Monday, March 23, 2015

Sermon Lent 5, March 22, 2015

Friday nights were special at Camp Nawakwa.
The entire camp would trudge up
through one of the apple orchards
that dotted the Adams County landscape
to a small stone amphitheater known as ‘Upper Temple,’
from which one had a glorious view of the sun
setting over the hills.
There we would hold a worship service,
and then the campers and staff
trudged back down the hill for the end-of-week campfire.
When everyone had gathered
at another stone amphitheater in the woods,
a staff member would kneel inside the stone
as another one said,
‘Kneel always when you light a fire;
kneel reverently, and thankful be
for God’s unfailing charity.
And on the ascending flame
aspire a little prayer,
which shall up bear
the incense of our thankfulness.
Kneel always when you light a fire;
kneel reverently, and thankful be,
for God’s unfailing charity.’

Then the fun would begin,
as staff members presented skits
(the same skits that had been done for years)
and camp songs were sung,
and the week at Nawakwa wrapped up with a neat little bow;
and all that was left was tomorrow’s breakfast,
packing up, and departure.

But when the campfire was over,
and everyone had gone back to their cabins for bed,
the maintenance staff would remain behind,
and douse the fire with several buckets of water
which had been sitting there waiting for the occasion.
The water was poured over the fire
until the wood and coals were nothing but saturated ashes;
until no ember glowed, no spark remained
to be fanned by a sudden wind
to start a blaze which could not be controlled.
The fire was doused, the steam rose,
until the steam no longer rose and all was cold.
The fire was no more.
There would be no more fire,
unless and until the fire was relit.

The fire is on the verge of going out.
Jeremiah pours out his heart and his life
to urge the people of God to put their hearts and lives
into the sacrifice of prayer and praise to God;
to pray even one little prayer of thankfulness
which will rise up to God,
to keep the fire going,
so that God’s people may continue to live in the covenant
he made with his people at Sinai.
But the people ignore the prophet who bears God’s Word.
By their violence and their indolence and their self-indulgence
and their misplaced confidence that their actions have no consequences,
they drench the fire
which has been burning brightly to the glory of God.
And so the fire goes out,
no fuel can replenish it.
There is no spark left,
no longer can it be nudged and nursed into a flame
which gives light and heat to those who gather around it.
The throne is empty, the city destroyed,
the priests killed, the people exiled.
The temple is thrown down,
the sacred vessels are carried away,
and no incense is borne up to heaven.
No songs of joy;
no worship in reverent silence.
Nothing but ashes,
nothing but memories and dreams
which can no longer be fulfilled.

This is not just the story of ancient Judah,
as if they were the worst or only sinners that ever lived.
Rather, this is the story of humanity who turns from God.
It is the story of those whose sins have covered the world in blood.
It is the sin of David.
the anointed one of God who became both adulterer and murderer.
It is the sin of those in whom God’s love does not abide,
who have the goods of the world and yet refuse help to those who do not have them.
It is my sin and your sin,
for perhaps our sins are of less dramatic result or impact
but nevertheless there are times when we taste them as ashes in our mouths
and as dreams from which we wake with no hope.
We are as David who cannot unmake his sin,
as Jerusalem which cannot relight the fire of God’s praise.

But here is Jeremiah the prophet of doom
singing a song of God’s deliverance,
that God is making something new:
as when spring follows winter,
as when day follows night.
and yet not exactly so.
Spring follows winter and day follows night
naturally, as a matter of course,
but there is nothing of natural course
or the circular rhythm of life
of the newness of which Jeremiah sings.
lnstead, it is God speaking into existence that which is not,
as when God spoke creation into existence.
For there is no spark,
there is no glowing ember,
but instead God kneels down into the world,
and himself brings new light into the world,
a new covenant to succeed the old,
to light a fire which never can go out.

‘For I will forgive their iniquity,
and remember their sin no more.’
It seems an easy thing to forgive us,
just a word that is spoken,
until we remember how much it costs the man who is God,
and we hear his ‘loud cries and tears’ and behold his troubled soul;
and we look upon him who is lifted up from the earth upon the cross,
to draw all people to himself.
Sin, death, and the devil
cannot be simply wiped away by a word,
unless it is the word that is the Word himself.
The Word of God bears the world’s sin, is tempted by the devil,
endures our death so that the fire of God’s praise may be relit,
so that even the worst of humanity may never snuff it out.

On Good Friday,
a rough hewn cross will stand at the front of the church,
with black draped around its base.
Black like plants burnt beyond recognition,
turned to ash.
Nothing to indicate what they once were,
or that any life was once in them or will be again.

But on Saturday night,
at the Easter Vigil,
a new fire will be lit.
In many places the tradition continues
of striking the new fire from flint and steel.
It is an inefficient method of obtaining fire,
but it reminds us of how precious fire was anciently,
how difficult to strike.
How precious and difficult to strike, indeed,
was the eternal fire of man’s praise to God,
struck by the Son of God who bore our humanity in himself.
It is his praise and thanksgiving
which bears our praise to the Father,
the incense of our thankfulness for the ever-new salvation
which he creates in us and for us.
‘Kneel always when you light a fire.
Kneel reverently and thankful be
for God’s unfailing charity.’