Home Sermons Sunday 21st March
March 21st, 2021
We have two very different readings this morning. The first, from Jeremiah, is a brief
comment on a new covenant or perhaps a new understanding of what a covenant
relationship is. The second from John’s gospel speaks of the great mystery of the
necessity of death before life. Of the two the Jeremiah reading is perhaps the more
Jeremiah is encouraging the people in exile to think of the covenant in a new way. The old
covenant – as expressed through the ten commandments – codified God’s high expectation
and demands and with its list of you shall nots shows us our sinfulness. It reveals our
inevitable failure to live up to God’s stand of perfection and with all the additional rules and
regulations that were added over the centuries, it became a weapon to beat people over the
head with and to utterly constrict their lives.
The new covenant, promised through Jeremiah, however will bring with it forgiveness of sin.
God says: “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” It is really important
that we understand that God’s desire for creation including people is life and health not
death. God’s will is not to condemn the world but to save it and to do so by remaking it
after God’s own heart. What Jeremiah is explaining is that this refashioning of creation will
so change the human heart that people will not only desire to live in accord with the las of
God but will also be able to live God-pleasing lives.
We can imagine a new Jerusalem – a purified and exalted version of the holy city. We can
imagine a new king of Israel following in the pattern of David and Saul. We can even
imagine a new temple. But it is much harder to imagine a new covenant. For one thing a
body of law is not something to be seen except as recorded in books of the law and for
another Jews could not imagine replacing or updating the definitive covenant given to
But law is not something to be looked at; it is something to be experienced, to be lived. In
Jeremiah’s words “I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts, and I will
be their God and they shall be my people.” The new covenant will become an integral of
each person – will be written on their hearts -= and they will experience it and live it in all
that they do not out of fear of what might happen if they break a rule, but because this
relationship with God is an essential part of their being.
The plain fact is that the old covenant given to Moses at Sinai had been broken, and broken
so decisively as to be nullified, but this new or renewed covenant will be keepable. It is an
act of God’s inexplicable mercy and graciousness. God wills an enduring relationship with
precisely this recalcitrant, unresponsive and at times disobedient people.
There are four distinct parts to this covenant.
The commandments will be central and authoritative but now they will be intensely
embraced. It is a contract between an external law imposed by an authoritarian God and
which is frequently resisted, but a readily embraced shape for a relationship that the
wearers of the commandments really want and are eager to enact.
The covenant relationship is marked by mutuality.
The newly formed community of Israel will be full of the knowledge of God. To know the
Lord means both a deep trustful intimacy, the acknowledgement of a sovereign authority
over all life and obedience that is consistent with the will and character of God. To know
God, is to put God’s claim on our lives above any other claim. This knowing God also
overcomes all social class differences. there will be no elitism, no experts, no powerful
The overriding feature of this new / renewed covenant is that it is made possible not by
repentance or conversion on the part of Israel, but by the unilateral action of God who will
forgive and forget.
I want now to deal briefly with the passage from John’s Gospel. It is a very complex
reading and I will really only be able to scratch the surface of it this morning. It begins with
the request from some Greeks to see Jesus. The Greeks were well known in the ancient
world as inveterate travelers in search of new things and seekers after truth. It is not
surprising then that they came to Jesus to see and understand what he was about. They
are also a reminder to us that we do not need to leave our minds behind when we come to
faith, and that those with endless questions are as welcome in the church as those whose
minds are closed and who refuse to think for fear they might lose their faith.
“The hour has come” said Jesus, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” References to the
hour of Jesus in the first 11 chapters of John point forward. “My hour is not yet come”
Jesus says to his mother in the story of the wedding at Cana. When Jesus’ teaching
astonishes Jerusalem, the leaders attempt to arrest him, but fail “because his hour had not
yet come.” Again in Chapter 8 the narrator explains that Jesus could not be arrest because
his hour had not yet come. Now the situation has changed and Jesus announces that the
hour has now come.
What has caused this change? First just before this episode, is the story of the raising of
Lazarus. This miracle brings many to faith and that very belief in turns brings about the
opposition of the pharisees and the leaders of the Jewish community. “From that day on”
says the narrator, “they planned to put him to death.” Indeed the reaction to the raising of
Lazarus is so great that the authorities plot Lazarus’s death as well as that of Jesus. So
one conclusion would be that the hour comes because of opposition to Jesus.
Another reason for the change centres not on opposition to Jesus but on adulation of him.
Several times the narrator comments that large number of people believed in Jesus
because of the raising of Lazarus. This culminates in the comment of the Pharisees “You
see, you can do nothing. Look,. the world has gone after him!”
That the world has gone after him is illustrated by the presence of the Greeks who asked to
see Jesus. We hear nothing more about these men but their request indicates that the
world has indeed come to Jesus and that his death is now imminent.
The hour arrives because opposition to Jesus reaches its inevitable outcome, but the hour
also arrives because of Jesus’ very success with the world. Here the world seeks after
Jesus, but who knows who they might seek tomorrow. The world will always be looking for
another person who might do even more astonishing signs or offer more soothing advice.
The world is finally not able to believe that Jesus is from God and to follow after him. the
popularity of Jesus in this passage quickly fades and turns into the hostility that confronts
Pilate and demands Jesus’ crucifixion. the world is a thoroughly unreliable place; neither its
hostility nor its adoration can be trusted.
The profound mystery of which Jesus speaks upsets our usual assumptions. We think of
life as preceding death, but Jesus looks at the natural world and says that it is in fact the
other way round. Death comes before life: as the seed is buried in order to grow. The
source of our life is Jesus’ death.
A few Greeks came to see Jesus and Jesus saw in their request the sign for which he had
been waiting. The hour had come. A few Greeks came to him but Jesus saw beyond then
to a vast company of Gentiles down the centuries. As some of the inquirers and believers
long after Jesus’ death, we find ourselves following these forerunners of ours into faith and
finding there our life.