Sunday, March 22, 2015

Phil Kniss: What God forgot

Lent 5: Letting the seed coats decay
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-2, 7-12; John 12:20-33

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In our walk through the Old Testament during Lent, Year B,
    from Ash Wednesday, on the way to Easter Sunday,
    our pathway can be traced, looking back,
        by what we left lying along the road.
    Like the trail of broken breadcrumbs,
        dropped by Hansel and Gretel,
        our path, over the last five weeks,
            is marked by all the broken covenants
            scattered along the roadside.

Covenant is a major theme of Lent
    during this second year in the cycle.
    We started out with the covenant with Noah:
        the promise God made to all creation,
        never to destroy the earth again
            (after which, of course, Noah behaved badly).

    Second, there was a covenant with Abraham,
        although we just barely mentioned that one this year,
        due to being snowed out one Sunday.
        We could spend all morning listing the ways
            Abraham, his children, and grandchildren,
                engaged in all sorts of evil,
                including lying, manipulation, and murder.
    Third, was the covenant with all the Israelites at Mt. Sinai,
        when God gave them the law on tablets of stone . . .
        (twice, actually, because the first ones got smashed in anger,
            when the people bowed down to worship a golden calf.

    Last Sunday, we had what you might call a “covenant for healing,”
        when God told Moses to lift a bronze serpent up on a pole.
        Later, that same pole was smashed into pieces by King Hezekiah
            because the people started to worship it as a god.

Now, today, on the fifth Sunday of Lent,
    we are told of a whole new covenant.
    It’s a covenant written on the heart.
        Ah, this one will be different than the rest.

Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah,
    God announces that a new covenant is coming—
        “is surely coming, says the Lord,” chap. 31, v. 31.
    And this new covenant is examined and compared
        to the covenant at Mt. Sinai.
        It does not, ultimately, undo the Sinai covenant.
        It enhances it.

At Sinai, the covenant was written on stones,
    and it was broken—literally and figuratively—
        because it was external to them.
        It was handed down to them.
        It had to be taught, by rote.
            “Learn this, people.”
    Or as Jeremiah described it,
        “[They had to] teach one another, or say to each other,
            Know the Lord.” (v. 34)
    By contrast, the covenant to come will be written internally,
        on the heart.
    For people of the new covenant,
        knowledge of God, and of God’s covenant,
            will be part of their nature.
        They won’t need to be taught in the same way, Jeremiah says,
            because they already have it in them,
            from the youngest to oldest, the least to greatest.
            They will know the Lord, by nature.

Now, that gives us something to chew on.
    What does the prophet mean,
        that we will know Yahweh, by nature?
    And he uses that word, this named God Yahweh, this one God,
        humankind will know this God by nature.
    We Christians usually read this text from the Jesus perspective.
        And rightly so.
        Jesus did come proclaiming a new covenant.
            He preached a new way of life in the kingdom of God:
                “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you.”
            That new covenant was sealed
                by his suffering, death, and resurrection,
                which we’ll be celebrating over the next few weeks.
        And this new covenant is still with us through the Spirit
            that Jesus promised would dwell in us,
                and in communities of the Spirit.

        So I guess we could look at this text and say,
            Jesus fulfilled this covenant. We’re in it now.

            We do experience a bit
                of the internal dynamic of this covenant,
                because of the Spirit of Jesus in us,
                    making the covenant live,
                    making it sustainable.
        But who of us would claim, when it comes to knowing God,
            we’ve finally nailed it?
        Who is willing to say we no longer need to teach?
            The evidence says otherwise.
            We do not all, from the least to the greatest,
                “know the Lord.”
            We are not beyond the need for being taught.

No, there has to be another explanation.
    What did Jeremiah really mean?
        What kind of covenant does not need to be taught?

I think we have to go all the way back to Genesis 3.
    The Fall.
    Ever since humankind fell into the sin of self-orientation,
        and turned away from God,
        God has been waiting for, and working for, our return.
    That’s what we’ve been looking at these first four Sundays of Lent.
        Covenant after covenant, God reaches for us.
    These covenants have not reached their full potential
        because of our failure to find a way to flourish within them.
    Sin keeps pulling us back,
        away from the life God has in mind.

Jeremiah, is prophesying about a restoration
    of how it was in the beginning,
    when all of creation was in harmony with itself, and its Creator.
    Jeremiah is prophesying a renewed consciousness . . .
        renewed will . . .
        renewed passions.
    And this will be nothing other than a gift of God.
        It’s not something we make happen.

Look again at v. 34. The Lord says,
    “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest . . .
        for I will forgive their iniquity,
        and remember their sin no more.”
    It is God’s forgiveness that results in the knowing.
        “They shall know me . . . for I will forgive them.”
    That is a critical 3-letter word:  “for” . . . meaning “because.”

    It is because God forgives us, that we are able to know God.
        God’s forgiveness comes first.
        We seem to think it’s the other way around.
        We think we have to learn enough about God,
            muster enough belief and faith in God,
            so that we can say the right words to God,
            and present ourselves before God in the right manner,
            so that because of our humble, penitent, approach of faith,
                God will then . . . forgive us.
        That’s not what Jeremiah 31 says.
        God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and forget their sins . . .
            and then they shall know me.”

The forgiveness of sin by God is a done deal.
    What is left, is for us to open ourselves up to God.
    What is left, is to take the risk
        of experiencing a fuller knowledge of God.
    We human beings are the clog in the system, here.
        Always have been.
    It’s not that God is holding back his love and forgiveness,
        for some future age when we all get our act together,
        and then the kingdom will really come.
    No, the reconciling, forgiving work of God is a done deal.
        It is ours to open up to it.

