Renewing His Covenant


Sermon for Sunday, March 18th



Last week I began my sermon talking about good King Hezekiah. Well good King Hezekiah was followed by his son, bad King Manasseh. Manasseh went out undoing all of his father’s reforms, and again worshiping foreign Gods. Well bad king Manasseh died and was followed by his son, good King Josiah. Josiah was only eight years old when he came to the throne, but by the time he was eighteen, he had already begun to reform the worship in his kingdom that his father had corrupted. Once again, the pagan altars and shrines were taken down and he set about refurbishing and restoring the temple in Jerusalem.


Josiah told the high priest, a man named Hilkiah, to go into the temple treasury and get money to pay the workers there. I guess some aspects of religious life never change…we are always looking for money to fix God’s house. Well, while Hilkiah was rummaging around in the temple treasury he found a scroll and as he opened it and began to read it he realized: this was God’s law, his Torah, his commandments. This was the story of how he had saved his chosen people and brought them to this land. But it wasn’t being processed around and celebrated. It wasn’t in a grand ark in the temple in a place of dignity and honor. Here it was, in the basement, unused and unread. Hilkiah can’t believe what he is reading. So he takes the book to the king and when King Josiah hears the words of the scroll, he tears his clothes. How far have his people strayed from God’s ways! How could they have forgotten God’s law! How could they have forgotten the story of their own salvation?!


Josiah has the entire community gathered at the temple: all the priests, all the prophets, big people, small people, everyone from the least to the greatest…and he has the book read. And the people hear how God had saved them. They hear how time and time again God made a covenant with their ancestors: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. They hear the commandments and the law that was given to Moses. And they also hear how time and time again, God’s people broke his covenant. But each time God’s people proved to be unfaithful, there was God, ever faithful. Each time the covenant was broken, there was God, ready to renew it. Ready to forgive, ready to start over. It isn’t that the people never had to suffer for their own sinfulness, they did, but God always fulfilled his end of the bargain. He never forsook his people. All of those covenants that he made were everlasting. God would not fail, even if his people did.


Inspired by this proclamation and reclamation of God’s Torah, his law, his divine story, Josiah declares there in front of all of Jerusalem that he and his people would renew this covenant. They would follow God’s commands with all their heart and all their soul. They would observe the Passover, which had not been celebrated in generations. They would tell their children about the greatness of their God and they would teach them to walk in his ways. And when Josiah was finished speaking the people stood and cheered. Yes, they would keep this covenant.


Standing there in the temple courtyard was the High Priest’s, son. He was a young prophet in his own right, just beginning his career of serving God. He wouldn’t forget this scene. Perhaps he was a bit skeptical as young people often are. Perhaps he doubted that all these people gathered here would really keep this covenant. So many times before God’s people would prove faithless…why would this time be any different? And yet…he found Josiah’s words inspiring; he loved the idea that God’s commands should be taken into our heart and soul, and not just be letters on a scroll that can be rolled up and forgotten. Wouldn’t it be great if God’s covenant was always met with the love and enthusiasm that it was on that morning? Well maybe this young man was unsure about God’s people, but he was sure about God. God would be faithful.


The young man’s name was Jeremiah. And he didn’t forget that morning. The image of people rejoicing in the love of God, celebrating his word, committing themselves to his law in heart and soul, that moment must have imprinted itself upon his soul, because it was a vision of hope that he would cling to for the rest of his life.


The prophet Jeremiah can be a tough read for most people. He predicted and witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and he wrote about it vividly. Most of his prophecy seems dire, negative, painful, because the people of his land did stray from God again; again they broke his covenant, and he knew that they would continue to do so. I can only imagine that he lived with a broken heart; broken by witnessing how far people have strayed from the love of God. And yet…right there in the middle of Jeremiah’s book is this little group of verses, interrupting the death and destruction to shine a light of hope. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” Jeremiah said that God would renew his covenant with his people again. Despite their failures, despite their faithlessness, God would be faithful. But if you only read those few happy verses and ignored the difficult ones that come before and after you might miss an important detail: when Jeremiah says that God will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, the House (or the Kingdom) of Israel is already dead. The people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel have already been massacred and hauled off into exile by the Assyrians. When Jeremiah says that God will make a new covenant with the House of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, he is talking about a Kingdom that is about to die at the hands of the Babylonians. So, God is going to make a renewed commitment or a renewed covenant with people that are either dead or dying. Jeremiah says that the death of his people, even death as a result of their own sins, will not cut them off from God forever. God says that the sun and the moon will pass away before he would reject his people. No, God will restore his people, he will reestablish the Kingdom of David, he will forgive their sins. That is a supernatural hope. There is a reason why we say in our creed that God through the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets; there is a reason why we honor them: because to be able to see what Jeremiah saw (all of the sin, the pain and the suffering) and still to hold on to even a seed of hope, well that is a profound grace. To stare death in the face and see the potential for rebirth and new life, that power, that message, comes from God.


