Somehow we have already made it to the fifth Sunday in Lent. As that means next week brings Palm Sunday and all of Holy Week leading into Easter, this preaching commentary will take a couple weeks off. Instead of lifting up stewardship pieces for Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, I invite you to boldly proclaim the story as it comes to us. I think this past year, given all that we have been through, a good focus on the story is really what we need. Place an emphasis first on Palm Sunday on the joyful and triumphant entry. Then with Maundy Thursday dig into what love really looks like and means through acts of deep and passionate service, and through the sharing of a meal.
From there, give space to sit with the acts of betrayal, despair, and with Good Friday, those of broken systems and injustice, and ultimately the dashed hopes and dreams that come with the loss we know in death. Give space for Holy Saturday to hold vigil. To remember all that God has done, and the saving acts of God we proclaim. And then, really dig into the resurrection story and hope of life out of death. Together, with the whole passion narrative, it might just be what we all need now, in order to work through our own grief, despair, and help find and articulate hope in our own lives and communities, given all that we have been through this past year of pandemic.
But that’s for next week. There’s still this Sunday to journey through. With that in mind, this week’s stewardship and discipleship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday in Lent are as follows:
The Lenten journey towards the passion continues, including with a summation of the covenant promises of God as prophesied by Jeremiah. The psalmist calls us to repent, and ask God to “create in us clean hearts.” And the gospel writer gives us passion predictions, and a reminder of the theme that will be expanded upon in the story and liturgy of Maundy Thursday- of service, and following the ways of Christ. (You’ll notice I am skipping the alternate Psalm 119 and Hebrews 5 texts this week. They are perfectly fine texts, but in terms of stewardship and discipleship, they didn’t excite me this week for whatever reason. But if you feel moved to preach on them, I say ‘go for it.’)
Let’s start by looking at the first lesson from Jeremiah 31. We read, “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” (Jeremiah 31:31-34, NRSV).
I always find this passage so ominous, yet so reassuring. I imagine it beginning with a sort of deep voice, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” But it continues immediately with good news, “when I will make a new covenant…” God is the one doing the acting here. God will be making a new promise. God will be doing a new thing. God will put God’s law in us and write in on our hearts. And as Jeremiah gives voice to the Lord, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God does not abandon God’s own. God will be with God’s people. There will be restoration and reconciliation. This is indeed, good news. For God will forgive iniquities and remember the people’s sin, no more. There will be the forgiveness of sin. This is again, good news. It’s a reminder of all that God will do, has done, and continues to do for all of God’s children and creation.
God is the one acting, not us. We could never earn this or deserve any of this. And it’s for this very reason, that all we can do is seek that forgiveness, and share in the joy and gratitude of it through living lives of service and gratitude through all that we do as disciples and stewards. We can’t help, when caught up in gratitude and joy, but be so moved that we have to share in the Good News of who God is and what God has done, for us. That’s indeed what propels us into our work as stewards and our learning and growth and service as disciples. But we have to remember- it comes in that order. God does the work, and then we respond.
God does the work, and perhaps God invites us into being part of that work. But we, of course, are not God. So there are times, when we will get it wrong. And that’s where the psalmist offers us words to confess and profess with. The psalmist prays, “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 51:1-12, NRSV).
When we turn toward God, we acknowledge our shortcomings and failings. But we also acknowledge who we believe God to be, God who is rich and abundant in mercy and who has steadfast love. That’s who we believe God is, and who we know God to be. And because of that, we can pray and sing with hope like the psalmist that awe will “hear joy and gladness,” and “rejoice.” It’s also why we ask God to “create in me a clean heart,” “and put a new and right spirit within me.” Like we might sing or proclaim in the liturgy often following the reception of gifts during the offering, we are asking God to be with us, to use us, to fill us, and to change us. We are asking God, “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me,” but asking God to be with us, always. Through that presence, we trust that God will indeed “restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.” For it is God who fills us, calls us, invites us and guides us, and works through us- to share God’s love with the whole world.
The question is- will we witness and see it when God’s work is being done? Will we even allow it to happen, to have our heart opened and our spirit moved to be a part of God’s work in the world? Or will we be so closed off in our own heads and lives, that we might miss our very neighbor in need right in front of us? God invites us to be in relationship with God and one another, and through that relationship the joy of God’s salvation is real. But there is a fair question, will we have a willing spirit to receive it and respond to it? I think that might be on Jesus’ mind too as he is so close to entering into Jerusalem and beginning all of the events and experiences of the passion.
Jesus is using these last moments before Jerusalem to continue to teach, to offer a passion prediction or two, and to connect the dots between service and following, and even perhaps between stewardship and discipleship. We pick up John 12 with verse 20. “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” (John 12:20-26, NRSV).
There’s a passion prediction or two in this, obviously. But I am drawn today more to the words about how “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it…” It’s a bit different than the way we heard these words a few weeks ago. And it connects then with the next sentence, “Whoever serves me must follow me…” There’s a connection to be made between service and discipleship. There’s a connection that needs to be reflected upon and made, between what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Our service is not our service alone. When it’s a response to God’s love, and the needs of our neighbors, it’s good, but it’s not just that. It’s holy work. It’s arguably even God in Christ showing up in the world through our very hands, feet, hearts, minds, souls, and selves. In serving our neighbors, we are serving Christ. And to this Jesus even says, “Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” I wouldn’t dwell too long here. This isn’t a works righteousness thing. But it is an opportunity to again connect the dots between why we do what we do, and the larger orientation of our response that Jeremiah and the psalmist make clear this week. The response that is us- turning to God, and then being reoriented for the sake of our neighbors in the world, being God’s disciples and stewards of God’s love here and now.
