I want to let you in on a secret: strawberries and balsamic vinegar. It sounds gross, but they actually are good together. Try it. See how the sweet, tart flavors of balsamic highlight the flavor of a ripe strawberry, and vice-versa. It’s the adult version of potato chips and chocolate.
This week’s lectionary texts also seem like they don’t belong together yet they do. On the one hand, we have the hope-filled language of the Comfort Scroll of Jeremiah, then we get Jesus predicting his own death after some Greeks said they wanted to meet him. One is churchy, while the other, the one with Jesus, is a real headscratcher.
If we are to recognize the Bible’s relatability to our own lives, this dissonance – the feeling of not going together – actually makes a lot of sense. In one day, we may be relaxed by a nice cup of coffee and a cool breeze, then by the afternoon your boss told you instead of the promotion you were expecting, you get to take on the even more duties for no additional pay. Your parents come for a visit, to tell you your cousin is in jail. Sometimes we get comfort, sometimes we get anxiety; and then we have times where we get both. We just hope they come in that order: anxiety or bad news, then the comfort. But, like today’s Scriptures, it is starting on the comfort that leads us through difficulty.
What is commonly referred to as the Comfort Scroll came after the dispersed Israelites returned from exile in Babylon. We like to think that they were very excited to come home, and they likely were, but coming home after generations of being gone meant someone else came in. There was rebuilding to do. There was a society to organize. Jeremiah’s words speak to the anxiousness they must have felt about who would do what jobs. And the most important part – setting up their religious life – was going to be a challenge. Many of the old leaders were gone, and the directions were not easy to follow. How would they ever live up to their longstanding covenant with God? How would they ever please God?
As God’s mouthpiece, the writer of Jeremiah reminds them: “I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah…They will no longer need to teach each other to say, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they all know me, and I will forgive their wrongdoing.” For a people who are already worried, it is good to hear God can see the need to change the agreement and offer them additional help.
Adapting to change takes time and a lot of tries. One of the great pieces of wisdom I was offered to succeed in ministry is to be comfortable with failure. God does not punish us for trying and failing. Here, the word goes further: God will help us in our trials. All that we are called to be is within us and we simply need to remember it. Then, we will spread the good news so effectively, there will be a day that teaching of who God is will no longer be necessary.
That is some very real encouragement in times of stress and worry.
Then we turn to John, and we see that encouragement get tested.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples have entered Jerusalem following the events we will celebrate next Palm Sunday. The greeting was wonderful, but the true test was what lie ahead.
Some Greeks in the city come up to Philip – the only disciple with a Greek name – and ask to see Jesus. Rather than going to Jesus by himself, Philip tells Andrew and the both of them go. I may be mistaken, but this doesn’t feel like following the hierarchy. It feels like Philip needs a buddy. He’s anxious about what Jesus will say.
If you read a little before this, you’ll be reminded that Jesus had just come in to the city to the sound of loud “Hosanna”’s of the people. It is easy to understand why the Gentiles would want to see Jesus – he was a celebrity that day. They may have heard of him before, or they may have noticed that someone who was not the incoming Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, or the acting king, Herod, was getting the day’s attention.
Jesus’ response cuts right to the heart of what is about to happen. He tells them that the moment has come for God to be glorified through the Human One, the Son of God in traditional texts, and that those who seek to save their lives will lose it and those who hate their lives will be saved.
In the reading, I purposefully left out verse 33, where the writer adds commentary that Jesus is speaking about his death. It is more interesting and telling to hear how Jesus responds without knowing that. His words are not meant to bring comfort. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” and “…[God] is gathering the good wheat and burning up the useless chaff.” Jesus is putting out a factual statement – not an ultimatum – that those who claim to follow better be ready. To the ears of the Greeks, and maybe some of the disciples, this sounds ominous, and maybe even reminiscent of the promised warrior-messiah the Jews expected.
What they heard and what we hear today are different. We don’t expect the warrior. We know of the savior, but what he says about giving away one’s life still induces a certain feeling of uncertainty and “surely he can’t mean that.” In short, we aren’t called to fulfill our own life plans. We like to use language that God calls us to do exactly what we are doing or what is comfortably within our reach, but if you read the gospels as they are written, God seemingly didn’t intend for all of us to live as comfortably as we do while others down the road suffer.
The main point, however, is that we recognize that God has given us the Instructions to follow the call of Christ from the moment we first recognized him. God calls us to a certain life of selflessness, and for those that choose it honestly, mistakes can be made and God forgives. We, like the Israelites returning from exodus, have a new covenant with God that allows for the murkiness of ministry in the modern age. As long as our hearts are in it, we can rest assured that our lives have meaning and anything we give to God will be remembered by God. The pressure to succeed is off, because God uses our successes and our failures.
For both Jeremiah and John, the lesson is not that we excel at our faith. God will work in us to achieve what is needed. We aren’t likely headed to a place where we have to give up our lives like the disciples, but we should be ready to give up our security and comfort if God so calls us there. We should have faith that God has indeed made us ready by putting the Instruction on our hearts to persevere through whatever trial we may go through as disciples ourselves.
This is the God whose people rebuilt the Temple again and again through the miracles of God’s provision. This is the God who led the people out of Egypt, brought them back from exile, cast out demons and healed the sick, gave new meaning to the broken and the lost. This is the God who has proven our sinfulness and cynicism cannot extinguish the bright flame of love. If we have that in our heart, we will know what to do next. If you are struggling to hear God’s word in your life today, start with the Scripture of Jeremiah 31. Pray for God to reveal the Instruction to you.
While it would feel better to hear Christ calling us to total discipleship and to give of our lives before being told that God has etched in our hearts how to do it, it is more like life to be reminded of the promises of God before we examine what it could cost. Charlotte-Fagan has offered many wonderful saints to the kingdom of God who were able to accomplish great things through this church’s ministry to the community just by believing God was with you. You built a church on the promise that a one, united church was better that two. You built a playground and a pavilion so people in the community would have a place to safely gather. You have held fish fries and pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners to fund mission work. You know how to hear from God, and I believe you will continue to do so if you ask.
Wherever you end up and whatever you do to glorify God’s kingdom, remember that God has had a purpose for you all along. It is engrained in your heart – a seed planted for a future day – and I hope you find it or are currently living in it. Christ calls us to follow him wherever he goes, but with the promises of God, we will bring about the kingdom of heaven to this world through the transformational power of Christ’s love.
 Jeremiah 31:31-34
 Matthew 25:46
 Matthew 3:12