Try to see in your mind, try to envision this renewed commitment and covenant that Jeremiah is talking about. What would it look like for someone’s heart to be so united to God, so in love with God, that observing God’s commandments are as much a part of their life as breathing in and breathing out? What would it look like for someone to be such a person of prayer that day and night their attention was turned toward God and that those who witnessed that prayer would have no question that God had heard them? What would it look like for someone to be so obedient to God that even their own suffering and death would not turn them away from following after God? What would it look like to be a part of a kingdom that no ruler of this world could destroy? What would it look like for God’s covenant to so shine in your life that even foreigners, people who worship others gods, are drawn to you and want to know your Lord? Have we ever seen someone whose union with God was so strong that even death could not break it? Have we ever seen a glimpse of this new covenant that God has promised us?


Maybe we have…



Symbol or Idol?


Sermon for March 11th, 2018



Around the year 715BC, a new king came to the throne of the Kingdom of Judah. The King’s name was Hezekiah; a young man, a reformer, and by the account of our scripture, a good king. Hezekiah could see how his people had over time drifted away from the right worship of God. They had slipped into various forms of idolatry and they were worshipping in various high places around the country in ways that maybe resembled their pagan neighbors a bit too much…at least too much for Hezekiah. So he went about tearing down these other altars; he encouraged his people to worship only the God of their ancestors, to obey his commandments, to trust in him, and to make their sacrifices at his temple in Jerusalem. But there is an interesting footnote to Hezekiah’s reform is this little half verse that we find in the Second Book of Kings:


“He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.”


He broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses made. We can’t really date Moses in the same way that we date Hezekiah. We don’t have the same historic artifacts, but what we can be sure of is that he would have lived a long time before Hezekiah. So this bronze serpent would have been at least 500 years old. Think about this: this was an artifact of the great prophet Moses; something he actually touched and made; still there, in the same place. It is the kind of thing that Indiana Jones would have risked his life for, but Hezekiah has it destroyed and broken into pieces. That should have shocked people; it should be shocking to us; you would think that the scribes would have condemned Hezekiah for this bit of destruction but they don’t; they applaud him for it. Why? Why was Hezekiah so intent on destroying this sacred relic?


The clue is there within the verse: “…the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” Because it had become an idol. It wasn’t an idol when Moses made it; God told him to make it, it was a powerful symbol. But now people were bowing down to it and serving it; they were breaking God’s second commandment and treating this piece of metal as if it were a God itself: making offerings to it and treating the statue as if it had magical powers. The people no longer understood where the true power of the bronze serpent came from, so as far as Hezekiah was concerned, it had to go.


If the bronze serpent didn’t have magical powers, if it didn’t have power in itself, surging up and down the metal, then where did its power come from? How did it save the children of Israel? Why did Moses make it?


Well let’s review for a moment what is happening in our passage from the Book of Numbers today. The children of Israel have been freed from bondage in Egypt, they have received God’s commandments on Mount Sinai, and now they find themselves wandering in the desert for 40 years. And almost every step along the way is another complaint: it’s hot, why did you bring us here, where are we going, we’re thirsty, we don’t like this food. It doesn’t seem to matter how many miracles Moses performs, his followers are never happy for very long. You would think that with all they have seen that they would trust God by now, but No. “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.’”


Well, yes, people that are hungry and thirsty can get a bit cranky, but I don’t think that’s what’s really going on here. In the first place they do have food (by their own admission) they just aren’t satisfied with it. God has been feeding them with manna from heaven since they have been in the desert, and they don’t even have to work for it. They just have to pick it up. So they aren’t starving. And if you look in the last chapter you will find that when the people were thirsty Moses was able to make water come from the stone, so they have had water. Still these people just don’t seem to be satisfied with anything that God has done for them. They don’t trust in God’s promises, they have a loose adherence to his commandments, and worst of all they don’t like his food. How insulting!


