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Reprogramming Software

April 6, 2003, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33;

For the last week or so, the computer in my study has been locking up, generally when I have had about six programs open, drafting or searching for something. I would turn away from the screen to answer a question or respond to a phone call and when I returned to the screen, all was frozen in place. "Reboot!" was the word from the systems administrator. And so I would, impatiently enduring the inevitable wait until the log-on box reappeared on my screen--it always seems more like hours than minutes--hoping that the back-up document contained my latest changes. Usually, it had not. I know, save more often. The lock-ups were especially maddening during staff Bible study when using a program to search out a biblical text, word, alternate translation, or complimentary text. In the excitement of the discussion or the pursuit of an idea, all fell silent while I re-booted. But soon it was clear, re-booting was not enough. The systems administrator's first solution was to remove and reload all the software. But still the problem endured, often, even more persistently. "I think the software itself may be faulty," grumbled our frustrated administrator. "Does it need to be reprogrammed?" I asked. "It can't," he said scowling. "It needs to be thrown out. We will have to start over." Reading our first lesson for today I find myself marveling that God has not chosen the same solution to-- throw us out. In spite of our glitches and shut downs--those moments when we freeze and lock-out. God promises to reprogram our software.

Today's lesson appears in the midst of Jeremiah's tenacious prophecies warnings that God's judgment is falling upon the people because of their faithlessness. In the midst of war, he has dared to name the war God's judgment on Israel. He has named Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem God's will, and proclaimed that the Babylonians will ultimately be victorious because God is sending them into exile as punishment. You can imagine the hate-mail and phone calls Jeremiah got for that sermon! He was dragging politics into religion. So said the king who had Jeremiah put under house arrest by the court guard. Kings could invoke God's name for their projects but prophets were to speak of only spiritual matters when they disagreed with the king or public sentiment. There was a longing for separation between church and state even them.

But the exile began. Soon the temple was destroyed and the city sacked. God had torn down his dwelling place among them. Was God abandoning them forever? So it seemed. Was the covenant over? Had God thrown them out forever? Was there a future beyond Baghdad, or was this God's final word to them? To this turmoil and suffering, in this crisis and transition, Jeremiah speaks another word--one of consolation--God promises a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah.

This is the only place in Hebrew scriptures where the word "new" appears in relation to the word "covenant." Covenant in other places most often refers to the relationships God established with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, and most especially the relationship God forged with the people at Sinai.1 Whenever that Sinai covenant had been broken, it was followed by covenant renewal--Moses at Moab, Joshua at Shechem, and Samuel when the people finally got their king.2 But Jeremiah is not speaking of covenant renewal. That can and will be broken again. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant--one unlike the former. Yet, if you look closely at the shape of the promise Jeremiah announces, it still incorporates God's torah, it still promises an intimate relationship between God and God's people, it still promises knowledge of God for everyone in the covenant community, from the least to the greatest.3 All of that was promised at Sinai. So what is so new about this covenant Jeremiah announces?

Sinai was written on tables of stone, leading to lock-ups, lock-outs, and all the consequences of living in separation from God. The new covenant will be written on flesh--inscribed on the center of human volition and will--the human heart.4 The bearers of this covenant will not only know what it means to be God's covenant people in the world, they will actually behave that way. God will not throw them out because of their defects and replace them with another people--remember, the church has been grafted into this covenant people, not replaced them; supersessionism is a heresy the Bible rejects--God will reprogram his people. Ezekiel, the prophet of the exile, will describe it this way, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."5 What is new about this covenant is God's promise to remake, reprogram their software, so that God's ways are placed in their hearts rather than inscribed on stone, so that they know the Lord so well they live with and for the Lord in faithful obedience. But the fulfillment of this promise lay beyond exile and its suffering, just as the fulfillment of Jesus purpose as exalted son and Lord lay beyond his own exile, suffering, and death.

In today's gospel lesson, Jesus' public ministry comes to a close. Hearing that the Greeks are seeking him, Jesus announces his long awaited hour of glorification is at hand. But it leads through suffering and death. "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."

Now had Jesus stopped there, you and I would be comfortable. He does the work, we bear the benefit. But Jesus doesn't stop there. He continues with these un-nerving words: "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..."

We hear these words and instinctively object, "But you were the Son of God, the God-man, you knew your mission and what it meant. You had a greater capacity for faithfulness than we have." It is, of course, an argument designed to make excuses and exceptions for our own faithlessness. We tell ourselves that Jesus was different, that he didn't feel the pain of suffering as we would, that losing life for him was not as costly as it would be for us, that he had less to lose than we do, knew what the ultimate outcome would be, or had more resources to empower him to faithfulness than we have.

