Homily for Mach 18, 2018 – Jeremiah 31: 31-34 & John 12: 20-33
The story of exile in Babylon and the return to Israel years later is one of the most poignant ones in the Old Testament. Few people realize, though, that upon their return to their homeland the people of God were issued a survey that had just a few questions: “Which of these major changes – exile, and then return – was most helpful in your relationship with God?” And, “Which one was most challenging to your faith?”
The years in exile, of course, had been a tragedy on so many levels: they lost their status, security, identity, and the temple itself; so returning home meant the end of a dark time.
But both of these movements – into exile, and then returning home – meant moving from one life, to another one entirely. In Exile they lost everything they valued, they were cast out from their homes and had to live among strangers. The ground underneath their feet had crumbled. But another change was coming.
Into that world of profound loss, Jeremiah spoke a word of hope: though the people had fallen, God’s fidelity to their covenant was still intact. The ground may have fallen out from under them, they may have forgotten the covenant altogether, but God was still God, and in that truth they found comfort and hope that they hadn’t felt in decades.
Just as the prophets in had once foretold a reckoning, Jeremiah said that though the world had changed, God hadn’t, and the days were surely coming when instead of a reckoning, they would experience return.
Nobody wants the reckoning. Most everybody wants the restoration. Is that a fair statement? But I might argue that in a certain way they are remarkably similar. You see, both represent profound change, and change can be holy. Sometimes change is instantaneous; it’s a catastrophe or a miracle. Sometimes change is imperceptible: tectonic in its pace but moving along all the same. But if we take for granted that change will come – sometimes it’s reckoning, and sometimes it’s restoration (and sometimes it’s just life)– it’s worth asking…which of these are better for our faith? Which kind of change brings us closer to a living experience of God? Which of these changes will best help us to heal, to grow, to reach towards union with God?
But let’s get back to the survey: which is better, exile or return? Reckoning or restoration? Decline or growth? If the Israelites were human, and I’m pretty sure they were, they probably answered with 99% certainty that the return was better. But I’m not so sure. I have a feeling that both offered a profound opportunity to grow deeper in their love for God.
You see, I believe that every change we experience – whether painful or hopeful – every one is an opportunity to grow in God. And I don’t think that’s by accident. I think that’s why change is a part of life…each time our world shifts there is a chance to rekindle, each time we find ourselves in a “new normal” we have an invitation to renew and revive the covenant of holiness that defines our lives.
I’m not saying that every change is a winner. Sometimes they’re great, and sometimes they feel like death. In fact, our gospel goes a step further: sometimes change is death. There’s no point in denying it. 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. That’s our vocation, as Christians: to follow Jesus to the cross, to let the falsities of our lives die off and be changed by that. Sometimes our vocation is to bear the pain of change that the much of the world can’t handle, because that is what Jesus did. He carried pain in his body, and if we make can audacious claim of being the Body of Christ, then we too must be prepared to carry some pain.
The exile in Babylon was deeply painful, it was a humiliation that lasted for generations, but it was not such a bad thing for their relationship with God. Without the temple, they had to figure out who they were apart from a glorious building. Without a king of their own, they saw clearly the withered fruits of their own exceptionalism. Suddenly brought low, they could see the toll that their greed had taken on their neighbors, and on their own hearts. This was really bad for their ego, but let’s be honest, it was really good for their soul. Their mournful songs by the rivers of Babylon became hymns that would sustain them; the prophets who had warned of their downfall now used the same poetry to remind them that God grieved beside them.
Jeremiah knew that if they returned home, and got to feeling good about themselves, and began to forget once again that God had done this, and not them, then they’d be heading for the same outcome. Restoration would would be very good for their sense of self-worth, but would it be good for their souls?
Remember, though, how we’re thinking about change this morning. Every time something shifts, there’s an opportunity to go deeper. There’s an invitation to go into that file cabinet and take out the covenant that God has made with us, to renew and even revive it as something with a living claim on our life. Every change is a chance to grow in God.
So Jeremiah prophesied their return, but he had something else to add: God will make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. The new covenant rested on this: I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Even when we forget, we are God’s, and God is with us. Even when we are lost, we are God’s. Even when we are ecstatic with the joys of return, God holds us and loves us and calls us to go deeper.
This was about kindling a new spirit as they physically rebuilt their homes. And unlike the old laws written on stone: God would put this law within the people, and would write it on their hearts.
God wanted the people to make a leap – an upgrade, if you will, from one platform to another. From stone to flesh and blood. They weren’t simply to be parties to a covenant: they were to be the covenant, with the word of the lord imprinted on their hearts and the love of God evident through their very lives.
Stone tablets may have seemed good and sturdy, but stone doesn’t grow and it doesn’t respond well to change. The people had learned in exile that stone can crumble or be struck down or simply wasn’t packable when they had to move, but that hearts bound together by prayer and songs and love were far more durable. Where stone had failed, their hearts would be the new vessels.
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground, it will not bear fruit. In this life, the winds will blow. The rains will come. The ground underneath us will collapse from time to time, but God is still God. The temple may fall into the abyss and take with it the stone or the scroll that holds the old law… but the new covenant has already been given. It is here. It is here. The new covenant has been written on our hearts, and we keep it with our lives.
The changes in life may be swift and varied, the waters will rage and foam, so we fix our heart on the presence and grace of God. As our world changes, we hold fast to a promise that does not change: God is with us; God is our refuge and strength, and we are God’s people. We know this because it is written on our very hearts.
Homily for March 18, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 5th Sunday in Lent, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.