“Dying to Live”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
18 March, 2018
Lent 5B
Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

 

There was a period in my life when I struggled to hear or believe the promises of God.  We had just moved to England—a foreign land that spoke a familiar but different language, that participated in recognizable customs but had many peculiar ways about them.  I was glad that our prayers for Joel had been answered: he had worked hard for many years earning his doctorate, but then had to search patiently for several more before he was finally engaged full-time in the ministry of higher education that he’s exceptionally gifted to do.

Personally, I had felt called away from a church community I loved.  But, I had also been experiencing growing conflict with a colleague who was increasingly difficult to work with—so there were mixed emotions about the whole thing.  For the better part of a year, I battled depression and anxiety as I was without a job or clear sense of what I was called to do.  This in a year when the world economy was falling apart and we were financially crippled by a house that wouldn’t sell and the exorbitant cost of renting property in one of the most expensive areas of England.  I felt guilty for being angry and grieving my losses when my husband was finally doing what he was clearly created to do.  While I recognized that the experience was helping all of us to stretch and grow, I was not enjoying it.

Friends and family members encouraged me to enjoy the time and freedom from the tethers of a job, reminding me that God is faithful and something would work out for me “at the right time.”  I said the same words out loud to myself, in response to the private thoughts that whispered suspiciously that I was doing something wrong, that I had messed up somehow.  Because in a world that furiously peddles the lies that financial wellbeing determines personal worth, and that those who can’t find work are just lazy or unmotivated, even pastors can have a bit of a wobble—at least, this pastor did—wondering whether God’s promises are true (they are!), or if God truly cares (She does!).  By God’s grace, I emerged from that difficult place even more certain of my call and purpose in life.  Nonetheless, that period was, for me, what’s been described as a “dark night of the soul.”

Jeremiah’s audience was going through an even more soul-crushing experience than I had.  The Israelites, who understood themselves to be God’s chosen people, had been conquered by the Babylonians.  Their land was taken and families were forcibly separated, scattered from one end of the empire to the other in order to humiliate them.

Generations earlier, God had given them instructions regarding how they were to live in order to prosper and thrive, starting with Moses, who brought the law to the people on stone tablets.  But God’s people didn’t listen.  Or, they forgot—because lists are easier to remember when they’re written down, but stone tablets are cumbersome.  Jeremiah had been warning the people for years to repent, to turn back toward the God who longed for their attention and devotion.  Still, they continued to ignore the word of the LORD, and now they were paying the price.  Their hearts were shattered, right along with their world.  It was all they could do just to go through the motions of living, day after day, week after week, year after year.  That’s what a dark night of the soul feels like.

Each Sunday, there’s a moment in our service when we invite personal prayers of concern and celebration.  And I’m always aware—as are most of you, I’m sure—that the concerns expressed only scratch the surface.  There’s so much that doesn’t get said.  Some of us struggle in silence, maybe because we don’t want others to know how weak and broken we feel, maybe because we just don’t know how to put our pain, anxiety, grief, or cares into words.  It helps to know that others are willing to share our burdens . . . but it doesn’t make them go away.

It can be disorientating, devastating, to walk through those moments that the Psalmist described as the valley of the shadow of death—those dark nights of the soul that visit all of us at one point or another, and set us to our own experiences of “just going through the motions”.   And of course it isn’t only our personal problems.  Dreadful things are going on worldwide, beyond the immediate needs of the people we know personally.  So much anger.  And violence.  So much brokenness.  These are the things Lent asks us to notice on our journey, so that we can begin to answer the questions: Where do we find strength for today?  Where can we claim bright hope for tomorrow?

Against such a disconsolate backdrop, this morning’s message is as startling and hopeful and full of grace as it was 2,600 years ago.  Jeremiah, who had a reputation for being “the weeping prophet” for all the wailing he did over Israel’s unfaithfulness, sings a song of promise and consolation that’s as clear and profound for today’s world as it was for the Babylonian captives all those years ago—if we have ears to hear and hearts to absorb it:

The Lord is saying to them, and to us, “No matter what you are going through, no matter how much it hurts or how difficult it is to imagine a future with hope, I promise you, it will get better one day. And you are not alone. I am with you to the end of the age.”

