A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; St. John 12:20-33
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who fulfills the covenant even when all hope seems lost. Amen.
Things had looked so promising just a short time ago. King Josiah was on the throne and Judah was turning again to the Lord as the king and priests worked for justice, piety, and reform. The book of Deuteronomy, telling again of God’s Law, had been discovered. Josiah was a new David – but better! It seemed as though the people, from the king to the priests down to the humblest of farmers, would finally keep their end of the covenant God had made with Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and David – the covenant that had been broken in every generation. Judah would finally know God. Maybe – just maybe – Judah would avoid the fate of their northern neighbor, Israel, that had been destroyed by the Assyrians a century before. Judah had barely survived then.
But now! Maybe now they would know peace and tranquility!
And it lasted – for a while.
But then came the Egyptians, who slew Josiah on the battlefield and deposed the rightful heir and set Jehoiakim on the throne. This murderous tyrant found ever-more-creative ways to sin against God, ways too scandalous to name in polite company. And then came Babylon, and once again Judah found itself caught between dueling giants, and Jehoiakim rebelled against the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar and met the same fate as his father Josiah, killed by a foreign ruler.
Two more kings came and went as the people of Judah, under siege, fought against their Babylonian overlords. But like the Assyrians before them and the Romans after them, the Babylonians knew how to put down a rebellion.
Yes, things had looked promising.
But that was thirty years ago, and how quickly things change.
Now the king has been blinded, his children murdered, and the leaders have been taken as captives back to Babylon. Jerusalem has been reduced to rubble, and the Temple sits in crumbling ruins. The people of Judah are faced now with a terrifying idea: Has God abandoned them to life in Exile as punishment? Or was the Lord too weak to ever protect them in the first place? And which of these horrible possibilities is worse?
In the midst of the chaos, Jeremiah the prophet hadn’t exactly been a calming voice. He was witness to the great hope in Josiah and the quick fall into wickedness and destruction. It was Jeremiah who warned that the Lord “will prepare destroyers against” Judah and spoke words of woe. Even the prophets wouldn’t be spared, said the prophet, for God “would make them eat wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink.” And now – now, after all has been lost, now, after the house of the Lord has been destroyed, now after Zion has been pillaged – now he dares to speak of hope and restoration?
In the smoldering wreckage of Jerusalem and by the rivers of Babylon, these words must have seemed so foolish. As a psalmist wrote that the people laid down and wept, Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant – the arrogant fool!
For fifty years, these oracles from the weeping prophet must have seemed so utterly stupid. His dire predictions had come to pass, but how could there be any redemption when the Land of Promise had been so utterly destroyed? When the sons of David had lost their inheritance? Israel had been annihilated and never returned; how could Judah hope for anything better?
But this is the pattern we have seen already. In the days of Noah, when all creation had been unmade by the chaos of the Flood, God made a covenant never again to destroy the world. When Abram and Sarai remained unfaithful to God and to one another, when they abused Hagar and Ishmael, the Lord remained faithful to the promise that their family would be a blessing to the world. When the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, the Lord redeemed them – and then, when they made false idols in the desert, and all of the times they were tempted to return to Egypt, God kept the divine end of the promise, sending food and water and divine healing. When David murdered Uriah and had his way with Bathsheba, even then the Lord renewed the covenant.
And now – even now – the Lord God remains faithful to that same ancestral covenant. To those living in Babylon as captives, and to those residing in Jerusalem among the ruins, renewal did come. The Temple was rebuilt, the city restored. The Lord has kept the covenant.
When all hope seems lost, when grace seems furthest away, when we deserve it the least, even then, God remains faithful.
Does the world seem to be in ruins? Are violence and chaos threatening to win the day? You who would lay down and weep by the waters of Babylon: Know that God remains faithful. All will be restored.
Is your hope lost? You who mourn and weep, who know loss and broken relationships and pain, you who have spent so much time in hospital rooms and by gravesides: Know that God remains faithful. The Lord hears your cries.
Is grace far away from you? Are your sins ever before your eyes? Is your exile self-imposed? Know that God remains faithful. The Lord is merciful.
Next week, as our palms and procession lead to the Passion, as our loud shots of “Hosanna” turn to cries of “Crucify Him,” remember that the Lord has kept the covenant. Hope will seem lost. Grace will seem far away. Jesus our Christ will be lifted up onto the cross. Death will reign victorious for a time. But then – yes, even then – God will remain faithful. Restoration will come. The covenant will be fulfilled. Christ will be lifted up and exalted and draw all people to himself. And we will know the Lord.