Easter Is Coming

Sermon - Jamesville Community Church, March 17, 2024

Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. Last week was the midpoint of Lent. Our Catholic neighbors and friends call last Sunday, Laetare Sunday. Laetare means joy, and for many Christians Laetare Sunday is a day of Joy smack in the middle of Lent. It’s a reminder that we are on our way to the light and hope of Easter.

I think joy in the middle of this somber period makes a lot of sense. Of course Lent is a time of serious reflection. We reflect on our need for repentance and self-discipline. But the original purpose of Lent for the early Christians was spiritual preparation to honor the good news of the Easter resurrection. Lent was for looking forward.

Here on the way to Easter our readings provide the wakeup we need. Our scripture readings in recent weeks have been preparing us for something new and unexpected in our lives. Something shocking and new. A transformation. A few weeks ago we read of the stunning transfiguration of Jesus on that mountaintop where Peter and James and John had the shock of hearing directly from God that Jesus is his beloved son. And the command to listen.

Today we hear the prophet Jeremiah declare the coming end of the written Law of Moses. Something new is coming, a new covenant, this time written in our heart. Yes, Jeremiah tells us God will replace the long set of written rules for how to be holy with a new law of love written into our human hearts. A new way of living.

Jeremiah says, “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, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.“

A new covenant better than the old! Easier for us to keep and going directly to the heart of what the law is about! Teaching us how to LOVE. The Old Law was hard enough to keep, but legalistic minds kept adding new interpretations of God’s law to the rule book. As Isaiah said, “You add rule upon rule.” I started life as a Jewish kid on a dairy farm in Massachusetts. We kept the law. All the law. 613 different rules plus centuries of fine tuning. The rules were the point of religion. Transforming your heart and life wasn’t part of it. I couldn’t do it. I gave up on all religion for a good many years until God pulled me back.

The Law and all its rules was given to teach us there is such a thing as right and wrong, holy and profane, God’s way and human ways. The goal was to teach humans to live God’s way. But we humans are slow learners. We made following the rules the goal. Oops. God’s goal wasn’t to make us an obedient pack of sheep or well behaved domestic pets. God’s goal was to wake us up to a new way of living in community with each other and all people. In today’s scriptures, Jeremiah relays God’s disappointment that we humans keep focusing on the trees of the rules and miss the forest of God’s solution. Jeremiah relays God’s announcement of a new freedom to love and be loved.

Each person is now able and expected to know God directly without intervention of a religious hierarchy. Shocking! No wonder the religious authorities tried to murder Jeremiah.

God instructed Jeremiah to describe the disasters that would happen if the people didn’t listen. They didn’t listen. And disaster followed. The result of continued bad religious leadership was 70 years of exile in Babylonian captivity. Israel’s return from Babylon was followed by Greek, then Roman occupation of their native Israel. And ultimately the Roman army destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, killing a million Jews and sending the remaining Hebrews into exile for two thousand years.

But good news at last. As the old Temple was destroyed, Jesus’ Easter Resurrection established a new Temple of God in the human heart, a new temple created by God. Jeremiah’s message of a new covenant and a law written in our hearts and minds was realized. Not rules. Jesus called for a law built on love for the Creator and love for our fellow humans.

This was such a different way of thinking people didn’t quite get it. When the law was given through Moses in 1,500 BC, people were still primitives. They knew you rewarded friends and punished enemies. God was turning the old human ways upside down. Jesus announced an end to the endless human cycles of domination and slavery, revenge and retribution. Non-violent response to evil, and not responding in kind to aggression. It’s still hard for us today. This new Christian way was, and is still, a great mystery.

Speaking of mystery, today’s scriptures reintroduce us to the strange figure of Melchizedek, the high priest of God. Melchizedek appears in both the old and new Testaments without background or explanation. This is a man so important in history, the Bible tells us that Abraham presented Melchizedek, this King of Salem, with a tithe from the booty he had just recovered from neighboring marauders.

