Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah proclaimed a new covenant between God and the House of Israel. But it will not be like the covenant promised to Moses after their escape from Egypt that was broken. This new covenant will be written “on their hearts. Then I will be their God and they shall be my people. There will be no further need for neighbor to try to teach neighbor.” John’s Gospel consists primarily of speech given to Greeks who came to Jerusalem at the Passover. Jesus told them that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” He talked about how a grain that falls on the ground must die to reach a rich harvest. “By these words he indicated the kind of death he would die.”
When we think about a new covenant replacing and older covenant we naturally assume that this happens because the people satisfied the old covenant and were being promoted. If you pass all the requirements for 3rd grade you are promoted to 4th grade where you will be asked to perform more difficult duties.
But that’s not what happened to our ancestors. In Exodus, shortly after their escape from slavery, God made a covenant with Moses which we now recognize as the 10 Commandments. This covenant required obedience to these Commandments. If the people followed them they would prosper, and if they didn’t they would die.
So here’s the problem: they really didn’t follow these commandments. They weren’t obedient. They worshiped false gods, they ignored God’s rules, and they lived for themselves. And for this they were exiled in Babylon and their Temple was destroyed. Earlier in Jeremiah he warned the people that they were in peril of being destroyed.
Yet after their epic failure and exile God did not destroy them or abandon them. God broke his own rule. Instead he proclaimed a new covenant whose generosity should take our breath away. Instead of keeping them in 3rd grade and demanding that they take another crack at obedience, he promoted them to 5th grade. God writes this new covenant not on tablets, but on our hearts.
This is amazing in what it means for us. When we have children we certainly love them, and (to their capacity) they love us. And for the first several years of their lives we expect obedience. We expect that they will follow the rules we set for them. As they show us their ability to understand and follow our rules, we gradually move away from these rules (e.g. by high school most children can set their own bedtime knowing that if they blow they will suffer the consequences the next morning in school).
Eventually they mature enough (as they become adults) to move beyond obedience to faithfulness. As adults when we think about our relationships, particularly with our parents and spouses, our decisions are not based on what they demand of us but are instead based on how we express our love and faithfulness.
For God to give that to us in Jeremiah shows us just how much God’s justice exists not apart from his love but within it. It shows us how much God trusts us, even when we fail.
It also shows how much God does not care about the rules we make for each other apart from that love.
Our Gospel reading takes place during Passover. Like today there were a myriad of rules governing the celebration. By the time of Jesus Jews lived not only in Jerusalem but in much of the surrounding territory (Jesus himself was from Nazareth). Many of them flocked to Jerusalem, the city became incredibly crowded and it’s hard to imagine anyone who wasn’t a Jew would find any reason to come to Jerusalem.
And yet our Gospel begins by talking about “some Greeks” who came to worship and asked to see Jesus. John uses the term “Greeks” not because they were from Greece but because they were not Jews. In other contexts they were known as “God fearers.” They weren’t prepared to convert to Judaism but they found the practice and beliefs of Judaism interesting.
They also found Jesus interesting and asked to see him. It’s not clear what the Jews thought of these Greeks and I suspect they gave little thought to them. But Jesus took them very seriously. His speech in John’s Gospel foretells not only Jesus’ journey but ours also.
In coded language, that makes more sense to us than it did to them, Jesus talks about how he will be “lifted up” and that will draw all of us to him. He is talking about nothing short of our salvation through him. His listeners could be excused for not fully understanding what he meant by words like “glorified” or what the clap of thunder meant, but we do.
Last week we read the iconic phrase that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that through him the world might be saved.”
Much of Lent calls us to recognize our need to repent and “get back on track” in our faith life. That’s certainly true but sometimes we can focus too much on our unworthiness. Today’s readings remind us that God does not see us as disobedient or even incomplete children, but of a creation that he loves beyond our ability to understand.
In a few weeks we will celebrate Easter, also something we cannot fully understand. So let’s not try to understand it, but simply embrace it. The fact that our ancestors didn’t fully pass the obedience test with the 10 Commandments didn’t end our story and it should remind us never to put limits on God’s love and mercy.
Instead let us celebrate the fact that God has written his covenant on our hearts.