Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, year B
texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-33
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
What if I’m not worthy of being loved?
What if I’ve not been good enough to be loved?
If people knew the truth about me, would they still love me?
These frightening thoughts are deeply rooted in our hearts. Even the most confident-looking have inward darkness of unworthiness haunting their outward boldness. We all want to be loved. We all need to be loved. We often find it hard to believe we can be. And if we are loved, we fear it can be taken away.
Whether we are loved by other people is enough to make us anxious. As people of faith, even more troubling is the question of God’s love.
This steady talk of God’s covenant promises we’ve heard this Lent raises in us feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, fear. We know we are not always what God hopes for us. We can say God is not our enemy, and God’s law is a good for us, not to be feared. It is true, God has said so.
That doesn’t mean we easily believe it.
We struggle as if it’s all about us, our failings, our weakness, our unlovability.
There’s truth in that.
If we fear there are things in our heart others find unlovable, things God doesn’t want to see, it’s because we know it’s true. We can’t easily look into the heart of another; we have to live with our own hearts, and we know them, we know the flaws. It’s not outlandish to fear we’re not worthy, not good enough.
As to God, we’ve made centuries of theology describing how broken we are, how sinful, how our human nature is warped. We talk about our relationship to God most often from the perspective of how messed up we are. As if there’s only one nature that matters, our human nature, which is no good. As if there’s only one heart that matters, our human heart, which is turned away from God.
Our problem isn’t that we don’t know the truth about ourselves, our failings.
Our problem is we’re often forgetting a deeper truth, the only one that matters.
The Scriptures tell us about the nature of God, about God’s heart, as if that’s what’s important.
Our readings today aren’t about our unfaithfulness; they’re about God’s intractable love. Jeremiah’s people are in exile, their homeland destroyed, their hope in tatters. From the words of their prophets to the knowledge in their own hearts, these people know they failed God. They know they were unfaithful to God’s covenant promises, their sinfulness led to their downfall.
But Jeremiah declares an astonishing truth: The LORD, the God of Israel, can’t let go of them. Yes, God kept every covenant God made with them and they broke every one. It’s true. They were and are unfaithful to God, not living as God dreamed and hoped.
None of that matters, Jeremiah says. God still wants to create a relationship of love with them. God’s going to try a new covenant. God says, I won’t write this one on stone or scroll, but on my people’s hearts. They will know me and love me, and know and love each other, from the least to the greatest.
This is the stunning revelation of Jeremiah: The only thing that matters about human sinfulness, about your brokenness, about our unfaithfulness is one thing: the God who made all things loves you, loves us, with an incessant, unexplainable love. The heart of God is irrevocably turned toward you, toward us.
Hear this again: God loves you completely and eternally, no exceptions.
We often say, “God loves you anyway.” “God loves you in spite of your sin.” “God loves you even though you are a failure.” We are doing God’s love a great injustice.
Jeremiah says, “God loves you. Period. End of sentence.” No “anyway”s, no “in spite of”s. But, . . . we sputter, what about all that bad inside us, what we regret, fear, are ashamed of, what about our sinful human nature?
Jeremiah says, You’re not listening. God loves you. And that’s that. There’s nothing you can do about it. You are worthy because God says so. You are good enough because God thinks so.
This is made abundantly clear in God’s final statement: “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” For the first time God builds into a divine agreement the promise of forgiveness and forgetfulness.
This is not Sinai, where God saved the people and said, “Now, here’s how you will live.” This is not Abraham and Sarah, where God promised land and blessing and family, and said, “Now, follow me and be faithful.”
Here God says, I will make a covenant relationship with you and I will change your hearts. And built into my part of the bargain is my forgiveness and my forgetfulness. Before you even think about failing, I promise to forgive you. That’s what God’s love truly is.
God wants this to be so clear it’s tattooed on our hearts.
The new heart David asked for is what God now promises. This heart will be marked with the love of God, “I love you eternally” written on every surface. Forgiveness from God isn’t about avoiding punishment. Forgiveness from God transforms us, gives us heart transplants, makes us new.
Now we are closer to Jesus’ mystery today. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” says the One who is God-with-us. Once again, the only heart that matters is the heart of God that will not rest until all people are drawn in. But God will have to die, be “lifted up,” to make it happen. God’s heart of love will break in order to break ours and begin to make ours new.
This willingness to lose everything for love of us is at the center of this new covenant first promised in Jeremiah and now fulfilled in Jesus: if the loving relationship comes with a guarantee of constant forgiveness, it will cost God dearly to keep that promise.
In God’s willingness to die out of love for us, we find our path.
God says, “Follow me into this loss.” Like a seed that must die when it is planted before it can become what it is meant to be, getting this new heart will be death for us.
But everything that will die is what we want gone: all our deepest wrongs, all those things in our heart we don’t want known, all our failings, all our stubborn resistance, all these die away when we are drawn into God’s love. Shame, fear, guilt, anxiety, they die, too. They’re tossed away, the shell of the old seed that gets discarded while the new growth comes forth.
The new heart made in us will be like God’s, willing to break for love of others, willing to begin and end with love and forgiveness, no matter what. The only way we get to that kind of heart is this path God’s heart makes possible for us.
Sometimes the truth that really matters isn’t the one we fear, no matter how true it is.
The only truth that can save us is the relentless, obsessive love of God for us and for the world. God’s is the only heart, the only love, strong enough to change our own hearts.
We will soon see at the cross how much it costs God. We begin to see in our own lives what it costs us to be so changed in heart. But today we rejoice that such unbreakable love is ours, always, and cannot be taken away, not even by those things we think only we know about.
God loves you. Period. End of sentence. And you will never be the same for it.
In the name of Jesus. Amen