The letter to the Hebrews challenges us and our excuses by telling us that he suffered just as we suffer. He identified fully with our humanity, was like us in all things, and himself objected, offering prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, but who did not.6 For though he was the Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered and through that obedience he was made perfect. He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.7

When the text says "he was made perfect" it was not suggesting that through his suffering he was somehow being purged of what otherwise would keep him from perfection. I have heard people suggest that such suffering is a purgation necessary, if not for him, certainly for us, if we are to be suitable for life with God in eternity. Of the many things wrong with that argument, the first is, it is based on a false understanding of what the word "perfect" means here. As J.C. Austin reminded us in Bible study this last Tuesday, when the word perfect appears in the New Testament, it almost always is the Greek word which means "coming to fulfillment," as in to perfect.8 When Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, he is telling us to follow the path of faithfulness that will enable us to fulfill the very purpose for which we have been given life.9 To fulfill your purpose in life is to be perfect. It was through his suffering and obedience that Jesus fulfilled the purpose for which he had come, to be the pioneer of salvation. When his hour came he was up to it, not because of any particular inner strength, or faith different than what has been given to you or to me. He was up to that hour, not because he trusted himself, nor even his faith. He was up to it because he trusted God alone. In doing so, he blazed a path for you and for me to follow, the path that leads to salvation. There is a way through death to resurrection, and it has to do with trusting the power of God to sustain us on the path that he has blazed before us.

But there is one more word for us in these texts this morning. Jesus not only blazed a path of obedience for us to follow, he remains present to empower us to walk that path ourselves that we may follow him now. His hour did come, and he was up to it. The seed of his life did fall into the ground and die. Jesus brought his sacrificial life to its perfected purpose. He took the worst evil had to offer and absorbed it by trusting God. And so God glorified his name once again with this thunderous news--God raised Jesus beyond death's reach as the glorified and exalted Christ.10 Consequently, he is more than the Jesus of history. He is eternally present now through his word, through God's Spirit, to believers anywhere, present to empower us to faithfulness and draw us to himself.

When we freeze, lock-up and lock-out, God does not download us, throw us out and go looking for a better version. God re-programs the software of our lives. Seated at the right hand of his Father, the risen Lord writes his word on our hearts that we might know him. He joins us in our fears, our hesitations, our moments of faithlessness, to re-write and transform them. You think not? Do you remember the hapless twelve who betrayed and rejected him during his life? What happened to them after his resurrection? Each would lose their life following him, all but one dying a martyr. What was it that changed them? Certainly not that they had seen him alive again. What changed them was what has changed the countless others over the centuries who did not see him, but who opened themselves to following him and found life in losing it to and for him. He entered their lives to write God's covenant promises at the very center of their wills--their heart, soul, mind and strength--and lead them into faithfulness.

For five weeks of Lent we have focused on our own lives, and been reminded of our frailty. As one of you said to me recently, "I know what Jesus wants of me, I just can't do it." If you can relate to that as I certainly can, then hear this good news. Jesus brought to completion the work for which he was sent. He not only blazed a path as the pioneer of salvation, in doing so he became savior as well as Lord. He has the power to reprogram the software of our lives, so that you and I can know God, so you and I can be God's people. And in that moment when you and I would falter, he brings us to perfection as well, drawing us to himself eternally. As the new covenant promises, he has power to forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.11

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

  1. The covenants with Noah and David are unconditional, where are the others are contingent on the people's behavior. Even the covenant with Abraham is preconditioned by the command "Go from your country and your kindred..." Gen 12:1; cf. 2 Samuel 7:1-29.
  2. Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20; Joshua 24:1-8; 1 Samuel 12:1-25.
  3. See Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching--Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), pp. 231f. Brueggemann argues that this is not absolutely new (italics are his), but "permits the thought that this is the old covenant drastically renewed."
  4. In Hebraic thought, the heart is the center of volition not emotions. The emotional center is in the bowels--the gut!
  5. Ezekiel 36:26, NIV.
  6. Hebrews 4:15; 5:7-8.
  7. Hebrews 5:9b.
  8. The word is teleioo, meaning complete, fulfill, bring to completion, bring to its intended end, as in to perfect.
  9. Matthew 5:48.
  10. Philippians 2:5-11, especially verses 9ff.
  11. Jeremiah 31:34c.

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