Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 18 March 2018.
If any of us here joins a club or society, we will be expected to keep its rules. And these will state its aims and activities, the office-bearers and their duties, procedures in the event of a dispute and of course the keeping of accounts.
This is all basic stuff – but it can never cover all eventualities. It can never define and prescribe absolutely every contingency or how to deal with it.
Matters like this have to be left to the common sense and good manners of the members, to deal with situations and questions as they arise. And what applies at the scale of a social or interest group also applies to a society as a whole in which matters that emerge have to be thought through before they can be acted upon.
But imagine a society where everyone insists on rules to govern all possible situations: not only would this be impossible, but even if it were not, then its members would start to define the meanings and the extent of the rules and so look for ways of avoiding their effect.
And so in the time of Jeremiah there is the vision of a new kind of godliness, which is not defined or determined by rules and laws but by instincts lying deep in the hearts and souls of the people – and that means all people regardless of wealth or learning or standing.
God would plant His law deep within the hearts and minds of the people, who would personally and individually not only know what is right, but equally they would desire and determine to do it.
Then the life of the community would also begin to reflect something of the life and the nature of God: they would be drawn into it and they would know themselves and one another in relation to it.
This is the vision and the promise that Jeremiah had for Israel, but which we also see as being for the whole of humanity who will hear of it and desire to follow it.
And yet the vision requires far more than a simple telling of the story. It requires a seal or a bond to validate it and to apply it.
But this seal or bond was never going to come from within the human race alone. It would have to be directly of God but acting within the humanity He had created.
It would have to be both wholly Godly and wholly human – and hence the place and the role of the Son of God. Appointed to this task but not desiring it as a personal gain or trophy. Yielding Himself to the task of emptying Himself so that He could fully give Himself. Denying Himself in order to fulfill and achieve Himself.
This is where we find Jesus, teaching His disciples and leading them to the cross where they would both lose Him and find Him anew.
The cross would be both the climax and pit of extremity where the wholeness of humanity would be reconciled with God, as He offered Himself.
And so Jesus was teaching both the Greeks who sought Him out and the disciples with whom He was living, how His life and purpose would come to their summit at that place where His life was to be poured out and ended.
It would be in dying that people would find life and in denial that they would find fulfilment. This was never going to be about self-promotion or self-realisation.
It would be about prayer before God as they pondered their own lives, and finding fulfilment in loving God, their neighbours and one another. And even this love would be all about self-giving.
It was never going to be centered on receiving or being blessed even when both these things would flow from the practical living of their faith and commitment.
Perhaps this is where we see the letter to the Hebrews more clearly for it presents us with Jesus Himself praying with total dedication, and often in anguish and self-denial. He also was learning through discipline – as if He also were finding a personal discipleship as He waited on the will and purpose of God from within the very limits of His own humanity.
Part of Jesus’ incarnation was to learn godliness in the school of hard knocks, and to do so without complaint or resistance, and certainly not with any trace of disobedience.
And it is not as if Jesus was in any hurry to die or to suffer the flogging or crucifixion to which His path was leading. He certainly hesitated in the Garden of Gethsemane where His most earnest prayer was ‘If it be Thy will, let this cup pass from Me, nevertheless not My will but Thine.’
And even then He was glad to have the ministrations of an angel before His own passion had really begun. He was more like a soldier before a battle having seen one and knowing what was ahead.
But it was Jesus’ total commitment to the plan of God that sealed the covenant that God wanted with all people. And there was absolutely nothing sentimental or trivial about it.