Who is he? Melchizedek has neither mother, nor father, nor wife, nor descendants. He is called Melchizedek, King of Salem which literally means King of Righteousness, (Melech, Zedek), and the King of Peace (Melech, Shalom.) Those are titles we usually reserve for Jesus. How could Melchizedek be a Priest? This meeting with Abraham took place almost 500 years before the Law of Moses was given, 500 years before the Levitical priesthood. Yet God named this man as the High Priest.

Abraham was a man of faith who believed in God and who heard and listened to the voice of God. He was a man of faith who didn’t need to be taught that God was real. Abraham’s faith existed in his heart, and he listened with his heart. Abraham not only listened to God, he believed God, which God accounted to him as righteousness. In tithing Melchizedek, Abraham acknowledged the greatness of Melchizedek. It was Abraham’s faith, the faith written in his heart, that recognized Melchizedek as God’s High Priest.

So, what’s the reason for this mysterious Melchizedek appearing in our Easter story? A clue is in the letter to Hebrews which says Jesus has been designated by God as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

In John’s Gospel we read, “Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.’” The message of God to Abraham, to Jeremiah, to the people of Israel, and the message from Jesus to us today is this:

Faith in God and God’s promises is not a matter of following structured certainty of religious rules and dictates. Faith is comfort in the existence of that which we do not yet see, but for which we confidently hope. Faith is written in our hearts and will transform our lives.

The Law was intended as a schoolmaster to teach us discipline and discernment until we are grown into full maturity of faith. Now, living in Jesus, we live by faith. The Law was intended to be a tutor to teach us there is a holy and there is a profane. But we were not able to keep the Law because we are all sinners by nature. The Law was not intended to be worshiped in place of God, nor was it intended to stifle life and kill our spirit. The letter of the Law kills, but the spirit of truth written in our hearts is life itself. The truth and faith in our hearts is what carries us through the transforming period of Lent and on to the light of Easter. The faith that we are called to be daughters and sons of God, working together to build God’s kingdom on earth and in heaven.

We need to take care that in the name of Jesus, we don’t work to recreate the written law. We don’t need a reinstituted Sanhedrin. We need to take care to not recreate the literalism of the Sadducees. Why do we work so hard to create and impose rule after rule on each other? Why do we fall back to literalism, legalistic interpretation of a now obsolete written code?

I think we do this because we are uncomfortable with uncertainty. We humans want the comfort of the certain, knowing exactly what is what. Things have to be black and white. Yes or No. Rules are comfortable. We know exactly what to do, what’s right, and to be sure everyone else obeys the rules as we see them. Certainty is satisfying. Uncertainty is distressing.

The paradox we live with is the world is uncertain because God planned it that way. It is a probabilistic, uncertain world subject to the whims and chance events of nature, of free will and even human capriciousness. God wants our minds and hearts to grow in understanding as we mature in faith. But change and growth is scary.

Growth implies change and change implies uncertainty, an ability to be happy knowing the future in this world is uncertain. We still think happiness can be found in bumper crops and bigger barns to store them in. Jesus taught us to not be like the rich farmer who had a bumper crop and thought he was okay now, set up for life.

“’But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Faith is richness in the things of God. Faith gives comfort in the middle of uncertainty. Faith brings the one thing which is certain; the unfailing hope in that which is yet to come.

God told Abraham the identity and significance of Melchizedek. Abraham needed no rules to tell him to honor God’s priest on Earth. Melchizedek was a divinity, perhaps he was even a presence of Jesus himself before Jesus took on his full humanity. Melchizedek had neither mother nor father. Melchizedek was not one of us. Jesus came into the world as an ordinary one of us. And he came as a baby, not a king.

Jesus showed us how to live with a comforting faith in an uncertain and uncomfortable world. Jesus taught us to look forward to our transfiguration, our transformation into full daughters and sons of God. Jesus taught us to hold this life loosely because it will pass. The real message of Lent is to prepare well for our coming transfiguration this Easter.

We shall all be changed. And in the twinkling of an eye. I have faith that this is so.