There is another biblical story that comes to mind when God’s children didn’t trust him, didn’t obey his commandments and weren’t satisfied with his food. It seems to me that Adam and Eve had a pretty good thing going: all the food they wanted that they didn’t have to work for, comfort, security, God’s protection and only ONE commandment. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. And who was it that convinced them that their food wasn’t good enough? Who did Adam and Eve decide to trust more than they trusted God? Oh yeah….a serpent.


The serpent’s punishment for his deception is to forever eat the dust of the earth and to live in enmity with the children of Eve. “He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” Adam’s punishment was that he shall now have to work for his food.


So here we are gathered in the desert, the children of Israel are not trusting in God and they are complaining about God’s food that they didn’t even have to work for. So I imagine God looking down upon the children of Israel, who also happened to be children of Adam and Eve, and saying: “so if you would rather trust in the serpent and where he is leading you, then so be it. Let the serpent feed you.” Sometimes you have to let people make their own choices, even if they are the wrong ones. And the people quickly discovered the mistake they had made: the age old curse was still true; the serpent did bruise their heels and instead of offering them food, feasted on the children of Israel instead.


So what is God’s solution? He is, after all, a God of mercy and surely doesn’t wasn’t his children to suffer. If that were the case he could have just left them in Egypt. How does he get these people to recognize the destructiveness of their own behavior? How does he remind them of his own faithfulness and their own propensity to ignore his promises and become impatient and ungrateful? He tells Moses to make a symbol. Put it up high where everyone can see it. And what should that symbol be? Something glorious and beautiful? No. Something grotesque. Make it a symbol of death. The very thing that is attacking them, the symbol of their own sin, the serpent. Put that on a pole and when they are suffering from that serpent’s sting, let them look on that symbol and they will be saved.


Was there some kind of magic in that bronze pole? I don’t think so. Hezekiah didn’t seem to think so either. The real power of the bronze serpent was that it forced people to confront their own failure. The Israelites had been untrusting of God, impatient, ungrateful; they listened to their own desires more than they listened to God’s promises and the ultimate symbol of that was this snake. In gazing upon the snake they realized, inside, how much they still needed God. The power of the snake was not in the metal, it was in the change of heart that it caused inside those that looked upon it. Symbols have great power, not by magic, but by how they direct our souls to truth and reality that we often ignore or simply cannot see. When the symbol stops causing us to look within, and becomes an object of devotion in itself, then its true power has been lost. That’s why Hezekiah tore it down.


Even though that statue was long gone by the time that Jesus walked the earth, its fame lived on. The people still needed a symbol. People still needed to be confronted with the reality of their own sin; humanity still needed to look its own failure square in the face, and individuals still needed to turn their hearts back toward God and his promises. Jesus predicted that there would be a new symbol. It would take its place high on a hill like the last one, it would be held up for all to see, but this time it wouldn’t be a bronze serpent on the pole, it would be his own flesh. The grotesque image of death would be his own, but the message would be the same: turn your hearts back to God. Don’t hide from God like Adam and Eve, cowering in the darkness, unable to face the reality of sin, but look it in the face; come into the light and trust that the God in the garden, the God in the desert, and the God on the cross have all come not to condemn, but to save. Eat the food that God has given you, and trust in where he is leading you. The symbol may be different, but the effect within us can be the same. It still has the power to give life to those that are dying.


What do you see when you look at a cross? Do you see a magical talisman? A good luck charm? Protection against vampires and evil spirits? Do you see a reminder of someone else’s sin? A relic of Roman oppression or religious hypocrisy? An innocent man put to death? Is this symbol only about someone else, or is it also about you? Does the symbol force you to confront something within yourself that you would rather not look at? Do you see your failures, your sins? Do you see God’s mercies? Is anything happening within your heart? Does the symbol change something within you? Does it have power and if so where does that power come from? What do you see when you look at a cross?





Written on our hearts


Sermon for March 4th, 2018


We began our service today with the Decalogue, or the recitation of the Ten Commandments. In olden times that was done a lot more often. In the old prayer book the priest was instructed that the ten commandments had to be recited at least once a month, now that is optional. We do it once a year here, which is still more than many churches, but most masses begin with Our Lord’s summary of the Law:


You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.


Critically important words. And of course, if you look at the commandments you will see the truth in that statement: God’s Ten Commandments are focused on either our love for him or our love for each other, that’s true. But maybe sometimes it is better for us to see what that looks like in action.  Maybe we need it spelled out for us. I do wonder if we hear these laws enough for them to be truly written on our hearts.


