In the Lectionary

Sunday, March 25, 2012: Jeremiah 31:31–34, Hebrews 5:5–10, John 12:20–33

It's Thursday afternoon or later, and Sunday is coming. For a pastor, the push is on to compose a sermon with application that's relevant to its hearers, along with compelling stories that illumine the connection to daily life. I do not disparage these pressures; I know them myself. But instead of asking ourselves, "What must I get on with?" Duke Chapel dean Samuel Wells urges us to ask a different question when we're probing the biblical text: what's God up to? With this question in mind, we can create connections to daily life that have cosmic consequences. What God is up to, after all, is nothing short of making all things new.

The lesson from Jeremiah 31:31–34 forms a hinge point of towering importance. What God is up to here is a complete makeover of religion, from a calcified external form to an inner vitality alive to God. The Latin roots of the word religionre and ligio—mean "tying together again." That's what covenant, the key word of the text, implies. The old covenant, made by God with the people he delivered from Egypt, collapsed under the weight of an externalized, corrupted religion of form that lacked content. That ancient nemesis—a formalized religion with God left out—is still with us.

Yet Jeremiah, the prophet/preacher who embodied personally the woes of the broken covenant, proclaimed that God was up to a new covenant that would be written not on stone tablets but upon the heart: gut-located, heart-centered, mind-penetrated. At its core is what God is forever up to: forgiving sin and creating the community of the forgiven with a calling in the world. Christians hail the arrival of the new covenant in Jesus, who is God with us. In him we already live by signs and sacraments that point to the greater fullness still ahead. By the grace of the new covenant in the Lord Jesus, religion comforts rather than terrorizes, possesses a soundness that's beyond political partisanship and welcomes the stranger instead of scorning her in her differentness. We preachers must ask ourselves, "Where would Jeremiah see evidence of what God's up to in our world? Where could that discernment lead?"