    All that’s left, is for us to stand before God with an open posture.
        The same posture Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden,
            before the fall.
        Before they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil,
            Genesis says Adam and Eve were naked, and not ashamed.
            After they ate, they became aware and ashamed.
            There was a time I thought this had something to do
                with shame and human sexuality,
                that their nakedness suddenly became an issue
                    between them as human beings.
            I don’t think that’s the point of the story at all.
            The fruit did not suddenly make these lovers
                embarrassed to be seen naked by each other.
            The reason they sewed fig leaves together for clothes,
                was they didn’t want God to see them naked.
                At least, that’s how Genesis 3 plainly reads.

        When God called to Adam in the garden, “Where are you?”
        Adam answered, “I heard you in the garden,
            and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
        This man who once walked with God in the garden,
            in relational intimacy and openness,
            now was afraid to stand exposed and naked before God.
        That’s what sin does.
            It creates a need for cover.
            It makes us move toward self-protection.
            It causes us to settle for something less
                than full openness and vulnerability toward God.
            Sin makes us conscious of our nakedness before God,
                and we run for cover.

So what will restore that relational intimacy and openness with God?
    It is not our presentation of ourselves to God,
        that will convince God to forgive and restore us.
    It’s not that if we are remorseful enough,
        if we have enough faith,
            or enough knowledge of God,
            or enough holiness and purity of life,
                that God will finally relent and say,
                “Okay, now I forgive you.”

    No, God has already forgiven. It’s done.
        In fact, God already forgot.
    The prophet, speaking for God, says,
        “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
    God is all in with us—
        reaching out to us in pure, unguarded love,
        not holding back to see how we will respond.
    God is the lover who’s just laying it all out there,
        is willing to get hurt, if necessary, for love.

    We just need the guts to respond, to say “yes,”
        to reciprocate with a posture of openness to God,
        to accept the fact of God’s forgiveness and forgetfulness,
            and stand exposed before God, for love’s sake.

That’s a bit disconcerting to those of us
    who’ve conditioned ourselves to think we must earn God’s favor.
    When we finally get up the nerve to approach God
        and beg for mercy and forgiveness,
        we think we ought to at least get a stern scolding from God,
        and a long list of things to do to get back in God’s good graces.
    But instead of standing before a faultfinding, finger-wagging God,
        we are standing before a forgetful God.
        A God who has, literally, forgotten our sin.

Maybe that’s why this new covenant written on the heart
    is taking so long to come about.
    It’s not because God is moving too slow.
Maybe God’s part is already done,
    and the covenant is not yet fulfilled
        because we are too stubborn, too proud,
            too afraid, too self-oriented, too protective.
    We’re back where Adam was, hiding in the bushes.
    We’re not ready to stand naked and vulnerable before God.
    If only we knew the kind of God we would meet,
        if we came out of the bushes.

And maybe that’s also what Jesus was talking about in John 12:24,
    when he spoke of his own impending death.
    “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.”
    God has not designed life and love to be locked behind a hard shell.
    The protective seed coat has to give way,
        for the life that is already there,
        to emerge resurrected, and bear fruit as God intended.

This all puts a different angle on discipleship.
    When we accept God’s completed work of reconciliation,
        that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook.
        We still have a lot of work to do.
    When we are reconciled with this forgiving and forgetful God,
        it’s a doorway into a new life of holiness and obedience,
        it’s walking a new path,
        it’s a process of building on a new pattern for our lives,
            a pattern that is unlike much of the world around us,
            it’s an invitation into a life of non-conformity.
    We serve God, not ourselves.
    We are obligated to the agenda of God’s kingdom.
        Being a disciple is costly for us.
        But . . . being forgiven is not.

    And knowing God is also not costly and difficult.
        Knowing God is what naturally flows,
            out of a willingness to accept God’s love and forgiveness,
            and stand before God with an open posture.
        A stance like that, before a God like that,
            gives rise to a pure and whole knowledge of God,
                naturally, untaught.
        I think that is what Jeremiah meant.

    He did not mean we don’t have to work hard,
        and study the ways and character of God,
        and learn the stories of God and God’s people,
        and strive mightily to pass it on to our children.
    That we must do. And always do.

But the kind of knowledge of God the prophet spoke of,
    is the kind of knowledge that comes as gift,
        when we face God’s open and vulnerable arms,
        and in turn offer ourselves—
            open, vulnerable, surrendered in love.
    And we then, naturally, without the aid of a teacher,
        come to know this God as a God of infinite love,
        who is not out to harm us or oppress us or shame us,
        but only wants to bathe us in love and mercy and forgiveness.
    That’s what we can all come to know,
        from the least of us, to the greatest,
        from the youngest to the oldest.

    That is the knowledge we are given, freely, readily,
        when we can stand unashamed before God, and say,
        “I know my transgressions,
             and my sin is ever before me.”
        And God responds, “What sins? I forget.”
    That is the knowledge we are given, freely,
        when God “creates in us a clean heart . . .
                 and puts a new and right spirit within us.”

    That is the knowledge that is written on our heart,
        which we are not in need of being taught.

Now, with this picture in our mind,
    a picture of God our lover standing before us with open arms,
    wanting, waiting, for us to respond in kind,
    let us hear again the words from Jeremiah 31:31-34.

31 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. 32 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. 33 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. 34 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.

—Phil Kniss, March 22, 2015

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