5th Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2015
Years ago, when I taught across the river at Mary Stark Elementary School, there was a 5th grade boy I’ll never forget. I’ll call him Shawn. Shawn didn’t have a lot going for him. He wasn’t bright, or good-looking, or considered cool. He was shy and usually kept to himself. He had a rough family life too. They were poor. He had no father and not a very fit mother.
Shawn got a new basketball one day. He was very excited about it and went down to the school playground to shoot baskets after school hours. As usual, he was by himself… until 5 neighborhood kids showed up. One of them was a fellow classmate of Shawn’s. Two were one year older… and two were in Junior High.
They asked Shawn if they could play basketball with him. Delighted, I’m sure, to have playmates, Shawn agreed.
It didn’t take long, however, for the 5 to start messing with Shawn. After all, Shawn was an easy target. They took his basketball and told Shawn he wasn’t going to get it back. Shawn pleaded with them. They said that if Shawn wanted it back he had to sing for them.
All alone, surrounded by mostly older kids, desperate to get back his prized basketball, and not knowing what else to do, Shawn started singing. Everyone thought that was hilarious. It didn’t get him the ball though.
Next Shawn was told that if he wanted his ball he had to get down on all fours and bark like a dog. Everyone was laughing at him… and Shawn wasn’t strong enough or smart enough to defend himself against these 5. All he knew was that he desperately wanted his basketball back. So he got down on all fours and barked like a dog.
You can imagine the reaction that got. But they still wouldn’t give him his basketball. They wanted to get a little more entertainment out of Shawn; but by now Shawn realized he wasn’t going to get his basketball back. The group of five eventually ran off with it, went into one of their houses and laughed long and hard at what a big loser Shawn was and how clever they all were.
When I heard about the incident the next day, I was very distressed… first and foremost for Shawn. How painful and humiliating to be treated that way. I knew he’d carry that day with him for the rest of his life. I was also distressed by the behavior of the five. I knew all of them. None of them would I have considered a bully. A couple of them I would have considered really good kids. But they all did this. Not one stood up for Shawn… for human decency. Not one said, “Stop.” Not one tried to fix the wrong once it was done.
They looked ashamed and said they were sorry the next day when I confronted them, but they did what they did… and the hurt was done… and nobody had raised a finger to stop it or to right it.
Dealing with situations like this leaves me discouraged. It’s easy to see that the real question is not, “Do we know right from wrong?” They all knew right and wrong in this situation. The question is… do we desire what is right, and actually do it. Are we repulsed by what is wrong and actually reject it?
This is the problem God recognizes and addresses in today’s Old Testament lesson. The greatest cause of wrong-doing is not ignorance… it’s not that people don’t know what they should or should not do. The fact is, they do. They have God’s law, they have God’s word. They know how God wants them to live. Rather, the problem is sick hearts that take pleasure in doing wrong.
If I should sit at the lunch table at work and badmouth a work colleague who annoys me, it is not because I mistakenly believe that is a good thing to do. It is because I find satisfaction in doing something I clearly know is wrong.
Choosing to do wrong even though we know what is right. This is a human plague.
In today’s O.T. lesson — through the prophet Jeremiah — God addresses this problem and says what needs to be done about it… what he’s going to do about it.
“The days… are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke…. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
God speaks here about the act of new creation. He will enter, quite literally, the “heart” of the problem. He will create in us new hearts that do not need to be instructed in the ways of God, and do not need to be goaded to follow them… because they naturally delight in God’s will.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” This is what God promises to do… and he does this work in us through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Paul speaks of this work in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Being in Christ, means becoming a new creation. It means being changed and taught and led by the Spirit and Word of God… and in that way, we become new. We see things in a new way. We live in a new way. That is why Christ died… and why he lives… in us. So that our old selfish and destructive and fearful selves can die and we can be reborn children of the living God.
Paul speaks of this death in his letter to the Romans. He writes: “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ]…. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has power over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:6-11)
To be in Christ means to die. It means to die to our old useless sinful natures. It means giving up the idea that we are greater than others, that we are in charge of anything in this world… that we have a right to take from others, whether it be their reputation, their peace, their possessions or their joy. We have no right to make other’s pain our entertainment.
To die to my sinful self means the death of that part of me that wants to take God’s place in the world and simply do whatever I please.
To be in Christ means recognizing that God — the creator and lord of all life — is my creator and my lord as well. So in all things, in all ways, and at all times, I submit and entrust my life to him. And when we live this way, the gift of new life is born in us – a gift from the hand of God.
This new creation doesn’t happen instantly; neither does the old ever completely disappear. As long as we are in the flesh, we will live with both.
The disciples themselves, like Andrew and Phillip from today’s Gospel lesson, are clear examples of that lifelong struggle between the old, sinful self and the new being created by God. They followed Christ, but failed time and time again to understand correctly and to do right.
Yet they are also clear examples of the victory of the God’s gifts of life over the powers of sin and death. There is no question that, in the end, the grace and love of God shone brightly in their lives, just as it will in ours.
In the end, the beautiful promise of Christ, spoken in today’s Gospel lesson, will be fulfilled: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
We need only to come to God with open hearts and let God do his work of new creation in us. Then we can give thanks with Paul who wrote believers in Rome: “… thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart… and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”