3/25/2012 sermon: We live in hope

Location: St. Andrew’s Burke, VA
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
5Lent, Year B

We live in hope

Today is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and next Sunday is Palm Sunday. So I have to ask: How are you doing with Lent?

A few weeks ago, on the First Sunday in Lent, I suggested that one of our Lenten tasks is to confront the reality of our mortality, the reality that we are going to die to this life as we know it. Today, in the waning days of Lent, I want to suggest that there is a harder Lenten task that we should now be prepared to tackle: the need to live life in the here and now, to live in hope.

The movie that we saw two weeks ago as part of our Lenten series, a movie called “The Way,” seemed to advocate that we need to live life. Its main premise is this: “You don’t choose a life… you live one.” This is the line the son character, played by Emilio Estevez, said to his staid father Martin Sheen as the son dropped out of graduate school and set out on a quest to see the world. “You don’t choose a life… you live one.”

On the surface, the premise of this movie seems to be true. The reality of the matter is that none of us—to our knowledge—chooses to be born. That decision was made for us by God and by the actions of our parents. By someone else’s choice we are born. In this way we don’t choose a life.

At some point, though, either consciously or unconsciously, we do choose a life, the choice becomes our own. And this, I think, was the larger point of the movie: We either choose to embrace life and let life fill us so that we live in hope, OR we choose to try to control every aspect of life so that there is no life, really, no hope within us. In spiritual terms we say this a different way. We say that the choice is this: to let the Holy Spirit blow through our reality and radically transform our life, OR to be dead to life through the choices we make that separate us from God, and thus separate us from life itself. Our culture has another way of putting it: “Are we living life, or are we among the walking dead?”

Which will you choose? Because you are here today, I suspect that you have chosem to live in hope. The basis for that hope is found in today’s scripture lessons. In the Jeremiah reading God promises a new contract between humanity and our creator. Jeremiah calls us to repentance for failing to live up to our end of our contract with our maker, and Jeremiah gives us hope that we can fulfill our contract with God in the future.

“Wait a minute!” you might say, “What contract with our maker?”

The contract of life is this: We are given the gift of life. That gift is free, and freely given. The contract with our creator is that God will care for us and that we can have a relationship with God. When we forget or deny that we are created, by definition we break the contract. When we ignore the existence of our creator, we break the contract. When we go our own way, and live only for ourselves—become part of the walking dead—we break the contract.

God observed that, despite all that God has done for us—including giving us the very gift of life itself—we human beings, by ourselves, are unable to remain faithful to God. God lived up to the divine side of the contract, but we mortals just can’t seem to do our part.

I learned this lesson as a child—that we cannot alone reach God; instead, we need God’s help. My father was a fundamentalist minister, and each summer we would attend “camp-meeting.” At camp-meeting people from around their version of the diocese would attend church services three times a day. Each and every one of these service had an altar call. For those who don’t know what an altar call is, an altar call is when people are invited to come to the altar to receive Jesus and let Jesus transform their lives. At a Methodist altar call people come to the altar and pray with you. This is how it was that each summer a whole bunch of people would join me at the altar and pray for the very thing that is mentioned in today’s Psalm, “O Lord, create in this child a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within her.” And, when I prayed that prayer, too, each time it felt like I received a “heart-washing.” Then life would go on as usual and slowly over time I would discover that no matter how hard I tried, I slipped back into my old ways. So this is how it is that I can tell you how long, as a rule, a clean heart lasts when we try to keep our heart clean on our own: my record was three-and-a-half weeks.

The truly amazing thing is what God does in response to our inability to keep our part of the contract. Is God vengeful? No! God is merciful. Instead of justice, instead of giving us what we deserve, God promises a new contract where God will perform both sides of the agreement. God will be God, and God will help us to live in hope. Jeremiah says it this way:

“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. … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

The idea here is that sin—the choices we make that keep us apart from God—leads us down a path of death. A choice against sin is a choice for life, a choice to live in hope of life eternal, a choice that God helps us to make.

The prophet Jeremiah knew something about both sin and hope. He lived during a time of major upheaval in the land, a time when sin was abundant and hope was in very short supply. The great and brutal kingdom of Assyria was in decline and the other two superpowers, Babylon and Egypt, were fighting for domination of the region. The tiny and strategically located kingdom of Judah was smack dab in the middle of all three, and things were not going well for God’s people. In the end, the people would see the destruction of Jerusalem and the ejection of many of their leaders and citizens out of the Promised Land into exile in Babylon. The questions foremost in the minds of the people were why it was that God had allowed great calamity to befall them, and how could they be restored to their land. (In other words, “Why me?” and “How long?”) What they lacked was hope.

Jeremiah spoke to the root condition of Judah’s conquest. Instead of speaking about superpowers and politics and military might—the things that he might have been expected to talk about to explain why Judah was in exile—he talked about a broken contact between God’s people and God. He talked about how, time after time, God’s people had forgotten God or turned their backs on God. And in the very middle of this diagnosis, Jeremiah offered the word that God had given him, and it was one of hope. You can’t keep the contract? Then, God says, I will perform BOTH sides, I will do my part and I will help you do your part.

The questions that the people of Judah asked when they were in exile in Babylon are similar to the ones that we ask today when calamity comes knocking on OUR doors. Like them, we ask, “Why me, O Lord?” and “How long?”

In a way, as human as it is to ask these questions, they are the wrong ones to ask. In chapter 29 Jeremiah had written a letter to the exiles in Babylon. In the letter Jeremiah told the people that God wanted them to live in exile for awhile. They were to build houses, plant gardens, have children, get married, seek the welfare of their captors—even pray to the Lord on their enemy’s behalf! In other words, calamities are a part of life. And instead of looking back, we should repent and look forward in hope. “The days are surely coming,” God said, when a new reality will exist.

As Christians we interpret the Jeremiah 31 passage in today’s lesson as the foretelling of the coming of Jesus Christ, who by his life, death, and resurrection established the New Covenant that God had promised. And the New Covenant is not an over-and-done thing, not a one-time event; our eternal hope is found in Christ Jesus, who will come again.

Each week, during the institution of the Eucharist, we hear the words that Jesus used at the first Eucharist, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this for the remembrance of me.” And each week we Episcopalians participate in our own version of an altar call, by repenting of our sins and coming to the altar to accept Jesus and allow his Spirit to transform our lives. And so it is that each week we renew our hope.

Who are we? We are Christ’s own people, and we live in hope.

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