In order to live, sometimes something in us has to die. If we are going to live in the Promised Land, we have to let go the parts of Egypt that still cling to us.
31The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: 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.34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
Can you think of something that is a positive live event, but which can also cause you to grieve?
When I was working as a chaplain in the hospital, I used to do groups in the behavioral health ward, one of which was a grief group. I started the group by asking group members to list the life events that can cause grief. They usually came up with the major events: death of a loved one, divorce, getting fired or laid off from a job—things that most people would consider part of life’s tragedies.
But then I would ask them if they could think of any life events which were generally thought to be positive, but which can still cause people to grieve. Can you think of any?
The one that comes immediately to my mind is watching your children grow up. My daughter was really into music. She and I did a radio show together, and I learned more about current music from her than from anyone else in my adult life. After she has left for college I was doing some cleaning around the house, and I found the first CD I ever bought her. It brought back memories of the excited 12-year old girl, who shared all the lyrics with me.
And I missed that 12-year old year. She was gone, never to return again. At the time I found that CD she was a freshman in college, who had done very well in high school, and who looked to have a successful future. She was 19 years old, and a very mature 19 years old. I was extremely glad that my 19-year old daughter was acting like a mature 19-year old. That was a very good thing. If, at 19 she was still acting like a 12-year old, that would be very bad.
Nevertheless, I still missed that 12-year old girl. She was gone. She grew up. She changed. She changed for the better, but she changed. She is no longer who she was. That’s a good thing. But in some ways a sad thing.
We tend to find that change is very hard. We don’t like change.
Today’s lessons are about change.
Jesus knows how hard change is. He says it is like death. He says a time is coming when He will be changed—he will be glorified, and he immediately follows that up by saying, “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.”
Some change is like death, Jesus says. Not all change, but sometimes significant change is like death. Something has to die so that something else can live. The 12-year had to do change, had to disappear, had to die, so that the 19-year old could live.
Think about some major changes in your own life. In order to make the change, you have to let go of some things. You had to let them die. When you take a new job, you have to let go of the old job. When you get married, as the Bible says, you have to leave your family behind, and cleave to your spouse. When you have children, there is a lot that you have to leave behind to become a parent. Now perhaps death is too strong a metaphor for most changes, but if nothing else Jesus is saying that major change entails major loss.
When the Israelites left the slavery of Egypt, slavery was all they knew. They were slaves. Their parents were slaves. Their grandparents were slaves. Their great-grandparents were slaves. They knew of the slaves and masters, oppressors and oppressed, but what did they know of freedom? What did they know of love?
So when the things started to get tough out in the desert, what did they do? They longed for Egypt. They longed to be slaves again, because THAT WAS ALL THEY KNEW. Believe or not, slavery was their comfort zone. Yes, it was horrid, but it was the devil they knew. Being out in the wilderness was scary. It was full of unknowns. At least when they were slaves, they knew what to expect.
So, believe or not, they often longed for the days of slavery. That is actually not all that unusual. An alcoholic or drug addict will do the same thing. They know that substance abuse may be killing them, but when life gets hard, many will long to return to the bottle or crack pipe because it is familiar. It is what they know. People who were abused as children often end up in abusive relationships as adults because that is all they know. I once counseled someone who was in an abusive relationship, and who had a background of abuse. I asked her if her current relationship was healthy, and she was surprised at the question. It never occurred to her that a relationship could be healthy!
For Israel, if they were to become the people of God, the Egypt within them must die. That part of them that was still a slave had to die. They could not take that into the Promised Land. They could not take pattern of Master and Slave, Oppressor and Oppressed with them into the promise land. They could recreate Egypt in Canaan. Egypt had to die, so that freedom could truly live.
In the same way as we enter into whatever Promised Land God has for us, Egypt, that part of us that keeps us down, has to die. Jesus said that in order for him to be glorified he had to die. He had to make a SERIOUS change. Now he was talking about his mortal body, but he goes on and he invites us to join him in death.
In order for us to truly come into glory, there are parts of us that have to die. Parts of us have to change. You cannot bring the anxiety of Egypt into the Kingdom of God, for example. In Egypt we fret about making ends meet, about making sure we can pay the bills, we worry about having enough to what we are supposed to do. But in the Kingdom of God, that kind of anxiety is like wearing a tux to a pool party. Or a swimsuit to a formal dinner. We should be wise stewards, yes. But anxious? Never. Do we not believe that God is in control?
Social rank and status have no place in the kingdom of God. That the way of Egypt. We are not defined by who we know or what we make or what we own, or what job we have or had. We are children of God. All of us. From the people who come to get food on Wednesdays to the founders of this church, we are all equal in God’s eyes. From the richest to the poorest, we are all an important part of what God is doing here.
Fear has not place in the Promised Land. In Egypt we are often driven by fear. Did you notice that last September and October the news was full of stories of Ebola, how radical Islam was taking over all the Middle East, and how the economy was falling apart? I’m a news junkie, but I tell you it was so depressing I stopped listening to the news. After the election in November we went back to hearing about George Clooney’s wedding and looking at cute cat pictures on the internet.
The slave masters of Egypt know that if they can make us afraid, they can control us. How often we react to political situations based on what we are afraid of, not what we actually want to see happen? I guess that is why it does not bother us that Congress is deadlocked. We are so afraid of what they might do that is bad, we would rather they not do anything at all.
