This first reading of ours has long been recognized as one of the most important passages in all of the biblical literature. With its promise of a new covenant, bringing the forgiveness of sins, it looks forward nearly 600 years to the time when Jesus will take the cup of wine at the Last Supper, and declare “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins”. At that moment, Jesus is declaring that the ancient prophecy ofJeremiah was being fulfilled at last, and that the way to the forgiveness of sins lay through the sacrifice of his life-blood on the cross.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who died in the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, wrote, while he was in prison, that there was no such thing as “cheap grace”. I already described to you last week that the word “GRACE” meant “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” Our salvation, the forgiveness of sins, while a free gift from God, did not come without cost to God. In fact, it cost him the last drop of his Son’s blood on the cross. I told you the story a while ago of the boy who went into a confessional in the cathedral in Paris, France, and made up a totally bogus confession as a joke, and that when he had finished, the priest told him to go out into the church, look up at the crucifix and say, “Jesus, you did all this for me, and I couldn’t care less.” When the boy did this, he suddenly broke down and wept tears of repentance, as it sunk in that the price for the forgiveness of his sins, which he had treated so carelessly, was Jesus’ death. Jesus had done all that for him, and here he was throwing it away as a joke. How many of us, brothers and sisters, myself included,have ever stood before a crucifix and allowed it to sink in that this was the price for us to be delivered from our sins and sin’s consequence, eternal death in hell? Lent is the time above all, for us to do this. That is why we have the Stations of the Cross as a particular devotion during the season of Lent.
At Calvary, Man’s biggest “No” to God became God’s biggest “Yes” to Man. Our sin is our way of shouting “No” to God. “No, I don’t want, I don’t need, your forgiveness. I don’t need your salvation. I can save myself.” And God says back to us: “Yes, you do. You do need forgiveness, you do need salvation. You do need a Savior, for you cannot save yourself.” In our youth, how many of us, brought up as Christians, going to Mass and saying our prayers dutifully, rejected it all and went gaily into the world, imagining the world was our oyster, thinking we knew it all, imagining we were invincible, and we didn’t need God, didn’t need Jesus, didn’t need Church. And how many of us, again myself included, came to realize, after many, many failures, that we weren’t so magnificent after all, that we couldn’t take care of our own lives, let alone the lives of others, and that, yes, we did need forgiveness, we did need saving, we did need a Savior, and that Savior was not us? At some point, we stood before that broken body on the cross, with its arms outstretched to embrace us, and the whole world, and finally understood what our rebellion, our arrogance , our waywardness cost Jesus. At that moment, we finally gave in and said, “Lord, help me, Lord, save me.” And we looked up and saw the eyes of Jesus looking into ours, and heard his words of freedom, “Father, forgive him, forgive her. They did not know what they were doing. But now they do.” At the cross, at that moment, our biggest “No” to God becomes God’s biggest “Yes” to us, to you and to me.
You see, brothers and sisters, it has to become personal, this question of our salvation. I was counselling a young man awhile ago, who was feeling very sorry for himself, and I said to him, “Do you know God loves you?” and he said, dismissively, “Yeah, I know that God loves everyone” And I said back to him, “Yes, but do you know that he loves you?” And he couldn’t get it. So I tried again: “Do you know that Jesus died for you, to take away all of your sins?” And again, he said, “Yeah, I know that Jesus died to take away the sins of all the world. I read it in my catechism”. And so again, I tried to say to him, “Forget the rest of the world. Do you get that he died for you personally, and that, if there was no one else in the world but you, he would have died for you still?” And again, I could see from his eyes, that he just didn’t get it.
He never was able to make it personal.
And that is the problem with so many people, even good, devout Christians.
We are just not able to make it personal to us, to realize that this Christian story, is the story of us, of you and me, not just about something that happened over 2000 years ago, long, long before you and I were ever born. In our first reading today, God is telling the people of Israel, that the new covenant he was establishing with them, was different from the old one, in that, while the old one was written on stone tablets, the new new one would be written on their hearts. In other words, it would no longer be, as it were, something imposed on them from without, but would rise up from within them. It is like the way parents impose rules on their children, by telling them, “Because I told you to.” But all along, those parents are waiting, hoping for the time when their children get it, get why those rules are so important, and start to internalize them, so that the motivation for obeying them is not fear of the consequences if they didn’t, but acceptance of the rightness of those rules. When those children grow up to become parents themselves, they will pass onto their children the same rules, and will have to wait for them to accept and internalize those rules also, probably after a period of resisting them, as they themselves had once resisted and rejected their own parents’ rules.
God wants, not just acceptance of a religion of rules, of do’s and don’t’s from us, he wants relationship, a personal, intimate relationship, heart to heart. And unless and until we realize that, and open our hearts to that, our faith will remain something “imposed” on us, as it were, from “without”, and not a personal choice by us . We practice our faith as a duty, as a way of pleasing our parents. But until we get beyond that, and make our faith something personal, between me and God, unless we make prayer less about me telling God what I want, and more about a dialogue between me and Him, a lifting up of mind and heart to him, we run the danger of treating it as impersonal, and the taste for it starts to dwindle, and we begin to give up, one by one, the outward elements of our faith. Does any of this sound familiar, brothers and sisters? Of course it does, we have all seen other members of our family, especially our children, turn away from the practice of their faith, which we tried so hard to raise them in, and we wonder why. And 99% of the reason is that faith never became personal for them, they never came to the point of letting it in, letting in God, letting God’s love into their heart. Perhaps also, we have never come to that point in our own lives, and Mass is something we attend fitfully, prayer is something we fumble with, learning and growing in our faith is something we have little or no appetite or desire for .
We are meant to go out into the world, inspired by our faith, in love with Jesus, eager to share the good news of his love and saving death and resurrection to others. This is the “new” evangelization that our Church is urging us to nowadays, more than ever. But we will never do it, unless we have truly entered into a “new” covenant relationship with God, one based not on obeying the rules out of fear or a sense of duty, but one based on knowing and grasping hold of the fact that, “Jesus, you did all this for me, and I can never repay you for such great love, except to love you back with all my heart, and seek to follow you wherever you lead me.”
If you have never said that to Jesus, never really laid hold of that kind of personal, intimate relationship with him, may I invite you to say this prayer with me, and I urge you to pray it, not just with your lips, but with your hearts:
Lord Jesus Christ, I surrender to you today with all my heart and soul.
From now on, I want to belong to you totally and completely.
I want to be freed in every way from the power and rule of Satan.
Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God, that you died on the cross to free me from my sins
And that you rose again to bring me New Life.
I receive you as my Lord and Savior.
I ask you to help me turn away from all wrong doing
And I ask your forgiveness for all the sins I have committed.
Lord , I give my life to you. I open wide the doors of my heart
And I ask you to fill me with your presence.
I ask you to baptize me in your Holy Spirit.
Baptize me in the fire of your love. Amen.