agenda of Josiah, Jeremiah ran afoul of the rural priests such as those from his home town. With the suppression of sacrifices outside the Temple, the rural clergy were deprived of both income and status. In the end, these reforms failed and the southern kingdom was defeated by the Babylonians around 580BC.
Jeremiah interprets the unfaithfulness of the Jews for which the exile in Babylon was a punishment as a breach of the original covenant made at the Exodus. He looks forward to a new covenant that YHWH will make with his people. Jeremiah says, “This time God will write his law, not on tablets of stone, but in the hearts of his people. All of them will then “know” him, that is, live in obedience to his law.” This is the one passage in the Old Testament where the idea of a New Testament, a new way to live in God is clearly mentioned. Of course Jeremiah does not know how this will happen; he knows nothing of Jesus and his sacrifice for all to be drawn to him.
In our Gospel reading from John, Jesus makes two great pronouncements to develop the theme of the cross: “(1) a grain of wheat must die if it is to bring forth fruit; (2) only by being lifted up will Jesus draw all to himself.” These pronouncements are not unconnected with the Greeks’ request. But, they cannot “see” Jesus—that is, experience salvation through the messiah—until after he has been crucified.
The contacts of Jesus during his earthly ministry were almost exclusively confined to his own people (see Romans 15:8), and his contacts with Gentiles were strictly exceptional (the Greeks in this story, the Syro-Phoenician, a woman in Mark, and the centurion in all three synoptic gospels—each time there is a reluctance on the part of Jesus to break the barrier). It was only later that the early Christians began preaching to Gentiles (Acts 11).
But there was also a theological reason why Jesus restricted his contacts to the Jews. It was only after the wall of partition had been broken down—that is, the Jewish law as a barrier between Jew and Gentile—that the Gentile mission could begin.
Thus, as John said, “the grain of wheat has to die before it can bring forth fruit (win Gentile converts)”, and “the Son of man has to be “lifted up” “ (code language to the Jews for the crucifixion-resurrection) before the Gentiles can be brought in. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, like a seed planted to grow and bring forth much fruit, a new relationship with God would be established. His crucifixion and resurrection would draw the whole world into this new relationship with God.
This past week I had the experience of going up to Redmond for about 2 ½ days to visit my son Jim, daughter-in-law Addie, and grandson Oliver, all of whom were ailing with the flu or colds, and also were struggling to deal with their restaurant businesses. They own a pizza restaurant in Redmond, and also Addie recently took a job as manager of a larger pizza restaurant in Bellevue. They are dealing with all of this at once, and I agreed to come up and stay with them and work on their business plans. I found out once there that I would also get to stay with Oliver for most of the day time hours both days. This provided me a unique opportunity to be with Oliver—to play, teach, discipline, and care for him.
Some of the ways this played out were:
He would laugh and respond well to many of my efforts to play with him
He would sit on my lap to read books and watch children’s shows (and also golf—he seemed to be enamored with the golf ball going thru the air)
He would lay on me to fall asleep before allowing me to take his to his crib for his naps
He would run around the house when I left the gates down and get into almost everything
He would cry when he made messes in his pants and want me to clean him up
He would complain about the food I gave him but would then eat it, and then change his mind and want something else and throw it on the floor
He would hug me and call me grandpa and smile a lot (until Jim and Addie got home and then he wanted to see them)
What does this have to do with the theme for today? I’m not sure it ties in directly with it, but here is what I think.
I looked at this as an example of how we are as God’s people in relationship with Him. As God’s people we laugh and enjoy things that God has given us, we sit in God’s presence and are quiet and watch His world go by, we pray to God before we go to sleep, we run around crazily in the world around us hoping to find new things for our pleasure, we cry out to God when things get messed up and want God to fix everything, we complain about some things when they don’t go well and sometimes we blow up, and we come back to God and praise Him and offer our prayers and thanksgivings (until the world gets in our sights again and we forget about our God).
What does God do in response to all of this? God is always there for us. And God sent his only Son Jesus Christ to be the sacrifice for us, to give us the eternal life we hope.
Now as we move ahead from this last Sunday in Lent to the start of the sequence of events leading to Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension at Easter, what kind of Jesus are we expecting? One that will save us from eternal loss but allow us to live however we please in this life? I hope not! As believers we are called to follow Jesus into sacrifice: "Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be" (v. 26). Let us not love ourselves but love Christ and that cross at which we die to ourselves for God's glory. AMEN.