Have you ever heard thunder snow? It’s just what it sounds like: claps or rumbles of thunder in the midst of a heavy snow fall. Thunder snow is most common in the Great Lakes region of the United States, and it is most often heard during lake effect snow events. Since I grew up and lived most of my life between lakes Erie and Ontario, I have heard thunder snow often. It’s always an eerie and unexpected phenomenon, even if you’ve become accustomed to it.
Imagine the surprise of those standing near Jesus when they heard a sound coming from the sky that many described as thunder. The gospel of John says that it was in fact the voice of God responding to Jesus’ words “Glorify your name.” The voice rumbled, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
People weren’t expecting to hear God, not only because it wasn’t a normal thing to hear voices from clouds even in Bible times. For all intents and purposes, God had been uncomfortably silent for nearly five hundred years since the major and minor Hebrew Prophets. No one was expecting to hear God.
One of the prophets who did hear and speak for God was Jeremiah. God gave Jeremiah the ability to look into the future and see what would happen if people kept disobeying God’s directions. God is described by Jeremiah and other prophets as supremely frustrated. After bailing out and protecting a rather fickle people over and over again, the Hebrews kept experimenting with other gods and engaged in unjust, hurtful practices that broke God’s heart and frankly made God mad. Breaking God’s law as well as God’s heart had consequences, and an unpleasant exile into scary Babylon loomed on the horizon. Jeremiah could see it, and he was distraught. Jeremiahs is sometimes called the “weeping prophet” because of the tears he shed while delivering news of a future he wished the Hebrew people would avoid. He could see the future, and what he saw made him cry.
Prophets come in all ages and genders. One of our local prophets is Rev. Harriott Quinn. Harriott was expressing her deep distress this week over systems and politicians who refuse to see the impact of our collective sins against the earth. It’s not just something looming in the future, but the consequences are being experienced right now. In our conversation, I referred to Harriott as “the weeping prophet” and she said, “I have no more tears to cry.” Prophets carry a great burden and they feel the weight of community sin more heavily than others.
God’s message in Jeremiah 31 is delivered with unusually personal, deeply emotional words. God says, “I was like a husband to you, but you broke our covenant.” The word husband stands out to me and makes me want to understand more about how the relationship between God and the Hebrew people was perceived. Two weeks ago, I was in a store and the woman waiting on me noticed my ring and asked how my wife would feel about my purchase. My response was: “He does not like to be called ‘the wife.’” This week, I was engaged in discussion with someone who is strongly opposed to marriage equality. When I mentioned that I have a husband, his exact words were: “If you refer to your male partner as your husband, should I assume that you are his wife?” So it became a needed teaching moment. I love to talk about Leroy and use the word “husband” in conversation with others because it speaks clearly of our relationship and conveys the sense of warmth and security that I experience within our marriage. God is described in Jeremiah as a husband who is bereft at the wandering of a beloved partner. In the New Testament, often referred to as the New Covenant, similar relational language is used as the church is described as the bride of Christ. Unconditional, deeply felt affection expressed by God for God’s beloved.
Jeremiah is the first recorded person in scripture to speak the words “New Covenant” out loud. He speaks on behalf of God, describing a new way with words that almost vibrate with hope. “I will make this covenant with those I love.” “I will write it on their hearts.” “I will be their God. They will be my people.” “I will forgive their sin and remember it no more.” How great will that be!
Very sadly, the years of hardship and exile that Jeremiah foretold came to pass. Despite the opportunity to make things right, the downhill slide continued and the Hebrew people were taken captive and exiled to Babylon. The words of hope about a new way, the New Covenant, were about restoration. They were a word picture of what God’s mercy would ultimate create following the exile for those who had turned away again and again.
When we prepare for Communion, we lift the wine and say “This is the cup of the New Covenant.” The cup is a reminder not only of the life of Jesus, but of his violent death. In the text from John’s Gospel, Jesus talks of death as a seed that is cut off and drops to the ground but ultimately results in life-giving abundance. He also said that he would be lifted up from the earth, which the writer said describes the manner in which he would die. Without saying so specifically, it is a reference to the cross.
Today and throughout Lent we see the cross-shaped banner that is changing each week as some aspect of Jesus is revealed. The cross and our faith in God are like that. One piece is revealed at a time. Even when we think we have it all figured out, there is always something more to understand; another nuance or a further perspective.
This week, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and insightful writer on Christian spirituality authored a piece titled “Love, Not Atonement.” Rohr took the opportunity to reflect on the historic development of the doctrine known as “substitutionary atonement.” Simply stated, it is the belief that Jesus’ death on the cross was a brutal punishment inflicted by an angry God in order to exact payment for the collective sins of humanity. When we hear or say “Jesus died for our sins,” that is most often what is meant. Rohr outlined how this most popular understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion is rooted in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. He described one of Anselm’s writings on atonement as “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written.” He and other progressive Christians decry the view that an angry God required payment through a violent transaction in order to love and accept God’s own children. Certainly, much of scripture and much of Christian history, especially prior to Anselm, did not embrace this understanding of the cross.
I remember walking with a group down the main route through my hometown as a teenager on Good Friday, dragging a wooden cross and banging a tambourine while singing “There is power in the blood,” a song that only those of you with similar experiences would ever know. My understanding of Jesus’ death has changed pretty significantly since then. There is power in the event that resulted in the shedding of blood, but I believe it is the power of love over hate and the power of life over death. Jesus’ death on the cross, to me, is the ultimate picture of self-giving in the face of unimaginable hatred and injustice. It is the New Covenant coming into focus:
Richard Rohr created some waves this week among those who hold strongly to substitutionary atonement, but they were mild compared to reaction to a statement made by Billy Graham’s son Franklin about Ferguson, Missouri. The gist of his message was that if every one of every color would just obey the law, there would be no more problems. “It’s simple”, he said. Many agreed. His message was shared widely, and in its Facebook format over 200,000 people “liked” it within a matter of days. At the end of the week, however, a strong response was formulated and sent to Franklin by a group of his fellow evangelicals. They implored him to stop making simplistic and divisive statements that ignore the reality of racial disparities in the United States.
When I read reports of the above, I thought about the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. About the emphasis on law in the old that seemed more focused on obedience than relationship. And about the words of the prophet Jeremiah long before Jesus was born: “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts. And they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.” How appropriate for the law of love to written on our hearts.
The least and the greatest are all longing for the reconciliation of all things: of humanity to God, of created beings to the earth. Jeremiah wrote, “The days are surely coming.” The new way called the New Covenant has come, but we still look and long for God’s reign of love and justice to be complete. May we live this week in anticipation and trust that we will see God’s new way more clearly. Amen.