Weekly Preaching: March 21, 2021

March 17th, 2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34. Jeremiah, the man, moves and inspires me, but then I shudder, as his burden to speak God's truth left him isolated, ridiculed, suffering much. I try not to get confused and think any time I'm abused in ministry that it's because I was such a holy truth-teller. The question is always how to speak the truth but in love, engaging, conversing, not thundering, inviting, not judging.

Most of Jeremiah is a lengthy diatribe, like a street preacher voicing judgment. Here he is tenderly hopeful. John Goldingay suggests that the true prophet "knows what time it is." Is it time for judgment, a call to repentance? Or for hope? I get it wrong sometimes because I'm annoyed with my people or frustrated in ministry. How to be attentive to God's timing?

Jeremiah's "new covenant" seems crucial right now. So many want to "go back," whether it's to "Make America great again" (this bit of nostalgia forgetting what was ugly back then), or we want the church to "go back." God is calling us right now to go forward into something new! And Jeremiah's promise feels way beyond any visible horizon; maybe it's even in eternity – but can't we begin now to become people for whom the law, God's way, isn't something external we try to learn and embody. Still, it's written on our hearts. It's natural. It's just who we are.

President Eisenhower heard Martin Luther King preach in the late 1950s. Exiting the church, Eisenhower said to King, "You can't legislate morality." King replied, "The law can't make a man love me, but it can keep a man from lynching me." Laws, rules, conventions, guidelines, and policies get us started – but the goal is in the heart, like muscle memory. We love, we forgive, we reconcile, we have mercy, we exhibit the Spirit's Fruit – not recalling and implementing a rule but because our hearts have been shaped, over a long time, after much practice, booboos, restarts, and fumblings. This is the purpose of preaching over time.

I might preach Psalm 51. The imposed context, in the wake of the sordid David – Bathsheba liaison, intrigues. I'm also dumbfounded by the way "original sin," so despised by modern people, has manifest itself in new, unanticipated ways in the wake of the 2016 election. Baffled by Trump's popularity, explainers stepped forward – noting how most of our political ideology emerges from some subterranean cavern within, which grew before the days we can even recall. Witness Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind and many others: our supposed reasoning is the wagging tail of the dog that's all intuition. People firmly believe they have made such a wise decision, becoming Republican or Democrat. But it's deep gut stuff that attaches itself to the ideology – just as the Christian doctrine of original sin exposes us not so much as wicked choosers but as people stuck in sin - whichever side of the aisle you might lean toward.

I won't preach Hebrews 5:5-10 – but how fascinating. At Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, he was appointed (anointed!) high priest! No one noticed at the time, of course. "Priest" in Latin is pontifex, bridge-builder. The bridge Jesus built for us was himself – and how he was his own self: "In the days of his flesh" (reminding us of the Word become Flesh!), "he offered prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears." We think Gethsemane. But I'm positive Jesus cried aloud in his prayers quite often, and the disciples overheard and were moved or puzzled. "What wondrous love is this?"

John 12:20-33. I heard a whole sermon once that played on what these guys said to Philip: "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Your whole life is wishing to see Jesus. Even when you think you're searching for something else. We help our listeners to clarify that wish, as we get glimpses of the Jesus of our wishful thinking, the fake Jesus recreated in our image.

Philip doesn't just point the way or say He's over that hill somewhere. He tells Andrew, and the two of them together find Jesus. Something about community – and making the journey with the seeker in this. The detail of Bethsaida matters. Jesus and the disciples start to look like pastel characters in some wispy distance – but they lived in a real place, it's been excavated, they found fishing hooks on the floors of houses. {Although now it's contested, two sites arguing which is the right Bethsaida - which is lovely: not 2 spiritualized locales or 0 real places, but two real places!}

John echoes Paul – or did Paul echo John? – on the grain of wheat falling into the ground, "dying," then rising. God works in the dark, in what seems unlikely, while you're sleeping, slowly but surely. He wasn't about self-protection or security, and if we follow him closely, we aren't about our self-protection or security either. The voice from heaven echoes the Synoptics at Jesus' Baptism. Funny these linkages across Scripture! The crowd, unaccustomed as we are to hearing God's voice from heaven, though it had thundered. Is it just too much to suggest to people, as we think of Noah's ark when we see a rainbow, that if you hear thunder, you might detect God's voice loving on Jesus and calling us to the glory that is suffering?

"When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself." Of course, when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, people fled; even his closest friends abandoned him. And yet, embracing and living into (dying into!) that abandonment, Jesus began to draw the world. Do you know the medieval poem, The Dream of the Rood? "I was a sapling by the edge of the woods. One day men cut me down, staked me up, and brought the young hero, nailing him to my branches. I trembled under his weight; his sweat and blood-soaked into me. Later, they threw me into a pit. But then others found me and adorned me with gold and jewels. Now people look up to me seeking healing and hope."

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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