In talking with other pastors about the current State of the Church, I hear a lot about what we should fear. The Church is shrinking, it is growing older, it is becoming more and irrelevant to people’s lives. Fewer and fewer people attending church, especially young people. There is more bad publicity about Christians than good PR. If I was looking to be afraid, there is a lot to be afraid of, but that is the way of Egypt. Fear has to die if we are truly going to enjoy the Promised Land.
So if we are willing to leave Egypt, then what are we heading toward? What is the Promised Land for us today?
Now let’s look at the Old Testament lesson.
In the Jeremiah lesson, God says,
31The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
Now at this point there must be a lot of people asking, “What was wrong with the old covenant? It was a perfectly good covenant. We don’t need a new one. I just got used to the old one.”
But God goes on.
32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.
Remember when I did the sermon on the Ten Commandments a few weeks ago? I made the case they were more like wedding vows than legal code, and here we find God saying the commandments were a sign that he was the husband of the people of God. But he seems to be changing the wedding vows.
33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: 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.34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
When I marry someone, there are usually two sets of vows in the service. The first are the traditional vows; Do you, [fill in the blank] take [fill in the blank] to be your lawfully wedded wife,
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better, for worse;
for richer, for poorer;
in sickness and in health;
to love and to cherish,
so long as we both shall live?
Those are the traditional vows, and I don’t give the bride or groom a choice in those. That is the old covenant.
But I also ask them to write their own vows, promises that they make one another, which come from their own heart. I have yet to have anyone object to the traditional vows, but plenty ask me, “Do we really have to write our own vows?
In essence they were saying, “I don’t mind you giving us vows that we need to keep, but we would rather not make up our own vows.” Now to my way of thinking, those are the most important vows. It is one thing to say to the person that you love, “I agree with what that person says our marriage should be like. But I am not sure I can articulate within my own heart what I think our marriage should look like.”
Is that much different for some people when it comes to their relationship with God? They don’t mind being told what their relationship with God should look like. They like the comfortable black and white world view where they don’t have to figure anything out on their own. They just read a book, listen to some sermons, and they know all they need to know about God. All the answers are found in the Holy Book and the teachings of the clergy.
Some people want all the answers in a clear, concise, and non-confusing manner. They don’t want complexity or shades of meaning. They don’t want gray areas. They don’t want any uncertainty.
But that is not what God promises. That is Egypt, and in Egypt God is little more than just another slave master—perhaps a kinder, gentler master, but still a slave master. We are not children of God in Egypt, we are not friends, we are slaves.
But love is not about keeping the rules. It is a relationship. And relationships are harder than rules. I don’t have to have a relationship with the police officer who is giving me a speeding ticket, or with the IRS man who is saying I owe taxes. I just do what they say.
I have a relationship with God. In John 15:15 Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends.” A relationship based on love is a totally different thing from a relationship where one is a slave and the other is a master.
God gave the people wedding vows in the Ten Commandments, but in Jeremiah we hear that God will put the law in hearts. Those are the vows we write together. That is where we acknowledge that God lives in us, and our lives are held in God’s hands.
We are never liberated into total freedom. Freedom always comes with responsibility. I have responsibilities within my marriage. The vows that I ask couples to write are still vows. But they come from the heart, not from an outside authority. They come from the essence of the relationship, not from obligations of slavery.
I once heard a speaker tell about getting on a bus, and a blind man got on the same bus at the next stop. He could tell he was blind because he had a Seeing Eye dog. The dog led the man to an empty seat, nudged him toward it, and when the man was seated, got himself comfortable under the seat. The dog apparently knew which stop they were getting off at, because he got up even before the man did, nosed his way out into the aisle, and made it possible for the man to get up without bumping into other people. He led the man off the bus and down the street.
The person who told this story said he was so impressed by this, that he following the man off the bus and said to him, “That is an incredibly well trained dog you have.”
The blind man said, “This not a trained dog.”
“Not a trained dog? But I saw him lead you onto the bus, into a empty seat, and get you off the bus at your stop. How can you see he is not a trained dog?”
“He’s not a trained dog. He is an educated dog.”
“Well then, what’s the difference between a trained dog and an educated dog?”
“A trained dog, you say ‘go,’ he goes. You say ‘stop,’ he stops. And educated dog, you say ‘go’ and if it is not safe to go, he won’t go. You say ‘stop’ and if it is not safe to stop, he won’t stop. An educated dog does not just follow orders. He does what is best for you.”
God does not want us to be trained dogs. God wants us to be educated. God wants us to follow the law written in our hearts, not just some abstract legal/religious moral code. God wants us to love, in the way God has equipped us to love.
The law in your heart will be exactly what is written in your neighbor’s heart. That is why Jeremiah says, “No longer shall they teach one another….” A person cannot just teach another person what to do anymore, because it is no longer just about following the whims and will of a slave master. It is about a relationship.
Now I have to honest, that means change and for some people that kind of change is death. They want Egypt, they want rules and regulations, they want to be told what to do. But that is the way of Egypt. And we live, we are invited to live in the Promised Land, where the relationships are not master/slave, but Child and Father. We live in the land of love, not the land of law. We live the New Covenant of God.