God’s Story in Our Story in God’s Story: Sermon, UCB, Passion Sunday, 18 March 2018

 

[Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34]

1

“Set in stone”… it’s an expression we use often, usually negatively. “Well, it’s not set in stone, you know…”

Like this…

“I thought you’d said we couldn’t go for a picnic because our rooms were untidy.” “Well, tidy up your bedrooms, and we might! Nothing’s set in stone, you know…”

Or this…

“We see going public as a mechanism for us to continue to raise capital over time. Our goal is to remain independent, so… nothing’s set in stone…”

Or this, which is a pop-song lyric from Foo Fighters:

Nothing’s set in stone,

No matter what I say.

Days, go, by I know,

No matter what I say.

Days will come and go.

No matter what I say.

Nothing’s set in stone.

No matter what I say.

 

Without any real effort, using a Google search, I found four songs with “Nothing’s set in stone…” in either the title or the lyrics; there must be more.

 

We all know where the expression comes from.

Moses Rembrandt

 

If some things aren’t set in stone, fixed, unremovable, unalterable, it would hardly be necessary, or even possible, to reassure people that as far as this goes, whatever “this” is, it’s “not set in stone, you know.”

 

The Ten Commandments, though, we say, are set in stone. That’s what makes them a permanent, unalterable point of moral and ethical reference in a changing world.

 

But what is Jeremiah saying here, in this morning’s reading?

‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord,

‘when I will make a new covenant

with the people of Israel

and with the people of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant

I made with their ancestors

when I took them by the hand

to lead them out of Egypt…

 

Not set in stone. Better than “set in stone”…

 

‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel

after that time,’ declares the Lord.

‘I will put my law in their minds

and write it on their hearts.

 

What is set in stone is intended to carry over from the past, through the present, to the future. It’s the past controlling the future. And that, says Jeremiah, isn’t the way God works.

 

It isn’t how God’s story with God’s people works.

 

2

So it isn’t our story with God.

 

The story isn’t defined, plotted, by the way it begins, but by the way it unfolds, and the way it ends – especially if it’s the story of a relationship.

 

And God rewrites, replots the story, from within the story. God changes the story. God tells a new story by changing, renewing, the relationship between God and God’s people.

This is how God works.

 

‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel

after that time,’ declares the Lord.

‘I will put my law in their minds

and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people.

No longer will they teach their neighbour,

or say to one another, “Know the Lord,”

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest,’

declares the Lord.

‘For I will forgive their wickedness

and will remember their sins no more.’

 

3

 

We might put it this way: Everything is there in the beginning. But not everything is there at the beginning.

 

From the beginning, God can in Christ do what needs to be done. But it still has to be done.

There is God’s loving intention, which is there from before-all-things. But God’s loving will is worked out in what we call history – and history is both “what happened” and “how-we-are-given-to-understand-what-happens”.

We can know the answer to the question “What has God made us for?” and “What does God intend for us?” – and the answer to both questions is “To know the fulness of God’s love” – but without that loving will being worked out in history – without God’s loving will being worked out in “what happened” and “how we understand what happened”, nothing happens.

It’s necessary for the loving God to do something.

And what God does – and this is our faith – is Jesus Christ, the word of God, as John puts it, the utterance of God as the unknown author of Hebrews puts it.

Jesus Christ is what God does to save us.

And if God has to do something, then Jesus has to do something, too. If God has to engage with our story – our history – then Jesus has to be deeply engaged in our history, too.

The story of Holy Week tells us that Jesus couldn’t be more engaged with, couldn’t be more caught up in, our story – our history. We look at the cross, and we realize that it’s our story, our history, that does that to him.

And because Jesus is so utterly caught up in our history, our story, and what it means, and what we have done and are still doing as a human family, a broken, deeply dysfunctional, jealous, greedy and hate-filled family.

We believe that Jesus is the expression of what God is in God’s inmost being. “He’s the image of his father!” This – he – is what God is truly like, in generous grace, risk-taking love, utter and complete commitment to what he has made, irrespective of its worthiness.

And that’s exactly what the reading we hear next, from the Letter to the Hebrews, says. It’s one of the most astounding passages in the New Testament.

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect…

 

But when we think of God, we think of that which is eternal, unchanging, set-in-stone.

 

Change and decay in all around I see;

O thou who changest not, abide with me…

 

Yet what does this passage say about the utterance, the self-speaking, of God – of what John will call the Word Made Flesh? He suffered. He learned. He was per-fected – made complete.

 

Jesus was changed by the unfolding of his story. But if Jesus is the way God is involved in the story of our redemption, what does that suggest about God? We’ll hear the Hebrews passage now, and then we’ll sing Dietrich Bonoeffer’s astonishing hymn, with its second verse which draws out this theme:

We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,

and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,

bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:

faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

 

God sorely pressed… That’s the story of Holy Week, which opens with Palm Sunday – next Sunday – and ends with that terrible dead Sabbath, the Saturday after Good Friday.

 

[Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10]

[Hymn: We turn to God when we are sorely pressed]

[Reading: John 12:20-33]

4

Here we are, on what is traditionally called Passion Sunday, when with Jesus and his disciples – and as Jesus’ twenty-first century disciples – we look out over Jerusalem before he enters it, and we plunge into the story of Holy Week.

