Fifth Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 22, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

I rediscovered the word pathetic this week; it was while I was reading an account of the ways we sometimes make Christian faith so inaccessible to our children. The writer evoked such strong passion and I was moved by her genuine sorrow. That’s the way I read Jeremiah. God is pathetic here — moved with deep pathos over the broken relationship with Israel and Judah. Like a spouse who has been jilted, God’s heart hurts — yet, God is determined to try again — and again — and again. God seems always to be about the new day, the new opportunity for faithfulness. Thank God!

Psalm 51 assures us that God is in the joy-restoring business! Of course, it helps if we have opened up shop for honesty and confession. There’s a reason those in twelve-step traditions say that the first step (“admitted that we had a problem”) is the hardest!

The key phrase in Psalm 119 (repeated many, many times): whole heart. How much commitment of life does God desire from us? Just all of it.

When it comes to Hebrews, don’t get too infatuated with Melchizedek; though he obviously is an interesting and important character (at least for the preacher of the Hebrews sermon,) this passage is all about Jesus. Pay attention particularly to the phrase, “learned obedience through what he suffered.” As Calvin stated, Christ has redeemed us by the whole course of his obedience. Every thought, prayer, and action of Jesus was for us — and has accomplished the salvation of the world. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia, 1960), Book II, Chapter 16, pp. 507-512)

John gives us the interesting arrival of the Greeks who are looking for Jesus. Outsiders. Showing up during the high festival of the Passover. Doesn’t make sense. Yet, Jesus says in response, “The hour has come….” He appears to understand that the table is set and what he is about to do will draw “all people” to the work of God. I can’t help but ask myself: so, who are the Greeks in my world? Where are the unlikely candidates for the grace of God? And what am I doing to bring them to Jesus?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God; and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:34

I have never been any good at things like playing a sport beyond the middle school level, or singing, or playing a musical instrument. Part of it is a lack of natural talent. But that’s just part of it.

My biggest problem has been an unwillingness to practice, to go over and over the basic, rudimentary motions of any particular activity enough to get good at it. There were a couple of exceptions. I could shoot a fairly consistent 10 foot jump-shot in basketball and I became a pretty good contact hitter in baseball. But I was not a good player. I wouldn’t work at it. The same thing with music. I had no natural talent or ear, but I could have learned to be an adequate singer, but I wouldn’t put in the dull, repetitious, monotonous time necessary. Same thing for the guitar I bought and the piano lessons I signed up for.

It was only when my sons came along that I really learned what it took to be good at something.  The oldest played trumpet and French horn in band.  We had a small house.  There was nowhere but his bedroom for him to practice and there was nowhere in the house one could go and not hear him. The same thing, over and over and over.  But he stuck with it and became pretty good.

The youngest was in love with basketball.  He developed his own practice routine, outlined on a chart on his bedroom wall; fifty lay-ups from this side, fifty from the other side, a hundred free throws, a hundred jump shots, etc. etc.  There was a concrete patio directly outside the den door. We put up a goal there – it was maybe 20 feet from both the television and the kitchen sink.  His dribbling and shooting and jumping reverberated through the house.

Sometimes they were both practicing at the same time; scales coming down the hall from the bedroom; thump, thump, thump from the backyard; for hours on end.  And the last thing I was going to do was complain.  I put in my earplugs and went back to working on my sermon.

I have been thinking about how it is that covenants get written on people’s hearts and it seems to me that developing a right relationship with God and neighbor; learning to live life by Jesus’ “Great Commandments” – you know – to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself; well, this seems to be a lot like learning to play the trumpet or to shoot a basketball; it’s a matter of staying with the basics until they become a part of who you are.

One of the goals in sport is to make the regular activities such second nature that you quit thinking and just do it. To do that takes practice. This is why we talk about “practicing our religion.” Could it be that covenants get written on our hearts as we practice the “unnatural acts” of unselfish and unconditional love toward others until they become second nature; that is, become written on our hearts?

Now, before anyone accuses me of “works righteousness;” let me be clear: I’m not talking about becoming good enough for God, or of earning one’s salvation.  I’m talking about exercising and using the free gift of God’s love that has become ours through Christ.

As it says in Hebrews, “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.” (5:8-9)

I’m not exactly sure what “learning obedience” and “having been made perfect” mean here, but I’m sure it involves Jesus knowing that he was the Messiah and that being the Messiah meant denying self and living for others and suffering and dying on the cross.  And though Jesus had some “natural talent” for this as the Son of God; it was not easy and he had to practice and he had to learn how to be this person.   Beginning with resisting the temptations to power and influence in the wilderness and culminating in the garden when he prayed, “not my will but thine be done,” he had to practice being who he was called to be.

We are called to follow Christ.  “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:26) “Where I am” includes doing for others, and suffering in service of others; and though that may have come naturally to Jesus – it does not come naturally to most of us.

But we can learn it.  We can hear the voice that tells us that we too are children of God, that we too are beloved and a part of God’s plan to love and care for the world.  We can learn and practice the love of God until we are like a musician who knows a song so well that she lifts her eye from the page and plays the score written on her heart; a song of love and service that begins now and continues forever.

Amen and amen.

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