Sometimes you just need a fresh start. The Israelites had botched their obedience to God’s law, and their covenant benefits (possession of the promised land and nationhood) were no longer a reality as they sat in Babylonian exile.
Our lection is part of a larger unit within the book of Jeremiah that scholars call the “book of consolation” (Jeremiah 31-33). In this unit God tells the exiled community through the prophet Jeremiah that God will gather together those who have been scattered and lead them back to mount Zion where there will be singing and praise. Among those gathered will not only be the noble and well, but also the blind and the lame. On their route back to Zion God will provide them a stream of water to walk by, and a straight path to navigate.
But what if the people receive this forgiveness and yet continue in their previous failures (i.e. in rebellion to God’s law)? In our lection Jeremiah answers this fear by promising a new covenant from God that is not written on stone but written on the heart. The new covenant will be so much a part of the people that they will no longer need to teach one another its statutes, for everyone will instinctively know the Lord and the Lord’s ways.
Our Psalm lection is traditionally understood as the Psalm David penned after his affair with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. The Psalm is full of confessions of sinfulness. David mournfully cries out, “My sin is every before me.” The despair reminds us of the despair of the Israelites in our Hebrew Bible reading who wondered how they could ever live by God’s laws.
David calls upon God to not only forgive his sinfulness but to also create within him a new heart (again we are reminded of the Hebrew Bible reading where God will write God’s law on the hearts of the people). The prayer of David is significant in that David asks not just for justification (to have righteous standing before God again) but also for sanctification (to receive the ability to live more God-like in the future).
We are all, like David, in need of both justification and sanctification. Thankfully we worship the same God as did David who’s “abundant love ” and “steadfast mercy” know no bounds.
Hebrews 5 declares that God made Jesus a high priest. The author says that a high priest is able sympathize with the people because a high priest is also human, “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” Jesus was also subject to weakness. The Hebrew author writes that 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.” Further Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” This concept—that suffering teaches obedience and makes one perfect—is called person making theodicy and is one of the classic answers to the question of the existence of suffering in the world.
While this answer is not without criticism, it does suggest that suffering can play a role in our sanctification. It is important to note that Hebrews 5 also challenges the future reality of suffering by making reference to our ‘eternal salvation’ gained through Jesus Christ, the one who suffered for the sake of all.
Jesus and his disciples are about to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem when “some Greeks” came up to Phillip seeking an audience with Jesus. Phillip brings their request to Andrew, and together they bring the request to Jesus. Marilyn Salmon does a good job arguing that the “Greeks” in question were not gentiles but Jews of the diaspora (i.e. the dispersion). You can read her commentary here. Whatever the case it is impossible to tell if the teaching given by Jesus occasioned by the request is said in the hearing of the Greeks of not (certainly the heavenly voice that followed Jesus’ teaching was heard by the Greeks since it is said that it was heard ‘by the crowds’). The fact that Jesus’ teaching follows the mentioning of “some Greeks” might be John’s way of pointing to Jesus’ teaching’s intended audience (i.e. the Jews of the dispersion).
The teaching that follows the request is an apologetic for Jesus’ imminent death in Jerusalem. Jesus’ death is recast as a necessity for the work of Jesus to grow from seed to fruit. His death is said, paradoxically, to be the means to real life, his death is declared by God’s thunderous declaration to be a moment of glory, and his death is said to be a victory over the “ruler of the world.”
Jesus said all these things concerning the time he would be “lifted up from the earth” an allusion to last week’s gospel lection which told of a time when Jesus would be lifted up in glory and an allusion to the coming cross of Christ where Jesus would be lifted up in his moment of crucifixion/glory.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the sanctification of the Spirit that is operative in everyone of our lives writing on our hearts our new covenant with God. Consider the victorious Christ, high and lifted up, that has conquered the powers of this world allowing a new heart in all of us to call upon the name of the Lord and to love our neighbor.