  • One day, the Lord says, the house of Israel and the house of Judah will be restored.
  • One day you will be able to return to the land that the Lord gave to you.
  • One day your homes and businesses will be rebuilt.
  • One day you will have work again.
  • One day your divorce will be a thing of the past.
  • One day shame will no longer control your life.
  • One day your grief will become manageable and you will smile and laugh again.
  • One day you will no longer be a slave to your addiction.
  • One day there will be a new covenant.
  • One day the sins of the past will all be forgotten and you will be given a fresh start. The slate will be wiped completely clean.
  • One day Christ will come in final victory and we will feast at his heavenly banquet. [1]

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…” (Jer. 31:33).  Oh, that the day would hasten when our hearts might be soft enough, malleable enough, to receive divine instruction that’s allowed to reshape and refashion our whole way of being!

But we human beings have learned how to harden our hearts—because soft hearts care, and caring can result in pain.  And we’re taught in all sorts of ways that pain is to be avoided.  If we feel an ache, we should find a way to deaden it—grab the Tylenol, the Ibuprofen, or something stronger.

There’s a sense in which paying attention to pain is necessary: pain serves an important purpose, which is to tell us that something isn’t right.  Something isn’t right in our body, or in our soul.  And there are various ways to address the things that aren’t right, including the things that aren’t right spiritually.  But too often, we run from the pain—we find ways of covering it up, or at least numbing it for a while, especially the soul-related afflictions.  We certainly don’t like to sit with the discomfort, to try to understand it, to ask God what we might learn from it, to allow it to change us.  But what if we did?

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that we ought to seek out suffering.  Nor am I saying to those who are suffering that it represents God’s will.  Above all, I believe that God knows suffering firsthand from personal experience in relationship with humankind—the pain of rejection, betrayal, neglect, hostility… the gambit—and God doesn’t desire our suffering, though God is with us in it.  And any strength we discover in the midst of pain or suffering is an expression of divine love and presence with us.

But more often than not, our soul-sickness has to do with the protective barriers we’ve fashioned around our heart.  Those same shells we’re “fortifying” with our various numbing strategies (whether drink, or food, or other drugs, gambling, pornography, television, books, work, internet, etc.)—they prevent us from the growth and flowering in faith and relationship with God and others, that God intends for us and that our hearts yearn for.  When we sit with our discomfort, when we take the time to just sit patiently and quietly with it, and pay attention to it rather than finding ways to silence it or dismiss it with our various diversions, we start to learn from it.

We know that God understands and identifies with our troubled souls, because Jesus himself admitted to his disciples in our Gospel reading: “Now my soul is troubled.”  He had been approached by Philip and Andrew, who informed him that some Greeks were searching him out at the Passover festival they were all attending.  This was a sign that his message and reputation had spread far and wide, which represented a profound threat to the powers-that-be.  Jesus recognized that his days were numbered.  Things haven’t changed: even today, government leaders are exposed for hunting down and seeking to assassinate individuals who threaten them in some way or another.  Jesus understood that the world’s bankrupt ways of handling things would be fully exposed if he refused to respond with either fear or retaliation.

Still, notice how he engages the temptation to escape: He says, “And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”[2] Jesus recognizes that the meaning and purpose of his life is found in the act of personal sacrifice for the sake of divine love: “Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “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.”[3]

As Margaret Farley explains, ““Grains of wheat must in a sense die to what they are if they are not to remain alone and fruitless.  And so it is that human individuals must in a sense die to their love for their own lives, lest in loving themselves above all else they lose their lives and paradoxically destroy themselves.”  She continues, “Jesus says that his very soul is troubled.  Yet he will not ask to be spared this hour, for it bears the reason of his life.”[4]

Jesus did not avoid the hard things of life, not even in his personal dark nights of the soul, because he recognized that in them resided the purpose of his being.  The world will tell us we should sacrifice nothing when it comes to ourselves, and our own interests.  But when we live by the world’s wisdom—avoiding pain, hardening our hearts, becoming characterized by the shell we hope will make us invulnerable—we lose the life God intends for us, life that is vibrant, joyous, fully alive.

There is no resurrection without death first.  In these final days of Lent, as we approach Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection, it’s worth remembering that we cannot fully experience the joy of Easter without first contending with Good Friday.  Sisters and brothers in faith, when you’re in a dark place, the temptation is to think you’ve been buried.  Perhaps you’ve been planted.  Embrace the Gospel: be like that grain of wheat Jesus talked about, and bloom.[5]

[1] Dawn Chesser, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lent-2018-worship-planning-series/march-18-2018-promise-fifth-sunday-in-lent/fifth-sunday-in-lent-2018-preaching-notes

[2] John 12:27-28a.

[3] John 12:24-25.

[4] Margaret Farley, Feasting on the Word, Vol. x, Year B, pp. 140, 142.

[5] “To Save a Life” Facebook page post, adapted.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC