United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds March 18, 2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent Year B

Lectionary citations:
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33


Worship resources for the Fifth Sunday in Lent Year B are at Worship Ways

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Focus Theme:
God's Love Is on Our Hearts

by Kathryn Matthews

There is good news to be preached this day (like every day!): a new covenant, assurance of pardon, transformation of our lives and our life together, a future filled with hope. All of this because God is at work as God always has been, in the midst of the people.

There are many stories in the Old Testament about covenant, from Noah and the rainbow through Abraham and Sarah and their many descendants (including us) to Moses and the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In this week's beautiful reading from Jeremiah, the prophet speaks of a covenant not of stone, not external, but written deep inside, on the very hearts of the people.

Rescue and release...restoration and return...Jeremiah speaks of God's promises to the people of Israel while they are still in captivity, still in exile, steeped in loss and grief that have broken their hearts and their spirits, too. Their city has been destroyed and their conqueror Babylon has carried away their leaders to the far-off capital of its powerful empire.

A time for hope

By this 31st chapter, Jeremiah is no longer scolding the people for their sin and their lack of faithfulness to God. Instead, Jeremiah brings the people a new message from God. God is trying to tell them something, Jeremiah says, and it's good news, a word of comfort and hope. God has had compassion on the people; God's heart has been touched by their suffering, and God forgives them.

In this time of exile God makes sweeping promises to the people of Israel, promises of restoration, of return, and, most importantly, of relationship, too. Once again, as in so many covenant stories before this one, God promises to be in relationship with the people--like God's promises to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, and to Moses and the people at Sinai--God promises to be a presence with the people, abiding with them, and promises that they will even belong to each other: God says, I will be your God, and you…you will be my people.

Writing on the heart

Even though they have broken the covenant God made with them back there in the desert, at Sinai with the Ten Commandments, even though things are perhaps the worst they've ever been, God is using words like "new" and "heart" and "covenant" once again. The great scholar of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann, often writes of the "core memory" of Israel about God: that God will do today, in this bad circumstance, what God has done in the past: "new creation, new covenant, new kingship, new exodus, new land distribution."

God doesn't do these things merely out of some kind of stubborn faithfulness, Brueggemann says, but out of deep, wounded love and profound grief that have moved God beyond anger to tender caring and, most importantly, to forgiveness (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy). It's a thing of the heart, in this text: God decides this time that torah, the law, will be written not on stones, on something external, but inside, deep inside the people, written on their hearts.

A larger understanding of the heart

This doesn't mean that the relationship is simply one of feeling, because it is written on the heart. It seems that our understanding of "heart" is too narrow: here we are speaking of a core experience and core identity, not just a feeling. And at that core is forgiveness. The people of Israel have the chance to begin again, Brueggemann says: "Israel is now completely unburdened by its past" (An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible). (What a lovely image that is, especially during Lent: being "unburdened of our past.")

In his sermon on the texts for this Sunday, Brueggemann writes evocatively of our anguished cry for help when we are broken and alienated (as the people of Israel were long ago), and God's response of forgiveness that gives us, too, the chance to begin anew. His words are helpful for Christian preachers: "The claim made for Jesus in the gospel is that God's suffering love for all eternity has been focused precisely on your ache and my yearning. God has in Jesus, on the cross, in the gospel, experienced the brokenness that must happen in order that we can have a new change" (The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann).

Who is God?

Jeremiah's words invite us to think about who God is. None of our words, or anyone else's--and that means none of the words in the Bible, either--no human words can adequately describe God. We fall short every time, but we give it a try anyway. That's what theology is really about, in every age and every setting.

Who is God? There's a thought-provoking translation question in verse 32, when either "husband" or "master" could be used, as in "a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband" or "though I was their master." There have been many times in human history where the distinction between the two has not been great, but most of us resist equating the two. In any case, neither word defines or adequately describes God; neither tells us exactly who God is.

