Lent 5: A Passionate Heart
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2012
Psalm 51: 1-12 Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Our text from Jeremiah comes to us from the 6th century B.C.E. during the Jewish exile in Babylon. While the primary burden of the book of Jeremiah as a whole is that Israel and Jerusalem will be dismantled for their unfaithfulness, in chapters 30-33 — often called “the Book of Comfort” — a counter theme of God’s promised newness and Israel’s restoration prevails. Listen for the word of God.
My sermon this morning takes our two scripture readings and uses them to contrast two ways of entering into the observance of Lent. The first is the pursuit of forgiveness (Psalm 51). The second is the pursuit of passion (Jeremiah). With our reading from Jeremiah in mind, I’m calling this sermon “A Passionate Heart.”
Passion is the subject of Lent and especially of Holy Week, passion understood in its Latin sense to mean suffering: the suffering of Jesus as he made his way from Galilee to Jerusalem for his final Passover, his suffering betrayal by his friends even as they ate together, his suffering at the hands of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and on the cross; but ultimately, his suffering doubt as to whether God was with him.
This focus on Jesus’ suffering was developed during the twelfth century flourishing of the Christian faith, as people sought imaginative ways to enter into the story of Jesus. In an age when individuals and communities increasingly sought not just to understand their faith but to experience it, the traditional images of Christ the king, triumphant and victorious, crowned and extending his sovereign arms about the world, were gradually replaced with more realistic and sympathetic images of Jesus – first suffering, then dying, crowned with thorns instead of gold, and with arms stretched out not in victory but in pain. Jesus, who for eight hundred years had been seen as the king of kings, lord of lords, ruler of all, was now experienced as Jesus, the man of sorrows, suffering and bleeding, like us, and for us.
But to focus in Lent on suffering, and the suffering of Jesus’ final week in particular, is to overlook the far more common way in which we all use the word passion, a way which is more characteristic of the gospels themselves. To be passionate about something is to care profoundly, to be stirred and moved from deep within, to dedicate ourselves whole-heartedly. In this sense, Jesus had an all-consuming passion, a passion that filled not just a week, but his whole life. Jesus was passionate about the coming Reign of God in which the poor are fed and the thirsty drink, the imprisoned are visited, the naked clothed, and the homeless welcomed into our homes. Jesus had com-passion, a passion for and love of God’s people. His passion for the coming Reign of God is what moved Jesus and it was this passion that at the end of his life, he simply could not forsake, or turn his back on. Not because he was playing a role in some divine script that required his death, or in order to demonstrate superhuman endurance in bearing what no one else could bear, but quite simply because he could not imagine doing anything else.
In the Latin, passio or suffering, is a passive verb, reflecting the idea that something is done to us. Similarly, our passions are those dreams and desires that compel us, drive us, and define us. Jesus’ passion for God’s Reign may have cost him his life, but much more importantly, it was his life. The gospel story, from beginning to end, from incarnation to crucifixion, is first and foremost about the passion of Jesus, and not just about the suffering of Jesus. The resurrection of Easter morning reveals this story to have been, and to be, from beginning to end, from creation to resurrection, about God’s passion for us.
More than 500 years earlier, God was wrestling the prophet Jeremiah to a similar understanding of faith as passion for life. You see, for the people of Jeremiah’s time, the drama of redemption was not one of passion, but one of reward and punishment, of attempt and failure, of good intentions mixing with human sin -leading to disaster, every time. Before Jeremiah, the role of a prophet was to call God’s people, who has walked away from the covenant, to return, to come back. Psalm 51 uses the image of doing laundry: the human heart, smudged, stained, and dirtied with sin, is desperate to be washed, cleansed, made spotless by God. Guilt and forgiveness, where God’s grace merely makes up the difference between our actions and intentions. Now, this pursuit of forgiveness is something we all share, and understand because God’s covenant is reflected only imperfectly in our lives. We are not all we know we can be. There is a reason why, when we do laundry, we speak of cycles. Washing is something we must do over and over again.
But what we find in verses 31-34 of Jeremiah, in days that are “surely coming,” is the promise of a new covenant which is different from the former covenant to which Israel was unfaithful. God says of Israel “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” (c.f. 33b). The new covenant is not different in kind (it is still based, like the former covenant on God’s intention for justice), nor is it different in terms of the community to whom it is given (it is still given to the Jews who received the first covenant), but it is different because God has made possible a new kind of relationship that frees us from an understanding of law as a cycle of reward and punishment. Instead, the law written on the heart is a law that binds people in loyalty to God in a way that is so natural, that it will be something the community can live into and live with, not fear, fight against, or even, ultimately fail to observe. It is a covenant of passion, for passionate people.
Moses offered the covenant written on tablets of stone, and Jeremiah imagined it engraved on our very hearts. Jesus will imagine this new covenant as his very blood, the stuff of life, rushing through his veins. How could he, or we, do anything but pursue God’s intentions for us and for our world? How could we seek anything but to be faithful to one another and to God.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, close us the beat of our own hearts, and as natural, we believe that you are calling all of us to a new and deeper covenant of justice and well-being, one that engages our passions by using them for your greater purposes. As we enter the final weeks of Lent, accepting and sharing forgiveness, move us beyond cycles of reward and punishment to a place where our hearts burst with your presence, where our passions for your reign, for you’re your transforming presence, for your reign among us, are kindled and warmly shared. Unleash energy for our church’s renewal that we may find our vocation in the place where our passions and your worlds needs meet. For that day is surely coming, and this world is about to turn. Amen