The Preacher’s Study
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B
John W.B. Hill
Psalm 51:1-12 (BCP/BAS 51: 1-13) or 119:9-16
The long and tortuous history of God’s covenant partnership with his people that we have been hearing about over the past few Sundays has come to this: it is “a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.” Jeremiah put his finger on the problem: unless ‘the law’ of this covenant — the patten of life it entails — is written on our hearts, no amount of pleading, or threats, or coercion will save us. But how will that ‘law’ be written on our hearts?
Each of the psalms provided as a response to this reading begs for this one thing:
“You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart...
Create in me clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me...
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51)
“With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I may not sin against you...
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.” (Psalm 119)
The other two readings show us how the law comes to be written on our hearts. We hear a story that is unforgettably heart-wrenching, and we experience the intervention of a ‘high priest’ who “always lives to make intercession for [us]” (Hebrews 7:25). For the climax of the gospel story is not just the horrific crucifixion and glorious resurrection of our Messiah; it also includes his agony of love in the last and greatest test of his faithfulness. Both readings bring us back to Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane and take us into the experience of that agony.
In a way very characteristic of the fourth Gospel, that evening in the garden is recast as another of John’s discourses. The discourse is introduced by the appearance of some Greeks who have tracked down one of Jesus’ disciples from the Greek-speaking city of Bethsaida and asked, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” At first, it is tempting to think that Jesus simply ignored the request, but the discourse is Jesus’ response. After all, the Greeks “are those who have not seen and yet...[will] come to believe” (John 20:29) — once his disciples have learned to tell his story, the story that “will draw all people to himself.”
This entire discourse (verses 23-28) is an exposition of its opening sentence: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In preceding chapters we were told that the authorities wanted to arrest him, but “his hour had not yet come.” But now all the world wants to see Jesus (John 12:19), and so his passion must begin.
In the first part of this discourse, Jesus announces his coming suffering and death, using a parable about planting seed, only now the seed is not just the word of the kingdom that is planted in the earth (Matthew 13:19), but the Word himself who must fall into the earth and die.
The second part of the discourse begins “Now...” (reiterating the gravity of ‘the hour’); we hear John’s version of Jesus’ prayer in the garden (echoing the prayer he taught us):
John’s version: Matthew’s version: The sense of the prayer:
“Now my soul is troubled. “I am deeply grieved, (Sickening horror,
And what should I say — ” even to death” spiritual turmoil.)
“Father, save me from this . “My Father, if it is possible, “Do not bring us to the
hour?" let this cup pass from me” . time of trial.”
"No, for this reason I have “My Father, if this cannot “Your Kingdom come.”
come to this hour.” pass unless I drink it...”
“Father, glorify your name.” “...your will be done.” “Hallowed be your
name...your will be
The third part of the discourse also begins “Now...” (in this momentous ‘hour’); Jesus announces the defeat of the evil one! This is ‘the hour’ when action gives way to passion, when Jesus’ mission is brought to its fulfilment (John 17:1, 4). “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the world, will draw all people to myself.”
Today, however, we need to “stay awake and pray” in this hour of his anguish, to stay until we have plumbed the depths of his doubt and terror, his acute awareness of the power of the evil one, and his inconsolable longing for God’s kingdom. The second reading recalls this very moment, when “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” And it tells us the meaning of this last and greatest test: “he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Why do we obey him? How is his law ‘written on our hearts’? Who is not drawn to him by the magnificence of his vulnerable humanity and his faithfulness even to death? Discipleship consists not in what we believe about him but in the way he draws us into following him, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.
“Exodus,” by Marc Chagall