Sermon for March 21, 2021
The ancient Greeks and Egyptians described a mythical bird called the Phoenix, a magnificent creature that was a symbol of renewal and rebirth. Just before its time was up, the Phoenix built a nest and set itself on fire. Then, a new Phoenix would rise from the ashes.
The city of Phoenix was named after this mythical bird for the valley is a place of death and rebirth. Settlers came to the area we now call Phoenix around 1870. The first thing settlers did when they arrived was to build a canal so they could have water for their farms. The area was originally called Swilling’s Mill after the man who started the farming. When the settlers decided to form a real town, many names were suggested. A man named Darrell Duppa suggested the name Phoenix. He did so because the settlers knew that a civilization had existed here before. The area was occupied from about 700 AD until about 1400 AD when the civilization simply disappeared. So, the name Phoenix speaks of a new civilization growing out of the ruins of a former civilization. This unknown people we refer to as the Ho Ho Kam which means the people who have gone. Even today we are thankful for the gifts of those native people who left the ruins of a grand canal system to help us understand how to live in this place. In our prayers of the people, we seek to connect to the native peoples of this land, both present and past.
I share this story because today we reflect on death and rebirth. We think about renewal. What might it be like for us to enter into a time of death and rebirth, even if we just do it symbolically? As we near the end of Lent, can we find our place of renewal in Jesus?
In our first reading, Jeremiah predicted that God would enter into a new covenant with God’s people. Jeremiah suggested that the old covenant was no longer working because the people had disobeyed God. Our Christian minds immediately think of the new covenant that Jesus brought. It is more likely that Jeremiah was writing about the people who had been sent to exile in Babylon. That exile in Babylon was a kind of death. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the culture gone. Jeremiah didn’t expect to be alive when the people returned but he predicted that a new Jerusalem could be built, out of the ruins of the old Jerusalem. It was Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant for the Jewish people.
One key to Jeremiah’s vision is his focus on that which is within us. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Commentator Larry Gillick wrote that “What is new in Jeremiah’s writing is the word “within.” There is a new emphasis on interiority. The Spirit of God will inspire each person to know what is the proper response. In the former relationship with God, externals were everything and they had to be taught the correct way according to their culture. The new covenant will not be written on stone, but within the hearts of the covenanted people’. Jeremiah spoke with hope for a new life that will come after crisis and transition, a time when the Jewish people would be reborn.
That was a major change from the sense that people had to be taught. Now, Jeremiah believes that the people won’t need to be taught. They will just know it in their hearts. Jeremiah’s concept of the New Covenant on our hearts fits so well with words that the Apostle Paul wrote many years later, that we will no longer be slaves to the law but we instead will know the love of God on our hearts. We know that we are children of God and our actions will flow from the love that God has given us. “
The hope of Jeremiah matches the hope we have as followers of Jesus. We experience Jesus as one who brought a new covenant to us. For us it is something that we live with in our hearts. It is given to us through death and rebirth.
In the gospel, several Greeks wish to see Jesus. It is as if the Greeks wanted to see a rock star after a performance. Jesus, himself speaks the words of death and rebirth. He told them that “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.” There are many ways we could understand his words in our lives. Perhaps we are to die to sin and then our new life will be fruitful. Perhaps we are to die to the things of the world and when we can we are able to experience God in a new and different way. Jesus then told them about his own suffering and death. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” We come to understand that through the death of Jesus, we are invited to a new life, a life in and through Jesus. Those Greeks who came to see Jesus may have expected some uplifting words. Instead they learned that we must give up the things that are most appreciated on earth, so that we can become fruitful followers of Jesus. They learned that Jesus would die a terrible death on the cross that would lift us up to a new life with him. They came to “see” Jesus but we do not know if they came to understand what Jesus expected of them and of us.
The idea of death and rebirth is mentioned even in the reading from Hebrews. It speaks of the importance of the death of Jesus. Because of his death, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”
I began today by asking you to remember the phoenix, the bird who brought new life through death. We are invited by Jeremiah to experience a new covenant with God after going through the experiences of hardship and trial. We are invited by John to follow Jesus because his death brought salvation to every one of us.
During this Lenten season, I have given up some simple things I normally do for enjoyment, things that help me get away. Instead, I have ended up reading and studying. I have so enjoyed the book by Michael Curry and the book by Mitch Albom. I have learned from the questions and words of others who have discussed these books with me.
We are getting close to Good Friday, our day to remember the great gift Jesus gave us through his death on the cross and we are so close to celebrating the glorious day of Easter, a time when Jesus overcame death on the cross and offered us our opportunity for a life after death. We still have two weeks to go through the meditation, the thoughtfulness, the times of listening to our hearts ask what shall I do? I think these last weeks before Easter will be my time to look for God in my heart rather than in the lines of a book. How might I symbolically go through a time of hardship or a time of death to reach a new life, a life in Jesus? It is not my time to die as Jesus did and it is not my time to simply act the way Jesus did. Rather, I hope that I will be better able to understand why Jesus did the things he did so that my actions will come from the same motivation. Jesus gave of himself for others. How might I do that now?
There is a prayer we often say as we do evening prayers during the week. It goes like this.
Come Lord Jesus
Come close to us that we may come close to you
Forgive us that we may forgive one another
Renew us so that where we have failed
We may begin again
I suggest that this short prayer might be good for us as we enter these last two weeks of Lent. It captures the idea that we have gone through the time of trial and that Jesus is the one who can pull us out of our worldly ways. Jesus is the one who can lift us out of our failures and help us to begin again. He is there for us even if we have to begin again over and over again. May you feel Jesus close to you this week and may you allow him to lead you out of the trial of your life to that place of new birth. Amen.
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