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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 03/18/2018

Easter is just two weeks away now. On Easter we get what you might call the exclamation point of our faith, the exclamation point that tells us that the God of the gospel is a God who brings new life out of death. That is the gospel, the good news; God brings new life out of death even though we don’t deserve it which is also good news, the good news that we call grace. The resurrection of Jesus was the exclamation point, but the reality is that God had been at the work of bringing life out of death forever because…that’s what the God of the gospel does.

In the case of Jesus it was new life out of physical death; other examples from biblical history were about more metaphorical or symbolic death, rescue or deliverance from any situation that seemed to be beyond hope, rescue or deliverance that provided new possibility out of impossibility. Whatever the situation though, this is the work of the God of the gospel, a God whose identity is defined by bringing hope out of hopelessness and brokenness, but again the God we worship had been doing this forever, long before the exclamation point of Easter.

It’s this God who in the beginning created the world we inhabit, bringing order out of the chaos, the formless void, in Hebrew the tohu wabohu, speaking the world and life into existence. It’s this God who appeared to Abraham and Sarah, an old couple, living out their final years, long past the time when a child, an heir might have been possible. But for this God, that barren, hopeless situation was no barrier as he promised them a child and a future.

It’s this God who heard the cry of the slaves in Egypt, tired and broken down as cheap labor, cogs in Pharaoh’s brick making empire. God heard their cry and raised up Moses to lead the people out of the death of slavery and into the new life of the Promised Land. They’re all examples of life out of death, hope out of hopelessness, examples of a new way when there seemed to be no way. That’s the business of our God; it’s always been the business of our God.

Today, two weeks before Easter, we get further examples. The exile was another time of hopelessness for the people of Israel and Judah six or seven hundred years before Jesus was born. One of the tactics of conquest in those days was for the conquering nation to remove defeated inhabitants from their homeland and spread them around in the land of the conqueror. That’s what happened to the best and the brightest of the people of Israel as they were resettled in Babylon.

The idea was that they would accommodate and become productive citizens in their new country and also that they would accommodate religiously and abandon their God, the Lord. Being spread around the Babylonian empire they would also lack the critical mass to regroup and cause any trouble. So it wasn’t slavery like that experienced by the Israelites in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Exile was more a loss of identity with the people having been separated from all that was familiar geographically, culturally and religiously.

Some did accommodate, but for many it was a kind of death; the sense of loss was profound and with that, there was a sense of helplessness regarding their ability to do anything about it. Their God seemed absent so what’s the use of praying when there’s nobody who hears?

There was silence until God broke the silence announcing that the days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with you. When it seemed like hope was gone, God broke the silence and through the prophet Jeremiah he let the people know that the reality of Babylon was not their final or defining reality. Their own God, the Lord was still the defining reality. For them, the promised new covenant was new life out of the death of exile, out of the death of despair.

And this covenant would be different, written not on the parchment of scrolls, but written on their hearts. Written on their hearts, the law of the covenant would become part of who they were, a guide for life lived in relationship with the Lord. It would be a covenant of law or actually a covenant of teaching would be a better word; but even more, it would be a covenant of grace based on the remarkable declaration, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”

Talk about new life out of death; hope out of hopelessness! The God of the new covenant doesn’t keep score, doesn’t hold grudges. Instead, there is the promise of forgiveness and not only that but forgiveness in which the sin is forgotten. I don’t know about you, but I can sometimes forgive, but I have trouble forgetting. But the Lord says, “I will remember their sin no more.” It’s an invitation to new life for the people in exile in Jeremiah’s time, an invitation later carried over and reinterpreted in the New Testament in the person of Jesus.

There then is a direct connection to today’s psalm, Psalm 119. You perhaps know that it’s the longest of all the psalms, 176 verses in praise of the perfection of the law, the teaching, the covenant that is to be written on the hearts of the people. If you try to read the whole thing it’s pretty repetitious and boring but poetically it’s actually quite a work of art. To help illustrate the perfection of the law, the psalmist writes in 8 verse segments with the first word of each of the eight verses beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, working through each of its 22 letters. So 22 times 8 equals 176 but usually it’s taken just 8 verses at a time which is the case today.

The law described by the psalm probably refers to the book of Deuteronomy which in large part is about care for society’s most vulnerable which at that time would have orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor. The law then describes new life, new possibilities out of the death of injustice and neglect. Life lived by the Lord’s teaching is a way of resurrection for those being left behind by the powers that be. New life and hope are built into the law of the Lord. It’s the perfection of that law that Psalm 119 celebrates.

In all of the gospels, Jesus’ includes teaching and foreshadowing concerning his own resurrection and new life. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he is pretty up front about it as he was in the lesson from Mark a few weeks ago: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

In John, Jesus is less direct, mostly using a variety of imagery to invite his disciples into the reality of death and resurrection. That’s what we get in today’s reading with the image of a grains of wheat planted in the soil and, having been buried, they grow and sprout again; there is new life. Jesus uses this figurative language to invite his followers to give up what is old and deathly, to turn away from that which separates them from God. It seems so obvious but it can be hard to do as we all have things that we want to think are good for us, we want to think they are not old and deathly or at least we want to think that they are harmless, but in fact they become things that wind up taking up too much space in our lives and seductively keep us from being who we want to be and from doing what we know we should.

Lent is winding down but this gospel reading today is kind of a final reminder of the need for repentance, a need that goes beyond Lent. The grains of wheat imagery is a reminder of repentance but along with the other lessons today it is also a reminder of resurrection and new life, the other side of repentance.

Our God is in the business of new life and resurrection and with eyes open, we see evidence of it. Part of our late in Lent repentance might be to tune out the voices images that would have you think that the world is just on an endless death spiral and instead to look for and focus on what is good, the signs of hope and new life that are around us if we pay attention, things like the stories about the Upsiders on TV6, stories of people doing positive things in their community, there’s the students of the week in the Mining Journal, each of whom is a positive presence in their school community; think about two of our young people singing a beautiful prelude this morning. They’re all evidence of the new life of God’s kingdom breaking into the world.

The stories of new life and resurrection aren’t just old time Bible stories. Those stories help us to remember but they also invite us to look around. They invite us to look around and see the God of the gospel still at work creating new life and hope.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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