Collect for Lent V
WE beseech thee, Almighty God, mercifully to look uupon thy people;
that by thy great goodness they mey be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for Lent
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing you thy hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jeremiah, 31, Vv 31 - 34
St John 12, Vv 20 - 33
In our first lesson we heard the prophet Jeremiah speaking to the people on behalf of God. God will, said Jeremiah, make a new covenant with his people. It will not be like the other covenants that he made, first with Noah, then with Abraham, then, some 430 years later, as Saint Paul reminds us in Galatians, with Moses. This latter covenant was based on what we call the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue. We know from our reading of the Old Testament that God’s people tried to be obedient to the many and various customs and practices that accrued to their religion. Many of these were given to them by Moses, or were handed down by priestly, oral traditions. The Pentateuchal books of Leviticus and Numbers are packed full of such requirements, particularly concerning animal and avian sacrifices. All this ceremonial endeavour proved to be more important to the Chosen People than the keeping of the imperishable Ten Commandments that God had given to them from Mount Sinai; commandments that were unique in their mode of utterance and method of delivery. God did not want from his people an absolute and unswerving compliance with an assortment of legalistic niceties when the great demands set down in his Commandments went largely ignored and unobserved. Thus he would give them a new covenant; a covenant, which, said Jeremiah, will be written in their hearts, not on tablets of stone. He will again be their God and they will be his people. Finally, in this portion of Scripture, God says that he will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. Here, as in many other passages in the Old Testament, we read of God’s promise to man that his sin will be taken away and a new covenant, a new relationship, will be established with him.
This sin, about which all the prophets wrote, stemmed from the first man that God put into his new Creation. As you will remember from your reading of the book called Genesis, God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life – he put his Spirit in him. The Hebrew word ruach, which appears in this passage, can be translated as wind or breath or spirit. God wanted this new being, created you will remember in his own image and likeness, to be true, loving and obedient. But, how could God determine the willingness of man to be these things? He gave Adam free will and then he gave him a test. He put him in a garden, a place of luxury and comfort, and provided a human companion with whom he could share his life. He told Adam that he had complete freedom to do as he wished but that he must not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that grew in the middle of the garden. We all know of the subsequent temptation by the serpent and the duplicity shown by Eve. They both ate the fruit and, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, through their disobedience, the perfection of the whole of God’s creation was shattered. God tried again and again to re-establish his covenant with his special people but again and again they disobeyed him, for example, by worshipping idols, by committing adultery and by murdering each other – in general by breaking God’s commandments. Adam’s successors (and that includes us!) have been a thoroughly wicked and sinful lot across the centuries and down through the ages!
What could God do? God’s much loved creature, man, had caused the fracture of God’s Creation by disobeying God’s will. All who were subsequently born have carried their share of this sin (the so-called sin of Adam). The six or so billion of us who currently inhabit the planet, and the billions who have gone before us, have all been tainted by this sin. None was, or is, or ever will be, perfect in the sight of God. There has only been one exception and to him we shall return.
Sinful man attempted to ingratiate himself back into God’s grace by offering sacrifices. As we have seen, the Law books of Moses are full of rules and regulations about this subject. Animals and birds were slaughtered and burned in their thousands as a ‘sweet smelling savour’ to God but of course it all came to naught. It was a man who caused the fracture in God’s Creation and it would require the sacrifice to God of a man to restore it. Only in the offering of the life of a perfect, sinless, human could man once again enter into full and complete communion with God. But, as we have seen, there was no perfect man, or woman, for this task. The only thing that God could do would be to create a human being who would be sinless, and thus a worthwhile offering. To this end he sent his only begotten Son to our broken and fragile planet. We are all familiar with the nativity stories of that amazing, incarnational event. Jesus Christ was born into our world, our fractured world of sinfulness and sinners. He came to live a life of perfection, a life dedicated solely to the will of his heavenly Father. He came to be the ultimate sacrifice for our cumulative sin and disobedience. He came to be what Cranmer’s Prayer Book so wonderfully calls, ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.’ Theologians refer to this as the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement and it was developed by Saint Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. I should, perhaps, add that there are several other theories of atonement, but we don’t have time to consider them this morning.