God as a loving but frustrated parent

It seems to me that the overall feeling of this part of the Book of Jeremiah, the Book of Consolation as these chapters are called, is about God as a parent. As a parent (and former child/teenager) myself, I can really relate to how frustrated God must have felt when the people kept messing up. I also understand the whole thing about God being really mad and then being moved suddenly and deeply to love and compassion when God remembers how much God loves the people.

For example, in this same 31st chapter of Jeremiah, there are exquisitely beautiful lines that remind us of a mother's love: "Is Ephraim [another name for Israel] my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him" (v. 21).

Not just about "me and God"

Several points are particularly important to note: first, as Brueggemann writes, this text isn't a movement toward individualism (no matter how steeped we are in it, today) but a powerful reminder that we are part of something greater than ourselves, "indeed members one of another" (Texts that Linger, Words that Explode).

And perhaps an even more pressing point is one that Brueggemann makes in several discussions of this text, that this text about "the new covenant" God makes "is not about Jesus or the Christian faith": it is a promise to Israel and Judah, "this failed people, this time to make it new and to make it right" (Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture and the Church). Preachers have easily slipped into supercessionism in interpreting this text, and Brueggemann cautions us against misunderstanding or misreading it.

The loving God of the Old Testament

Third, it's often said that we contrast the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, with the former being harsh and punishing and angry, and the latter being a much "kinder and gentler" God. And yet, we've just established in this text (as in many others) that God has great love and compassion for the people of Israel. The mystery, however, is much richer, much more complex than that.

Here we are, deeply into Lent, approaching Holy Week. Remember that "core memory" in the Old Testament about God's love and faithfulness? Brueggemann says that the core testimony is in tension with a "counter-testimony" of Israel's abandonment, exile, loss, and suffering, suffering that they attribute to God's judgment on them.

"Core testimony" v. "counter-testimony"

Brueggemann observes that the core testimony, about God's love and mercy, and the counter-testimony, about abandonment and judgment, are in both the Old and the New Testaments. The faith of Israel and the Easter affirmation of the church, he says, are both grounded in the belief that the God who judges is the God who brings home to well-being.

We do love to say that we're an Easter people, but maybe, in light of this tension between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we ought to take another look at what lies between them, another look at Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day that gets skipped over in our Holy Week observances; it was the empty day, when I was growing up, after the sadness of Good Friday but before the joy of Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday has been called "the longest of days," a day of waiting, a not-yet, in-between time that in many ways describes our own lives.

That long day in-between

We know about Good Friday and the cross, about sorrow and death. All humankind knows about suffering, brutality, and injustice, about tragic endings, about death, all of which are part of the human condition, in our private lives and in the life of the world. We Christians also know about Easter Sunday and the promise, the hint of resurrection for the rest of us, because Jesus is risen from the dead. This Sunday experience is all about hope.

However, our lives are not all about Good Friday or all about Easter Sunday. We experience suffering and abandonment, exile and loss, and we face death, our own and the deaths of those we love. We know ourselves as sinners, and our lives as broken.

And we also taste forgiveness, we taste hope, and we taste new life, we catch sight of it here and there, get word of it, listen and wait and hope...we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and yet we know ourselves also as bound for glory...pain and hope, dying and rising again...all humankind waiting, waiting, in the unresolved, waiting...and we understand a little more why faith is best described as trust. We live most of our lives in that in-between, Holy Saturday-feeling time, the longest day indeed.

Tender compassion and the image of God

Like all teenagers, my oldest son "had his moments" of boundary-testing and broken rules. At the time, we experienced a kind of testing of our love, but it never wavered or defined our relationship with him, no matter how frustrated we may have been in a given moment. Years later, I recall watching him, grown into a fine young man and father, as he leaned over the hospital bed of his own four-year-old daughter in tender compassion, as she lay there in the midst of tubes and monitors.

I remember watching him care tenderly for her, in his awkward daddy way, as he fed her macaroni and cheese and a little bit of chicken, coaxing her to drink her juice and watching her carefully to catch every sign of improvement, every hint of recovery and restoration. Like all of us, he still lives every day in that "Holy Saturday time"--a time of caring for a child with special needs, the time between suffering and the fullness of healing, taking each day as it comes, walking in trust. I watch him, and I am deeply moved for him. Can God, who is far beyond our words and our every story, resist the same impulse toward each one of us? I think not.

