Sunday, March 25, 2012

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent by Fr. Matthias Neuman

Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Jeb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33

The first reading from the prophet Jeremiah is one of the most famous passages of the Old Testament. It possesses elements of transcendent beauty in its image of God writing directly on the hearts of the members of the People of God. A scriptural highpoint, to be sure. But to grasp the complexity of the passage we need to know a little more about Jeremiah himself and his background.

Jeremiah came from a priestly family in the town of Anathoth, a few miles north of Jerusalem. His home area belonged to the old northern kingdom of Israel, which had been destroyed by the Assyrians. So Jeremiah knew well the difficulties of both lands, of Israel and Judea. He had a long career as a prophet (ca. 627-582 BC, 45 years) and witnessed many terrible events, like the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. A major part of the difficulty in understanding Jeremiah lies in the difficulty in establishing an exact chronology for the individual literary units that make up the Prophecy of Jeremiah. One cannot always determine who he is writing to.

In some ways that doesn’t make any difference. The clarity and power of his message speaks to everyone. The passage that we heard today comes from a section of the Prophecy that scholars call the "Book of Consolation." (Chaps. 30-33) It is written for people (whoever they are) who have a desperate need to hear a positive word from God. And this section is about as positive as you are going to find in the Bible. All the People of God, of both the northern and southern kingdoms, were in exile; they were punished because they had failed to live up to the obligations of the Sinai covenant. However, Jeremiah encourages them to have heart because the Lord God has established another covenant with them, a new covenant. They have been given a second chance.

The tremendous event that Jeremiah prophesies is that God has established a new covenant with them, different from the Sinai covenant. (By the way, this is the only passage that specifically mentions a "new" covenant in the entire Old Testament.) The covenant that Jeremiah prophesies possesses some very different characteristics from the Sinai covenant. The first of these is that this new covenant is unconditional. The people of Israel have no obligations as they did with the Sinai covenant. It is based simply on God’s everlasting love for His people. The second unique charateristic is that God effects this covenant by writing his Law on the hearts of each and every individual of the People of God. So, if you look hard enough, God can be found in your own heart.

What does this practically mean for us? It means that God is actively searching for us, for each and every one of us, no matter what kind of failings we may have in our backgrounds. God still pursues us and asks only acknowledgment and love from us. Realizing this caused St. Augustine to write his famous lines: "Too late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Too late have I loved you." (Confessions 10:27) He wrote that when he was 44 years old. Likewise the poet, Francis Thompson, captured the sense of God’s pursuit of us in his classic poem: "The Hound of Heaven." "I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the year; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him....From those strong feet that followed, followed after." (Vv. 1-3) The message of Jeremiah is simple: God is pursuing each one of us.....right now and through all our lives. The response is ours!

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