The gospel lesson for this week continues with Jesus taking some more time to think about what lies ahead and to hear once more from God as a sort of affirmation of what is to come. Jesus admits, “‘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 judgement 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” (John 12:27-33, NRSV).
There’s yet more passion predictions here. Good Lenten themes to focus on. But in terms of discipleship and stewardship, I’m drawn to the last verse. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” God in Christ will draw all people to God’s self. That’s a big time thing that is about to happen. God will bring all of God’s beloved together. That might sound terrifying, insane, or impossible. But in times like these of pandemic, anxiety, uncertainty, polarization, and division, I find them hopeful. For there is so much more that we have in common than what separates us as God’s people. Namely- we are all God’s children. Full stop. Perhaps that’s an important point to make.
The acts of the cross are not the acts of God for a few. They are the work of God for ALL of God’s beloved. All means all. No ifs and or buts. No exclusions. This is the foretelling of the complete inclusivity of God, and the same call to be welcoming and loving- aware of all- and with special emphasis on where we fall short of welcoming all so that we might be aware of those points, and then be so moved to respond and correct our shortcomings. Where we might be made aware, and move from awareness to justice for all of God’s beloved. We get into trouble when we think the promises of the cross and resurrection are for us or a select few. We arguably miss the point entirely. For these acts aren’t just for us- they are for all of God’s people. And that is yet another sign of just how deep God’s love is, and how big a vision God has for all of us and all of creation. A vision that we each see a glimpse of, and which we all get to be a part of in some ways through our lives and vocations, through the ways we live and serve and show up as visible and tangible signs of God’s love in the world today.
The narrative in Luke draws closer to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem this week. But before we get there, there will be at least one more act of healing, and one more stop for conversation and a meal with a sinner who society has deemed unworthy to associate with. But these are yet further reminders of the purpose of God in Christ, and why he has come into the world. Jesus has come to seek and save the lost and the lowly. And that he does in this week’s stories to be sure.
We pick up this week in Luke 18, with verse 31, where Jesus offers a passion prediction which kind of frames the service and acts of love and healing that follow this. We read, “Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’ But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (Luke 18:31-34, NRSV).
The disciples still haven’t figured out what is to come. Maybe a healing act will help? Who are we kidding- the feeding of thousands, and the raising of the dead Lazarus haven’t yet made them fully aware. They have no idea what lies ahead in a matter of days and hours. But they continue to follow as the disciples. And as they do Jesus and them find themselves approaching Jericho.
“As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God” (Luke 18:35-43, NRSV).
A blind man who had never seen Jesus, called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This blind man believed in Jesus. He believed that God was at work in him, and God was with him. He wanted to see. Why? To live life fully I suspect, especially in a world that ostracized any and all who might not be able to see, act, walk, and stand fully upright. But he didn’t want to see just for himself. He asks Jesus for grace and mercy. And Jesus responds by saying, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.”
But what I find remarkable about this story- is that God in Christ is doing what God in Christ does, saving work that only God can do. But the man who regains his sight, doesn’t just say thank you and go on his way. The story makes clear, he follows Jesus and glorifies God. The man becomes not just a believer, as he clearly already was one, but he becomes a disciple, through whom the Good News of God is no doubt proclaimed and heard. The man who now sees, becomes an active steward and disciple, who through his very being gives thanks and praise to God and tells of all that God has done. And when others witness him and this, they too, will give thanks and praise. The healed man is a walking and talking example of being so swept up in God’s work, that he can’t help but be a part of it in some way- through giving thanks and praise to God, and responding to God through serving and living in joy and gratitude.
But wait, there’s more. This all leads directly into Jesus’ reason for going to Jericho. He’s looking for a “wee little man” who will have to climb a sycamore tree to see him. Yes, you probably know the Sunday School story and song well about this one. But let’s dwell in it a little more. “He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’” (Luke 19:1-10, NRSV).
“The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” What a declaration. This is why, at least in part, Jesus does what he does. In witnessing God coming near, Zacchaeus is so moved, that he repents and turns towards God. He not only receives and welcomes Jesus, he responds by giving up half of his stuff and giving it to those in need. He responds too, by confessing any sins committed through usury, injustice, and fraud and declaring that he will make amends by paying back four times as much as he robbed (whether directly robbed, or more likely profited through a broken economic system by legal but immoral means).
Zacchaeus has changed. God showing up, has changed Zacchaeus’ mind, heart, soul, and priorities. And this change is very much an act of salvation. He has received and accepted new life, knowing that he has been changed by the one who has come to his house. And for this, Jesus gives praise, and declares as he does that “salvation has come to this house.” We likely won’t ever have such a dramatic meeting with Jesus himself, but, for every time some one in need comes near, might we always have the impulse and wisdom to be like Zacchaeus to go and see, to welcome the stranger, and to respond to their needs. For God in Christ will always be with the one in need, and we, because of God, will have all that we need entrusted to us, to meet our neighbor’s needs as bearers of God’s abundance and abundant love.
What ever the story(s) that catches your eye and imagination this week, may you sense in some new and wonderful way God’s love being shown through it, and God’s work being done. May you point to the promises of God for God’s people through it, and through your work and preaching this week. And may God’s love be with you, and be made real for you and through you. And may this be especially true too through the weeks ahead, from Lent 5 to Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday.