March 22, 2015
“Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’” (John 12:23-25)
Few passages in the Old Testament are as important – or as difficult to understand – as Jeremiah’s prophecy about the “new covenant.” The writer of Hebrews cites this passage not once but twice (Chapters 8-10), a dense passage describing his/her understanding of the relationship between the old covenant with Israel and the new covenant with the church. Certainly this passage haunts Paul’s consideration of the matter in Romans 9:11. And according to many important manuscripts, which our Prayer Book follows, our Lord Jesus Christ himself alluded to it in what we know as the “Words of Institution” from Matthew 26:28.
The major challenge for us as Christians is to understand how God may institute a new covenant while not abrogating the old one. Certainly what Jeremiah is describing here – what Jeremiah says the Lord is describing here – is a new covenant in radical continuity with the old one. It, too, is with God’s people, their unfaithfulness notwithstanding. Yet what we read about here has important elements of discontinuity as well.
What are the elements of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants, as described in this passage and the verses around it?
The succeeding verses (35-37) seem to indicate that God’s promises are permanent. How may we understand this to be true if God is replacing an old covenant with a new one?
Psalm 51:1-13 and Psalm 119:9-16
The two psalms that may be read this week complement each other like a hand in a glove – or a broken leg in a cast. The epigraph for Psalm 51 states that David composed this psalm when his prophet Nathan enabled him to see the gravity of his sin in committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging the murder of husband Uriah to cover up his crime (2 Samuel 11:1-12:15). But all of us can relate to this psalm, even if our sins are less impressive. Who of us hasn’t had the experience of waking up – literally or figuratively – to the awareness that we have offended God, violated our own conscience, harmed others and sowed chaos in the world we live in?
In Form One of the rite of the Reconciliation of a Penitent in our Prayer Book, after confessing his/her sins to God, the church and the priest, the penitent person states, “I firmly intend amendment of life” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 447). Our passage in Psalm 119 offers welcome guidance for the person Jesus has picked up and dusted off. We are seldom so interested in keeping our way pure than we are after seeing the mess we’ve made of it by our sin. The author of this psalm describes God’s word not as something he accepts grudgingly, or in the absence of better options – no, God’s word is something in which he delights. What’s being described here is not what Dallas Willard has called “the gospel of sin management” (“The Divine Conspiracy,” HarperCollins, 1997); the psalmist is talking about living well, and about how God’s guidance enables rather than frustrates that valid human desire. That’s what Jesus’ uncle Zechariah celebrated in his song: “that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75).
Be honest: When you pick up the Bible, do you think of it as a source for living life well? If you do, did you always think so? If not, did you ever?
Are there times when, like the psalmist, you have delighted in reading scripture? Can you imagine that ever being the case for you?
Here the author of Hebrews has three high priests in mind: Melchizedek, the high priest described in Torah, and Jesus. Most of his hearers – people from a Jewish background who had come to recognize Jesus as Israel’s Messiah – would naturally have been thinking of the high priest Moses described as the person who would make atonement for God’s people on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But the writer of Hebrews stretches back to some of the earliest stories in the Bible (Genesis 14:18-20) to recall the shadowy Melchizedek, described there as both King of Salem (in Hebrew, Shalem) and a priest of God Most High (in Hebrew, ’El ‘Elyon) to whom Abraham brought a tithe of the spoils from his victorious rescue of his hapless nephew Lot. The writer then says that Jesus is a high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (verse 6; see also Psalm 110:4), bringing together nearly the entire sweep of biblical history in this claim about Jesus’ ministry.
Read Psalm 110. How would it have been understood by the people who first sang it? How do you understand it in light of what the author of Hebrews says in our passage? What’s similar? What’s different?
A few verses before our passage, the author of Hebrews says that because Jesus is the sort of high priest that he is, he is “able to deal gently” (verse 2) with us. How does verse 8 of our passage illuminate that statement?
A friend of mine who is a Presbyterian pastor has the second verse of this passage in the old King James translation inscribed on her pulpit, facing the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (At my church we have inscribed John 13:27: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”) Her inscription is a good reminder to any preacher or teacher that ultimately, what draws any person to Jesus’ disciples is nothing other than Jesus himself.
In this passage we have gentiles who feared the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob coming to Philip not to see him, or Andrew, or any of the other disciples, but Jesus. To the degree we lead people to Jesus, we are his disciples. To the degree we fail to, we are simply indulging in religious exercises for our own sake.
Think about your congregation’s programming. How is it designed to lead people to Jesus himself? How might it be failing to do so because it only leads people to your congregation’s programming?