One God in both Testaments

And so we turn again to God, the God of both the Old Testament and the New, with our broken spirits and our sins, our homesickness and loneliness, our hunger for justice for a suffering world, our lost vision and lost hope, the very fabric of our hearts torn open, and we listen for that tender-hearted God to address us with words of comfort and consolation, words of rescue and release, of restoration and homecoming.

We too are captives today, in many ways, captives of very different sorts of empires: empires of materialism, militarism, and greed. And yet, paradoxically, we walk in freedom as well, as people of a covenant written on our hearts; we walk in freedom in this in-between time, responding to the call to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God, to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves.

Living in the in-between time

We live in a transitional time, somewhere beyond "post-modern" but not yet called anything, and "the times are a-changing" so fast that we'll have moved on to another "new age" before this period has even been named. We live, they say, in uncertain times. But what time, we might ask, has ever been "certain"? And yet, in every age, God's word offers hope to the people. What is the hope that your church longs for? What would its transformation look like? What has that transformation looked like already?

God offers the people of Israel a new covenant. Of the many things that have been said about covenant, perhaps one of the best is that it's something that each party enters for the sake of the other. Not for one's own protection or rights, but for the sake of the other. We know that's true of God, but is it true of us? Do we do anything purely for God's own sake?

If this covenant is not with individuals but with the people as a community, how does our private faith need to be experienced in the life of a community of faith? Are we often tempted to keep faith a private thing, a "personal relationship with Jesus" that seems to have little to do with this covenant, even a new one, so long ago?

What would it mean in the life of the church?

Parker Palmer has written beautifully of the "true" covenant that "means the acceptance of weighty obligations to a Lord who demands that we 'do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.'" The church's acceptance of this true covenant would "serve as a channel of reconciliation in a world in love with divisions....the church would proclaim not its mastery over the world but its servanthood--to God, to humankind, and to the vision of a peaceable kingdom" (In the Company of Strangers).

How does this vision bring the idea of covenant to life for your congregation? In what ways has the church been faithful to this covenant, and in what ways have we failed? How would "an outsider" experience, and measure, our faithfulness to it?

Longing for transformation

Another reading for today, Psalm 51, uses the language of true contrition and humble repentance. The psalmist longs to be transformed by God, made whole, made clean of sin. This is a radical change, this new hope, this new community. It begins with God's own "forgiving and forgetting."

How much of the energy of the church is turned toward forgiveness rather than judgment? How is your congregation opening its "heart" to its new creation and to God's hand at work in the life you share?


The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love."
"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."

Paul Pearsall, 20th century
"The heart may be where God’s intelligence or logic is expressed within us."

Henri Nouwen, 20th century
"Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing….The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God."

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 19th century
"Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but--I hope--into a better shape."

T.E. Kalem, 20th century
"The heart is the only broken instrument that works."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope."

Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
"Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all."

Lectionary texts

Jeremiah 31:31-34

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.

Psalm 51:1-12

Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly
   from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone,
   have I sinned,
and done what is evil
   in your sight,

so that you are justified
   in your sentence
and blameless
  when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty,
   a sinner
when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth
   in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom
   in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop,
   and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter
   than snow.

Let me hear joy
   and gladness;
let the bones
   that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face
   from my sins,
and blot out
   all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart,
   O God,
and put a new and right spirit
   within me.

Do not cast me away
   from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit
   from me.

Restore to me
   the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me
   a willing spirit


Psalm 119:9-16

How can young people
   keep their way pure?
By guarding it
   according to your word.

With my whole heart
   I seek you;
do not let me stray
   from your commandments.

I treasure your word
   in my heart,
so that I may not sin
   against you.

Blessed are you,
   O God;
teach me your statutes.

With my lips I declare
   all the ordinances
of your mouth.

I delight in the way
   of your decrees
as much as in all riches.

I will meditate
   on your precepts,
and fix my eyes on your ways.

I will delight
   in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

Hebrews 5:5-10

So also 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.

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.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!