I like that phrase from the end of the Decalogue: “write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.” Make adherence to these laws a vital part of who we are. Have them reside in our hearts where we hold everything that is most dear to us.


I have to admit that I am not crazy about the response “incline our hearts to keep this law.” It’s traditional, but it doesn’t seem strong enough to me. “Incline” is just too weak a word here. Maybe it is just a language issue; perhaps it is meant to have a stronger connotation, but when I hear incline or inclined I think preference. I am inclined to have a cup of coffee in the morning. I am inclined to have fries with my hamburger. I don’t want to be inclined to keep God’s commandments, as if they were about my pleasure or convenience; I want them to be something that I am compelled to do even when they are difficult or inconvenient, because my love for God won’t allow me to conceive of anything else. I want them to be such a part of who I am, that even when I break them because of my own weakness that my heart cries out for me to repent and turn back to God. I want to be appalled at the idea of breaking God’s Commandments, not resigned to it.


Let’s be honest, I think most people, if they care about the commandments at all, are only really appalled or horrified when one of them is broken. Lying, adultery, theft, we may disapprove of those things but they are common enough that they don’t really trouble us or disturb us. It is murder that we find truly appalling, so much so that we judge other sins in comparison to it: “I’m not perfect but I’m no murderer.” Or “He may have done a few bad things but he’s no murderer.” It seems like that is where we are setting the bar for being a decent human being…not being a murderer. I may have ignored most of the other commandments but at least I haven’t done that, so I must be ok…I wonder if that is what we tell ourselves sometimes.


I am all the time listening to great preachers and just recently I heard a sermon by Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of the last 40 years. He was preaching on the Epistle of James and he quoted an English essayist and satirist that I had not read before: Thomas De Quincy. Thomas de Quincy wrote a satirical essay in 1827 called “On Murder Considered as one of the fine arts.” Well you know some people never appreciate satire and he must have received some accusation of actually approving of or condoning murder, so he wrote a follow up essay in which he said he was completely against murder because…in his words:

“For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time. Principiis obsta …that’s my rule.”

In other words: “Nip it in the bud” before it becomes serious.

Thomas de Quincy was joking of course, but when you hear it put like that you realize how inclined we are to make light of some sins or commandments and focus intensely upon others. We weigh sins according to what we think is more serious and we judge others by whether we think their sins are more serious than ours. We can focus so much on one commandment that we lose sight of all the other ones we might be breaking and we don’t take them as seriously. This is a shame, but it’s nothing new.

When Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover he saw the money changers there in the outer court, exchanging Roman money for the temple currency. They didn’t want to have any graven image in the temple, which of course the Roman currency had, so they exchanged it. Trying to keep that second commandment sacred, which is admirable enough, but I have to think that their focus on one commandment must have blinded them to others. Were they charging a bit too much interest? Were the scales a little off? Did they maybe take a little more from the faithful pilgrims than they should have? In their attempt to preserve the sanctity of God’s temple, were they in fact defiling it with behavior and attitudes that were not fit for this holy place? Jesus seemed to think so. He famously drove the money changers out, but that wasn’t the first time that something like that happened.

More than 600 years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God into the Temple with a message for those gathered there:

“Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!” only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”

The temple periodically needed to be cleansed. People regularly needed to be called to a renewed awareness of all of God’s commandments, not just their favorite ones. The temple was very sacred for Jesus, but protecting that sanctity meant more than just avoiding having a graven image in your pocket; it meant having God’s laws and the love of God engraved upon your heart.

Saint Paul would later say to the Church in Corinth: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” I for one believe that the temple in Jerusalem is still sacred and holy, but I also believe that we Christians are called to be travelling temples of the Holy Spirit. If people could look into our hearts they should see a place where God is worshipped and adored. A place where God’s commandments are written, not as pious ideas or suggestions, but as truths at the core of our being. But like any temple, our hearts need periodic cleansing as well. Our eyes need to be opened, not just to the sins of others or to our own favorite sins, but to the other commandments that we violate by not taking them seriously or by forgetting them altogether. Maybe there are a few commandments I haven’t broken, but there are others I have. Maybe there aren’t any murderers here (maybe), but we all know that’s not the only commandment. It is fitting that in our Decalogue we ask for mercy after each commandment. We need God’s mercy and we need to be merciful with one another, but we also need to take God’s commands seriously. If Jesus were to look into our own temples, I wonder what he would find?