(Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10)
(watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
There’s a story about an old man who was very ill and lay dying in his bed. He had four sons who were always fighting with each other. He always worried about them and wanted to teach them a lesson and asked his sons to come to him. When they came, the old man gave them a bundle of sticks and said, “Can you break these sticks?” The first son tried to break the bundle but nothing happened. He tried very hard and finally gave up. Then it was the turn of the second son to try his luck. He thought it would be an easy task and picked up the sticks easily. He tried his best to break the sticks but nothing happened. Then, the third son tried to break the bundle of sticks, but he couldn’t do anything either.
Meanwhile, the youngest son jeered at his brothers and thought they were very incompetent. He thought he was very clever and took one stick at a time and easily broke all of them. The old father then smiled at his sons and said, “Children, do you understand what happened? It is always easy to break the sticks one by one. But when they are bundled together, none of you could break them. In the same way, you four brothers should always be together. No one will be able to hurt you then.” The four brothers realized what their father was trying to teach them and forgot all their enmity and learned that unity is strength. From that day onwards, they never fought with each other and lived together in peace and harmony.
This is a useful story to help guide our time together this morning. What the old man taught his sons is an important lesson that underlies our readings for today. The first three sons believed they could break the bundle of sticks through sheer force and determination. Sticks are small and easily breakable by even the little children among us. It takes little energy to snap a single stick. But if we gather the sticks into a bundle they become almost impossible to break by human hands. As a grouped bundle, the sticks became stronger than when they were solitary sticks. Sure there are forces out there that can’t snap solitary sticks. A light breeze, gentle raindrops, and small insects all have a hard time breaking single sticks. But generally we can easily snap lone sticks and we would likely react the same way as the three sons if given the task of snapping a bundle. We’d scoff at the challenge. Pride would get the better of us and we’d set about the challenge believing brute strength would do the trick. Pride in our strength would keep us from realizing that the old man simply asked us to break the sticks. He didn’t specify how to break them and the 4th son rose above his pride, realized the loop hole, and overcame the challenge.
Life has an amazing ability to throw each of us challenges from time to time. Yes, a lot of the times the challenges have loop holes in them and we can cleverly overcome them. But there are just as many, if not more, times that don’t have loop holes. What are we expected to do in these situations? Just lay down and die? No! We are expected to rise and meet the challenges that life gives us! We are expected to use our strength to overcome the challenges set before us. Who expects this out of us? Well, God does of course. In all of Scripture, God never says life is easy. Life can be easier at times but it certainly isn’t an all-out easy venture. No, the venture of life includes a wide variety of challenges for each of us. No two lives in life are exactly identical. We each have unique challenges in this life and God expects us to be strong enough to overcome them.
All four sons in the opening story were strong in their own way. The first three sons were presumably strong physically. The 4th son was mentally strong. Imagine there was a 5th son who was strong spiritually. What would his strength look like? How would he have wrestled with the challenge of breaking the bundle of sticks? What tool does the spirit have that neither the body nor the mind have? We find answers to these questions from our readings assigned for today. In our 1st reading, we hear the prophet Jeremiah giving both the people of Israel and the people of Judah a new covenant. Jeremiah proclaims the Lord says, “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.” This is a different covenant than the one given to Moses. God established a covenant with Moses by giving him the law to write on the tablets. Those Ten Commandments inspired hundreds of laws but their source is God’s covenant. Alas, we found ways and continue to find ways to break God’s laws as we explored a couple weeks ago. God is fully aware that His laws can be broken and the covenant He established with Moses is weakened as result. We ask ourselves, “How can we believe we are God’s beloved children if we are able to break God’s laws?” God needed to reinforce His covenant and He does so through Jeremiah. How? By giving us FAITH! Faith is “the law within” that is written on our hearts. Faith is a gift from God that reinforces His covenant with us. Through faith, we come to realize God’s sure and steadfast love for us. Through faith, we come to realize that God only wants the best for us. Through faith, we come to realize God intimately walks with each of us through this life. Faith is the tool of the spirit that the body and mind are without. Faith distinctively attacks challenges in ways unlike the body and mind.
Just look at how David used faith to attack his challenge. Recall that Psalm 51 is the specific song David lifted up in his situation with Bathsheba. And what a situation it was! David had lusted over Bathsheba, had committed adultery with Bathsheba, had conceived a son with Bathsheba, and had murdered for Bathsheba. All throughout David’s song we hear a tortured soul crying out for forgiveness. He sang, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” David was fully aware of the wrongness of his situation. God had every right to punish David accordingly. But David used his tool of faith; faith in a loving God, faith in a generous God, and faith in a forgiving God. Just as he acknowledged his evil ways, David also pleaded to receive a cleansed spirit from God. He sang, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take you Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” This whole song is filled with David’s faith; David’s faith that God is aware of his plethora of sins, David’s faith that God will cleanse him of his sins, David’s faith that God will put a new and right spirit within him. Faith is the weapon David chooses to overcome his challenging situation. Physical and mental strength couldn’t overcome David’s challenge. Spiritual strength found in faith is what enabled him to overcome his challenge. We are blessed to have received his song as a template to summon strength through faith in our own challenging situations.
All throughout his ministry, Jesus continually summoned strength through faith to overcome a multitude of challenging situations. There was no greater challenge for our Lord than to overcome sin and death. In a few weeks, we will again revisit our Lord’s suffering and death on a cross. He suffered and died to overcome a challenge—the challenge to conquer the power of sin and death in our lives. And he wasn’t too thrilled about the challenge either. We hear him contemplate in our reading from John, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Jesus saw the challenge set before him. He knew the only way to conquer sin and death was to die and rise again. There was no loop hole to his challenge. He couldn’t use physical or mental strength to overcome his challenge the way the four brothers did. No, he had to use spiritual strength. He had to use faith in the Father’s words: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Faith is what enabled Jesus to enter into his “hour.” Faith provided the needed strength to overcome his particular challenge.
We return to the question, “How would a 5th brother, using the spiritual tool of faith, approach the challenge of breaking the bundle of sticks?” He would do nothing, of course. He would defer the challenge to God. After all, God will break the bundle…eventually. Don’t ask me how…that’s God’s challenge! But make no mistake about it, God CAN break that bundle. There is no challenge that God can’t overcome! Look at what He did on the cross. We thought sin and death were also unbreakable challenges but God overcame them. You see, faith is the key to overcoming any challenge. Faith is stronger than both our bodies and minds. This is because faith invites God into the challenge and God overcomes all challenges. Faith is the greatest tool we have in this life. Our covenant with God is reinforced by faith, our song is filled with faith, and our challenges are overcome with faith. As we continue on our Lenten journey, let us maintain our strength in body and mind but also revitalize our…strength of faith.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.