This is a bit of a cheat – it’s the sermon I preached this morning… I hope you find it interesting.
I’m sure we all make promises ~ to ourselves, to God, to other people. And I’m sure that we all have broken promises too. I know I have. I may have promised to do something for someone, and then genuinely forgotten to keep that promise; I may have promised to do something, knowing from the very beginning that I had no real intention of keeping that promise. When I was still teaching, children who had misbehaved were often required to write a letter of apology and the number of children who wrote “I promise not to …do whatever it was again”. They may have meant it at the time ~ but sadly, very few of them ever kept to that promise
But God never breaks his promises. He made promises to his people, and he will keep them.Some those promises had conditions attached.
If the Israelites followed God, and obeyed his law, then they would know his guidance and his protection. But if they tried to go their own way, not keeping to his commandments and staying true to him, then they would suffer the consequences. This is the first covenant, the Old Covenant that God had with his people. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai, the covenant that he made had conditions. As Moses said to the people after introducing them to the Ten Commandments “ Hear O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in the land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your Fathers, promised you.” Be careful to obey so that it may go well with you.
But despite having made their promises to follow God, no doubt in all good faith, like the children in my class promising not to be naughty ever again, the people of Israel failed to keep their side of the bargain. And as God had promised, things did not go well for them.
And this is the situation that we’re in with Jeremiah. Once again, the people fail to follow God, and once again they are punished for their disobedience, finding themselves in bondage to the Babylonians. But despite the hopelessness that Jeremiah feels when he sees Israel on this course of action, he still believes that God will not abandon his People. And so Jeremiah makes the beautiful prophecy that we heard earlier. He speaks of a new promise that God will make: “It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers… for I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”.
This brings us onto the second kind of promise ~ the promise that has no conditions. It does not require us to jump through hoops, or to turn around twice, or do anything. The only “condition” is that the recipient of the promise believes the promise and acts on it.
This is the new covenant, the new promise that Jeremiah looked forward to. Whatever happened God would not abandon his people; eventually he would restore them to himself. God will always be faithful. Jeremiah was looking forward to the time when no longer would people be punished for failing God, for he has promised to forgive wickedness, he has promised to remember their sins no more.
All the children of God need to do is accept this promise and it is fulfilled. This is the new covenant. This is the promise that God fulfilled in Jesus.
You may or may not know that Testament means Covenant, or Promise. In the Old Testament, we read about how Israel constantly failed to follow their Lord, and how, under the conditions of that promise made at Sinai, God punishes them for their disobedience. But in the New Testament, we read how the new promise, that prophesied by Jeremiah and other prophets, is fulfilled in Jesus.
But we should never forget that this new covenant was not made easily. We should never think that this cost nothing. In fact, for Jesus, it cost everything.
Today, the 5th Sunday in Lent, is sometimes known as “Passion Sunday”: it is the day when the Church moves from reflecting on Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness and the themes of penitence and repentance, to thinking about the sufferings of our Lord, and what he went through in order to bring about redemption for the whole world. What he went through to seal this new covenant made between God and his people.
In the early world, the striking of a covenant involved some kind of sacrifice, some kind of bloodletting. An animal would be sacrificed, and blood would be sprinkled; often the sacrificial beast would be cut in two and the two parties would pass between the parts of the divided carcass as a sign that this covenant would not be broken – or, that if it was, the consequences would be dire.
Inevitably this thought leads us to reflecting on what – or rather who – was sacrificed in order to form the covenant that we have with God.
The words that Father Rob repeats every Sunday as he raises the bread and wine tells us this: “This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”. And again, words that we ourselves sometimes say “Christ, our Passover is sacrificed for us”.
Yes, we know that after his death Christ was resurrected to glory – and while it is really important that we see his death through resurrection-tinted spectacles, I think it is also important that we do not forget the real cost of the sacrifice of Christ.
When I lived in the UK I was privileged to be part of a talented theatre group, and one year we performed Dennis Potter’s “Son of Man” an incredibly powerful play Within it Jesus is depicted as being tormented by self-doubt, repeatedly crying out “Is it me?” as he struggles with his own nature as God incarnate whilst being vulnerable to human frailty. In fact, when it was first broadcast, the play was deemed “blasphemous” for its portrayal of Jesus as a fearful human being. For me this was part of its power, but in reality the part that stands out most is the scene where Jesus is crucified: for a 10 night run I stood in the crowd and watched the crucifixion. Of course, it came nowhere close to the horror of the real event, but thanks to the amazing skill of the actor who played Jesus, I was able to envisage something of what Christ suffered so we could be a part of God’s new covenant with the world. Every night it came to me afresh what had been suffered for me, and I remember it still, because it is important to take on board the fact that Christ’s death on the cross was not a painless, sanitised slipping away that we might like to imagine. It was an agonising, bone crunching bloody business that lasted for three hours and caused even the son of God to believe – however fleetingly – that he had been abandoned and that this was all for nothing.
We must recognise that despite the comforting picture in Jeremiah of a world in which everyone accepts and lives out the law of God it was still necessary that there was a bloodletting to seal even this new covenant.
And what of our side of this covenant? Because a covenant was always made with a promise on both sides.
This is the part where we have to make our sacrifice also: we have to be willing to die. Not, thank Heavens, in the literal sense – although there are many Christians who have throughout the world and throughout the ages been called on to make that sacrifice – but we have to be willing to die to ourselves, to die to the world.
This is what Jesus was talking about in the Gospel passage, when he said: 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 honour.
So what does it mean? I think that when he said these words, Jesus was both talking to himself, and to those who were seeking to follow him. We must realise that he was afraid – he admits as much with the words “my soul is troubled” – he knew that this was not to be a gentle death, it was going to be brutal, and so I think he was reminding himself that this sacrifice was necessary, in order to seal the promise between God and man, thus bringing the fruit of the new covenant. But he was also reminding his followers – both then in Judea, and now, here in Clermont Ferrand and across the world – that following him was not going to be easy. It would involve making ourselves vulnerable. As one commentator has written:
the point of faith in Jesus isn’t just faith, or comfort, or satisfying spiritual desires. No, the point of following Jesus is that we might be drawn more deeply into the kingdom of God through our love for, service to, and sacrifice on behalf of those around us. Jesus comes to demonstrate God’s strength through vulnerability, God’s power through what appears weak in the eyes of the world, and God’s justice through love, mercy and forgiveness. And he calls those who would follow him to the very same kind of life and love
We need to be ready to allow God access to our hearts, so that he can indeed “put his Law within us and write it on our hearts” Like a seed has to be spilt open in order for the new life within to flourish, so we need to allow God to break us open so that we truly begin to live the Life that he has planned for us, so that we can serve him in the way that he desires. Of course, this is always going to be a work in progress, but if we are open to him Christ can and will work a miracle in us, finally making us perfect and creating the people we are meant to be.