An Inconvenient Obedience

An Inconvenient Obedience

5th Sunday of Lent
Pastor Mitch Coggin March 17, 2024 Lent

One of my favorite folk singers, Carrie Newcomer, has a song that seems to call our attention to what is going on around us right now, both the promise of Spring and the message of Easter. The chorus goes like this: “Leaves don’t drop, they just let go and make space for seeds to grow. And every season brings a change, a tree is what a seed contains. To die and live is life’s refrain.”

The core truth of our faith is this: God brings life out of death. We see this over and over in the stories in the Bible. Abraham and Sarah were asked to leave their familiar homeland and travel to the land that God would show them. Sarah’s barrenness was reversed, and they were given a son. God came to the Hebrew people and led them out of slavery, through the wilderness into new life in a new land. Since then, God has been leading us toward new possibilities when we thought there was no hope for newness.

In the story we read today, Jeremiah the prophet wrote to a people who were in despair of their life and faith. Their nation and their temple had been destroyed and with it any hope that God remembered them.

Once again, we hear what was said to Jeremiah the very first time God called him, “Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” God made a new promise to reinforce, to build and to plant that would be accomplished through the establishment of a new covenant with them.

Jeremiah alluded to the old covenant, the commandments, that had been written on tablets of stone or stitched in fabric and worn around their waist or on their foreheads. Their despair had in fact, caused them to forget God and any promises they had previously made to God, but God had not forgotten them.

Jeremiah reassures the Hebrew people that hope was soon to come, a new covenant would be written in their hearts where they were sure to remember it and keep it close to their lives. The new covenant represents a move from commandments to conversation, from rules to relationship. The Hebrew exiles had shuffled across Babylon carrying the burdens of guilt of their broken relationship with God.

The new covenant would become a living, breathing part of them like a second nature. God is in the business of initiating new and restored relationships. This is reflected in Psalm 51 found in our Call to Worship today when King David prayed with a heart filled with guilt… 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. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

This journey of Lent that we are on offers us the opportunity to relinquish our old visions of reality that no longer serve us and to become surprised by new life that is already emerging around us.

In our New Testament reading, Gentiles came to see Jesus. Jesus explains about himself and us when He told them, “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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

On my desk at home, I have two packages of seeds that I’ve never opened. One is for gourds and one package is Arbutus tree seeds. They represent a dream, but the truth is that unless I’m willing to give them up, to risk planting them in the ground, there is no possibility for new growth.

A grain of wheat cannot grow unless it dies is how Jesus put it. If you put wheat in a plastic cover and leave it on a shelf, it will never be helpful to anyone for anything. For the seed to do what it was meant to do, it must be given up, to fall to the earth and die to its old life so that it can be reborn as a new creation. Jesus experienced the brokenness that must happen before his resurrection could happen.

Jesus is inviting the disciples and us to walk this way with him. The image is about giving up what is old and deathly and greedy and anxious and hopeless. Jesus is calling us to organize our lives differently. He offers us a chance to begin again, and we must offer over broken hearts. We must abandon our pretense of always being right and self-sufficient. The gospel is not just advice but reassurance that what we cannot do for ourselves is given us.

Jesus invited his disciples to walk into this new life with him. In Jeremiah, God offered the Hebrew people a new covenant based on a personal relationship with God. Walter Brueggemann concludes, I do not need to tell you that in our society now, we must die to many assumptions about wealth and power, and control that have turned out to be a way of death… Lent is the journey of relinquishment of old visions of reality that are failed and being surprised by new life given in glad, inconvenient obedience. It is to this move that the God of the gospel invites us, again and again. This God is ready to give new life, more ready to give than we are to receive. Another song by Carrie Newcomer invites us to lean into this Light. She sings, Carry nothing but what you must
Lean in toward the Light
Let it go, shake off the dust
Lean in toward the Light
Today is now, tomorrow beckons
Lean in toward the Light
Keep practicing resurrection
Lean in toward the Light
The shadows of this world will say
There’s no hope, why try anyway?
But every kindness large or slight
Shifts the balance toward the light.