5th Sunday in Lent

April 9, 2000
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Reading 2: 
Psalm 51:1-12
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 5:5-10
Reading 4: 
John 12:20-33
By David Roy

Jeremiah foresees a new covenant between God and humanity, despite the fact that humankind has broken the old covenant. Not only is this a witness to a forgiving God, but a God who refashions what has failed into something which is superior. Central to this progression is the understanding that this covenant is to be placed inside the people, written on their hearts. This is a very intimate relationship between God and humanity that would mean that their knowledge of and response to God would be complete. When we know something from the inside, we know it completely. Within the Jewish tradition of that day, the heart was understood to be the seat of the will. If something is written on ones heart, it will get done!

God also promises to forgive iniquities and forget sins. An iniquity is an act that is unjust, uneven, unfair, imbalanced – the opposite of evenhanded. As such, it is unrighteous. Our uneven treatment of others is forgiven. A sin may be just this iniquitous act, for a sin is any act which is against God's wishes for us. However, God promises to let go of this, not to hold it against us, but to forget it altogether. God's treatment of us becomes an implicit model of how we are to treat others, despite the pressures upon us and despite our lack of impulse control.

Despite the use of the word "guilt" in verse 5, this psalm is really about shame. Intense shame is one of the most painful experiences human beings can have. Shame is the experience of being seen as wanting, as inherently defective, in the eyes of someone important to us. At its peak, there seems to be no way to escape, no way to make things better. Only the restoration of the emotional bridge can bring relief. In these verses, the appeal is to God to restore this bridge: "Restore me to the joy of your salvation …" The person has "done what is evil in your [God’s] sight," and feels deserving only of punishment: "You are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment." "Wash me thoroughly .. cleanse me" is the plea. "… [P]ut a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence …" That is, do not shun or reject me because of my awful shame.

Even if no one has shamed us unduly, there is inherent shame in our humanness, in our extreme finitude, in our miniscule size in the scope of the universe. We work hard to ignore that, but it breaks through over and over. God is the only source of salvation for this existential inevitability, for in God all things, all people, matter infinitely and forever.

One of the underlying themes in this passage is the emphasis on the humanity of Jesus: He is described as a Jewish high priest, a role familiar to the audience; he cries out loudly and with tears to be saved from death; he learned obedience. While the language of some portions of the passage may seem to contradict this to a contemporary reader ("having been made perfect"), nonetheless, Jesus’ human imperfection and incompleteness is the starting point. The passage ends with the call to follow Jesus as the way to God, in the same manner as a high priest would be a guide to God. The difference, of course, is that God has designated Jesus and, because of this, Jesus is said to be "the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him …" This last comment expresses a very different point of view, narrowing salvation to be available only to obedient followers of Jesus, instead of the God to whom Jesus pointed.

The writer of John, who could not have known Jesus directly, is addressing those in the same position. The poetic passion of the words in this gospel indicate the power and wonder being shared from generation to generation. This author imbues the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with a strong sense of purpose and intentionality – after the fact. Clearly the considerable power and momentum of Jesus’ ministry was radically transformed by his death and by what happened after his death. Instead of being limited to a small group of followers, Jesus and his work became available to a much wider world. The Johannine perspective suggests that both Jesus and God knew in advance everything that would happen. This means that everything was planned, that there were no surprises and, in one sense, no real risk. The unfortunate thrust of remarks like these is to make Jesus more and more inaccessible, more and more out of reach of ordinary people. If this frame is understood as a way to emphasize the surprising and continued impact of this exceptional, grace-filled human being, instead of being a factually accurate historical account, these tensions disappear.