Connecting with Bible Literacy

Sermon, United Ministry of Aurora, March 21, 2021

We are getting close to Easter. Once Holy Week begins, we’ll be swept along by the traditional rituals of Holy Week and Easter morning. This week, before we are swept up in the events of Holy Week, is a good time to step back and think about what the world-changing event 2100 years ago means for each of us personally.

Our carefully selected lectionary readings are helpful, they are connected. As I keep reminding myself - and you - scripture is a very important help and teacher. By asking each of the four readings to shed light on the others, we see more than the plotline and message of the individual readings. It helps to read beyond the “letter” of the Bible. Jesus in his life, so often taught about scripture by making connections. This is another way we Christians can follow in his footsteps.

I am grateful for many things about my mother. Especially for reading to me. An especially happy memory was her reading stories from Jack and Jill magazine to me. As Mom read the stories my eyes followed along, and I began to recognize that the little groups of letters went along with sounds. The sounds made words, and the words were full of meaning. The Bible is similar, but a little different. With the Bible, the stories, the parables, the regulations and rules are actually the letters. Like learning to read any language, we first see these ABCs of the Bible, the stories. The basics. With more time, we start to recognize the groupings, the connections, the themes. We start to move closer to understanding the capital W Word. Full Bible literacy builds on, then goes beyond the ABCs.

You folks here at United Ministry are in great shape, but I come across many adults who in this sense are Bible illiterate. They read only on the surface and get stuck on the ABC’s. This morning’s readings taken individually are inspirational, but taken as a connected set of readings, each selection helps unfold the meaning of the others. As a whole, we see the readings point to the almost incredible personal transformation each of us is invited to make. The transformation Jesus made possible for us on Easter.

Jesus wasn’t stuck on using just one teaching method. Jesus taught using words. He used stories - parables. Jesus also taught by his actions and by submitting to the will of God the Father. For real. In Jesus, God submitted to the extremes of human experience - and did this out of love for us.

We also know that Jesus frequently taught by making connections to explain meanings hidden in the Old Testament. How often do we read, “You have heard it said, but I say to you...”? This was not to contradict, but to unfold richer meaning. Jesus’ connections open up and amplify meaning, they lift our understanding to a place human words can’t take us. The Kingdom of God is not describable in our primitive languages. Jesus’ teaching guides us to where our transformation into sons and daughters of God begins to take place.

Let’s look at today’s readings. Before Jesus, God used prophets to communicate to God’s people. In our passage this morning, God tells the prophet Jeremiah - and tells us through Jeremiah, that God has a new deal coming. Here God shines a new light on our understanding. The Old Covenant was necessary at the time, but not sufficient for the future. This is 600 years before God came to be with us in Jesus. Let’s re-read Jeremiah paraphrased to emphasize the connections, and the earth-shaking change later realized in the events of Holy Week and Easter.

Here’s my paraphrase: -- I would have been their God if they were able to relate to me as such, but the People are not ready yet. When it is time, I will create a new covenant. This new covenant, to which each human can choose to become a signatory, this New Contract will no longer be a written set of rules. The New Covenant will be internal, a complete transformation of each person’s human nature. I will not only take away their past sins. I will remove the sinful human nature from each of them, and I will replace it with my own divine nature. I will be with my people in a completely new relationship which their transformation will enable. I will be their God in a way they could not have imagined, and they shall be my people in a way they could not have imagined. No longer will anyone need to be taught how to know the Lord. This transformation will place God within each of you, God present within each of you. I will be Emmanuel, God with you and inside you. You will only need to be awakened to this truth. --

Next look at Psalm 51. Our Psalm this morning lays out the terms for signing this New Covenant. We ask God for a new spiritual nature:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

But, then we ask for something even greater than forgiveness: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.__

God answered by sending Jesus. The first line of the Letter to Hebrews explains that God is now speaking to us in a new way, through Jesus.

WHEN in times past God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in many and varied ways through the prophets. But in this the final age he has spoken to us in his Son.

Connecting the Psalm with our reading from Hebrews we are given hints, glimpses of the mystery of how we can be changed from offspring of human parents to becoming God’s offspring. This New Covenant, by the way, is on the table waiting for our signature.

This Chapter 5 of Hebrews makes its own connections by beginning with a reminder of the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. Melech-Tzadik means King of Righteousness. This king is the mysterious priest with no human mother or father whom our father Abraham tithed 4,000 years ago. Hebrews teaches that Jesus was appointed high priest directly by God, in the order of Melchizedek. A break from human ordination and a break from human descent. This connection introduces us to the concept of a new birth, a second birth, a rebirth of the Spirit.

With these references in Hebrews, God begins to unfold the mystery of how we move from being the offspring of human parents alone, to be transformed into God’s offspring. We are told all we have to do is cooperate with God and agree to our spiritual rebirth. The spirit of God, once planted within us, will work our transformation.

And we come to today’s chapter from John’s Gospel. It was the time before Pesach, the Jewish Holy Week. Jerusalem was filled with believing pilgrims, Jews and gentiles. Some Greek lovers of God had come up to Jerusalem to worship God at the Passover festival. They had heard of Jesus. They came up to Phillip and said; “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

These curious gentile believers in God asked the disciples if they could see Jesus. The disciples brought Jesus their request. They got a strange reply. Instead of the expected, “Yes” or “No”, Jesus answered by referring to his earlier parable about seeds. As we connect the parable of the sower with Jesus’ answer, understanding opens further: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Jesus went on and when He spoke the words, “Father, glorify your name”, a voice from heaven answered. The crowd thought it was thunder, others thought it was an angel. Jesus simply said, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. **And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”**

That was Jesus’ answer. The gentile seekers could not see him yet. It was not yet the Passover and not yet Easter morning. Jesus had not yet ascended. But in his answer he made connections to his earlier storytelling and to the personal transformation of a New Covenant. The answer may have sounded obscure, even unhelpful, to those Greeks who came to worship, but Jesus was teaching.

Let’s sum up this teaching for us here today. We read last week that gazing in faith at the bronze serpent on a pole healed those bitten by poisonous serpents. Jesus teaches that when we in faith look to him ascended, lifted up from the earth, and restored to his place at the right hand of the father, we will be healed. The New Covenant revealed. Our sinful natures removed, our transformation realized. We will see Jesus with our inner eyes, not with physical eyes.

The celebration of Easter is on our horizon, but as believers we can see Jesus now. Jesus has already been lifted up from the earth. In these last weeks of Lent let’s use this time well. Let’s quietly recognize and reconnect with the Spirit of God within each of us.