The story of Holy Week is far too often – perhaps usually – presented as the following of a blueprint, the execution of a step-by-step plan, the performance of a script.

Its plot is, so to speak, “set in stone”…

That’s partly because we know the story so well. To hear it again is to know what happens next.

Or to think we do.

We don’t.

We only imagine we can re-imagine the hollow, easy relief of Palm Sunday – “It might just be going to be OK after all…” or the growing dread as the week tips into Wednesday, then Thursday, and the signs multiply of opposition crystallizing into murderous hatred. We only think we can grasp the horror of the arrest, the shame of denial and craven flight We only think we’re re-imagining the disciples’ joy that first First-Day-of-the-Week.

Unless we can hear it as though we were hearing it for the first time, we aren’t hearing it at all. If we hear it as though it’s a story set in stone, we aren’t hearing it as the astounding, shocking, utterly unexpected story of God’s love for us.

The Gospel is the story of us being caught up into God’s story of us – us as the prodigals, us as the wounded lying at the side of the road because we got out of our depth on the journey AND us as the people who pass by and don’t care, us as the sheep who have strayed far from safety and need to be shepherded home – and need a shepherd who will come to us, and bring us back.

But it’s also the story of God’s being caught up in it, too.

We need that. We need to know that. We need to know the closeness of God to us in our human condition. We need to be able to respond to God there, in the human weakness and vulnerability God in Christ shares with us.

We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,

and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,

bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:

faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

 

‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.’ This is what Jesus says in the passage from John’s Gospel that Elspeth read a moment ago.

 

5

 

We’ve said many times before that John’s Gospel takes many of the materials that we know in the other Gospels, and rearranges them. Jesus goes to Jerusalem several times during his ministry, not once at its end. Jesus cleanses the temple not at the beginning of Holy Week, after the Triumphal Entry, but right at the beginning of the story of his public activity. A woman with a shady past bursts into the Pharisee’s house, where Jesus is receiving a tepid welcome, washes his feet with her tears, anoints them with costly oil and dries them with her hair – but in John, it’s Mary who anoints his feet, while the disciples watch, because this is the last time she and Martha and Lazarus will entertain them all. After this comes Jerusalem, the arrest, the cross – and she gets it, and they don’t, so she marks the moment with anointing and worship.

 

And it’s just after this incident that Jesus, come to Jerusalem for the last time – John’s version of Holy Week – is approached by Philip and Andrew. “Some Greeks” have asked to see Jesus.

 

We so easily get the wrong end of the stick about this little incident. I’ve heard – as you will have heard – sermons about these Greeks, and about the things that stopped them from seeing Jesus clearly (usually churchy, religious things they didn’t understand), and how we are called to bring people who don’t know Jesus, who don’t understand churchy things and traditional churchspeak. All good points, but nothing to do with this little story. John doesn’t even tell us what happened with these “Greeks”, whether they got to “see Jesus”.

That’s not what this is about. It’s about a moment. These “Greeks” represent the whole world, the world beyond Israel. Their desire to see is like the desire that, in Matthew, drove the Wise Men to come looking for the new King.

 

Jesus is about to be recognised beyond the confines of the circle of the disciples, the expectant crowds of Jewish peasantry, the faith of Israel. Jesus is about to be seen by the world he came to save.

 

Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

 

And John does something really remarkable here. He rearranges parts of four different and widely separated stories in the other three Gospels, and brings them together in one passage.

 

This is what Jesus, in the other Gospels, tells his disciples just after Peter’s Confession, when Peter has realized what being a disciple really means, what Jesus’ being Messiah really means, and told Jesus he mustn’t go down that road.

 

Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me.

 

And then, there’s Gethsemane:

 

‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’

 

And then, there’s Jesus’ Baptism, in the Jordan, By John – again, a story that John doesn’t actually narrate to us.

 

Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

 

And then – unmistakeably, he sums it up, in the one element of the story, his story, the story of God’s loving engagement with the world, with us…

 

The Cross…

 

The Cross as the drawing-to-God of all people; the Cross as judgment on the world, because the light is come into the world, and the world prefers the darkness to the light:

 

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

 

6

This is the last such vantage-point over the whole story. This is the last chance for the disciples – for us – to look out over the whole of the story that’s about to unfold; the story that we, and all the other congregations on Bute will be telling, day by day, from next Sunday, Palm Sunday.

We know it, we know how it goes. But we should never hear it as a story set in stone. From this point, Jesus has to go into the story, to do it, live it and die it, to tell the story by his obedience.

 

‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’

 

Jesus must go through all this.

And he does. And that is the story; profoundly human, full of faithfulness and faithlessness, love, fear, hope, despair, anxiety, fear, the desperate wish that all this might go away, the unimaginable courage to embrace it when it’s clear that it won’t.

We know that that’s the texture of human life. Even if we’ve never been anywhere like that in our own lives, we recognize it as what human beings go through, when we hear the story of what this human being goes through.

And this is the story of God.

And that’s how it becomes our story, too. The story of our turning to God, and finding God where we are, in “what happened” and “how we understand what happened”. In our history. In our lives.

 

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