Our second reading told us of Jesus’ determination to become that perfect and sufficient sacrifice. Saint John tells us that, on the way to Jerusalem, some Greeks asked to see him. Jesus told them that, ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ He then said, ‘Now my soul is troubled.’ Here we have evidence of Christ’s human-self having serious concerns about the sufferings that he must endure, as we heard in our Epistle. But, he asks, ‘should I say, Father save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Not ‘my name’, you notice, but ‘your name’. Then, as if to give answer to Jesus’ prayer, those around him heard what was described as a voice from heaven, ‘I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.’ You will remember at the time of Jesus’ baptism God spoke from heaven and said, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’ Again, when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain God was heard to say, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.’ Here again the Father is amplifying this important point. Not being used to hearing the voice of God (certainly not in so direct a manner) some said that it thundered and others thought an angel had spoken to him. Jesus however knew exactly what had happened. ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine,’ and he went on to add, ‘and I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to me.’ Our reading ended at that point. In the three or so years of his earthly ministry Jesus had gathered around him a core of faithful disciples from among the many that followed him. They would become his Apostles when he commissioned them on the evening of Easter Day. Saint John tells us that Jesus breathed on them (another use of the Hebrew word ruach): in fact he administered the unique sacrament of sufflation. After his death these men would continue Christ’s work on earth and explain to all of God’s people the rationale behind the Betrayal, Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of God’s only Son. It was not completely obvious to them until the events of the Resurrection made things crystal clear that their friend and master was indeed that propitiation which would redeem mankind and take away the sins of the world.
On the evening of the night when he was betrayed Jesus gathered together with his closest friends in the upper room and explained to them the simple actions by which he would always be present with them and by which his power would be available for them and mediated to them. He told them that they could take two common items of food – bread and wine – and by calling to remembrance that solemn occasion; these would become his Body and Blood, which they would eat and drink. We cannot begin to imagine the impact that these words would have had on the disciples. In their exacting food regulations, handed down over the centuries by priest and Levite, the very idea of consuming blood, or even touching blood, was anathema, leading as it did to ceremonial uncleanness and defilement. To give you just some examples: three separate verses in the book called Deuteronomy all say, ‘the blood, however, you must not eat.’ Yet here was their Lord saying that this bread would be his very Body and the wine his very Blood! That Thursday evening meal may be seen as a practical demonstration of the procedures that they were to adopt. After all, the disciples had no need of any other sort of access to him at that time – Jesus was still with them, in the flesh. Jesus did not, as some scholars have suggested, celebrate the first Mass. The church calendar carefully separates the day when we celebrate the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, which we do on Maundy Thursday, from our thanksgiving for that sacrament, which we keep on the Feast of Corpus Christi. This is always the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday.
Some fifty days after the earth-shattering, Resurrection event, and after Jesus had ascended back to his rightful place at the side of his Heavenly Father, God the Holy Spirit came to fill the house where the Apostles were sitting with a mighty, rushing wind (that word ruach again). The book of Acts tells us that cloven tongues of fire sat on the heads of each of them. Thereby they were given authority to re-enact that ritual that Jesus had shown them to make himself available to them in sacramental form. As members of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (which we profess in our creeds) we believe that that God-given, sacramental authority has continued on down to our own times. We believe that through tactile contact, through the laying-on-of-hands, that authority has been passed down to our present bishops in a completely unbroken chain, stretching over something approaching two thousand years from the time of the apostles. Bishop Martin, at his consecration, had hands laid on him by other bishops, who had, in their turns, had hands laid on them, in this seamless and unbroken practice. By virtue of his Episcopacy in the Church of God he, in turn, gives his warrant to those whom he ordains priests in the church. These priests use this authority every time they celebrate the Holy Eucharist when they ask God to send his Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine so that they may become the Body and Blood of the Saviour. We know this part of the Prayer of Consecration as the epiclesis; a Greek word that means ‘invocation’.
So, every time we attend a celebration of the Holy Mysteries that new covenant made between God and his people, as told us by Jeremiah, is re-created for us and in us! He is our God and we are his people. As we move inexorably towards the end of Lent and enter its penultimate week – the period called Passion Week – we are reminded again that God desperately wants to be at one with all his people in a new covenant. To this end he sent his only Son to die for us and for our sins. Through this very act of supreme sacrifice God gave us, as a perpetual memorial, access to the life and the power of Jesus Christ.
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