The Fifth Sunday in Lent
21 March 2021
To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
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 judgement.
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.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
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.
Hebrews 5: 5-10
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you’;
as he says also in another place,
‘You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.’
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
John 12: 20-33
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 honour.
‘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.
"I will write it on their hearts, I will be their God and they shall be my people."
Our Lenten journey now takes us into Passiontide, and the culmination of Jesus' life on earth. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tries to explain the significance of these events to a Jewish-Christian readership. Many theologians think the epistle was written about 70-80 AD. For a modern person, the explanation in Hebrews is difficult. The writer draws out the differences between Jesus and a High Priest at the annual festival of the Atonement. The latter is beyond our comprehension or experience. Even if we know that the high priest used to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the temple behind the veil, only on this one occasion of the year, and took in blood that signifies the spirit of life to present to the Lord, it is hard for us to see how that in itself absolved the people from their universally fallen nature.
The writer of Hebrews, however, is steeped in the Old Testament and quotes from it with great effect and precision. Our reading from Jeremiah is a case in point (Jeremiah has been our Lectionary reading day by day throughout Lent this year). Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldean forces are set to destroy Israel and Judah. Actions have inescapable consequences, and the greatest crime of the Jews has been to follow local Canaanite rituals that include sacrifice to Baal (children thrown into a furnace). The love of the one true God has been compromised, and the nation will not be defended for these acts of violence. It is painful reading, not least for us at the present time of trouble with pandemic, climate collapse and violence in society. We know all too well that the problems of the world are a consequence of all the small injustices that we contribute. These build up until we are shocked by their headline-grabbing effect, and look for someone to blame.
In spite of all the doom, in today's reading Jeremiah is able to see a new world order, almost six centuries before the life of our Lord. The former covenant between God and his people had been conditional. Obey the rules (acknowledge God before all things), and all would go well. Specifically, the people will have a place to call home, a land flowing with milk and honey. Disregard the gracious offer and we are on our own.
Jeremiah sees that the old conditional agreement fails to express the overwhelming agony of God for his people. His compassion and love need expression far beyond the former agreement. A new covenant will need to be non-conditional. It is still the case that his children are not automatons but created in his image. How better to express it than "I will put my law in their mind, I will write it on their hearts. they shall be my people". So crucial is this section from Jeremiah that the writer of Hebrews repeats it almost verbatim a bit later in Hebrews 8: 8-13.
Humans are deeply interested and affected by altruism, but we are not that good at it. Almost every action, however well-meaning, can be seen as either enlightened self interest (try reading Albert Camus' novels to puncture any lingering doubts) or simply a biological function of a socially adapted species. Passiontide shows us that God does not have these constraints. Jesus holds out unconditional love and compassion for all the world even though he is universally ignored or rejected by humanity as a whole and by the specific people he encountered on his human journey in the passion story. Our rejection of Him is the proof of his altruism. He invites us to participate in his work of love and reconciliation too. Believing in the light of his passion, our prayers for the remaining days of Lent might be for the Lord to "write a new law in our hearts and minds"; the next act in our creation that frees us from self-interest and opens up the possibility in us of unconditional compassion for the world.
 E.O Wilson. The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright Publishing, New York, London. 2012.
Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection
of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him
who suffered on the cross
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
you gave up your Son
out of love for the world:
lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion,
that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood,
Jesus Christ our Lord.