Based on Psalm 51, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
First it is the snowbells and hellebores, then come the crocus and the daffodils, then the first trees and shrubs start leafing out. Before too many weeks are passed, Spring is in full bloom and we rush from one set of pretty flowers to another. I look forward to Spring every year and the early flowers that are harbingers of the coming season. The word “harbinger” is a term that is used to denote those things that point to the coming of something else – like crocus’s for Spring or crucifixion for resurrection.
The liturgical season of Lent is a harbinger. It sets itself between the Transfiguration of Jesus and the Cross of Golgotha – the revelation of who Jesus is to a few and the revelation of who Jesus is to the world. It begins with Ash Wednesday’s reminder that we humans are all mortal and that we were formed from the earth and to the earth we will return, but it points to something beyond our mortality. What it points to is the Resurrection and the promise that though we will all die we will rise bodily again in the fullness of time.
We have progressed through the weeks of Lent – now week five of six, with scripture that keeps pointing us to something that is coming. The season of Lent – these 40 special days, reveal slowly what it is that God is up to. It calls us to follow along with Jesus and the Disciples as they finish their travels and turn their faces toward Jerusalem. The Disciples believe they are just going there for the Passover as they have done before – yet we know that this time it will be different. The Lenten season speaks in forward looking words about the tragedy, the mystery, the majesty of what God is about to do through the worst thing that humans could do to one another.
Here in this fifth week of Lent we are hearing our scriptures speak of a new way to know God, of a new High Priest who will forgive our sins and of the nearness of Jesus’ final showdown with the powers and principalities of His age. These messages are harbingers of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem next week and all that will follow. God is always sending signals to us of coming events – let us go to God now in prayer that we might be able to understand the harbingers from God…
Our reading today from the prophet Jeremiah begins with the harbinger statement, “Look, days are coming…” Closely following this revelation are the Hebrew words “brit hadashah” the “New Covenant” which were appropriated by the Christian Church to designate the New Testament of Jesus the Christ. However, the original writers were not looking to the Messiah here, they were looking to a time when the people of both houses, Israel and Judah, would return to God with a fully internalized covenant between them and their savior God. This new covenant would not be inscribed on stone tablets or on scrolls but would be written on the hearts of every person. In this way all people would be inwardly informed and knowledgeable about who God is – no teachers or external authorities would be necessary.
Melchizedek, a righteous king and priest from Genesis and Psalm 110 is brought forth here as a harbinger of the kind of high priest that God desires. Melchizedek predates Aaron by six generations and was called by God (as was Aaron). In our reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the author compares Melchizedek to Jesus as both were called by God and not just generationally appointed. This sets Jesus apart and the writer notes that he is designated a high priest forever. Jesus is able to convey eternal salvation because of this to all who obey him.
Seemingly out of nowhere come the Gentiles (i.e., the Greeks) wishing to see Jesus. This is the fulfillment of what was predicted in verse 19 by the Pharisees and back in John 4:42 in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman…salvation would come to the world through Jesus. Jesus tells those gathered that “the hour has come” – the time of God has been fulfilled and He will soon be “glorified”. These words are harbingers of the events that will follow over the next two weeks. Jesus sees in the events the completion of His earthly ministry and the coming of the new age. His death will bear much fruit – just as a seed is transformed into bountiful new life.
I have always loved mystery stories. I love the way a skilled writer drops hints – harbingers – throughout the text, leading you hopefully to the correct conclusion of “who done it”. Equally, I am fond of many of the great fictional detectives from Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot to Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and Miss Marple. Throw in the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew from my early days and it is easy to see that I’ve been a fan of this genre of writing since I could first read. The thing that always struck me was how the best detectives would study the cases and find those clues that led them to ultimately solve the puzzle and bring the culprit(s) to justice. They would continually ask themselves about the motivation and opportunity of each suspect as they built their case.
Likewise, we who think of ourselves as disciples are called to read the biblical text and evaluate our lives with the question of “what is God up to”? How does what God is revealing to us from the first pages of the Bible lead ultimately to the final flourish when the new Jerusalem comes down from the clouds and we walk with God on streets of gold? How does what we read and understand there lead us to grow towards the mind and heart of Jesus? Where do we notice the clues to what God is doing and what God expects us to do in collaboration with God to achieve God’s desired future?
The first Disciples were not chosen for their detective skills, to say the least. In fact, most of the time they seemed to miss the clues that Jesus would drop – or misinterpret them based on what they knew of the Hebrew Bible. Even after three years of daily conversation, miracle observing and intense teachings, these 12 men quite often missed what Jesus was leading them to understand. It might be because Jesus taught always in parables – even in our Gospel reading today. Jesus lets the assembled crowd know that it is time for Him to be “glorified” without really explaining what that means. Peter, James and John might have been thinking that this would be another Transfiguration event – but instead of a mountaintop, inside Jerusalem so many Jews could see who He was. However, Jesus’ glorification was tied to the transformation of seed to fruitful plant. He told them that they needed to lose their life in order to be with Him. He even tells them that He will be lifted up from the earth (from the grave) and thus draw all people to Him.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus appears confident of his path through the Cross. He does not go to Gethsemane to pray and ask God to remove the cup from Him. He seems to be at peace in the deepest part of Him – knowing and trusting deeply in God. There are allusions in John’s Gospel that the Disciples would remember His teachings and understand the parables once His resurrected body appeared to them on Easter and beyond. The Apostle Paul only met the resurrected and ascended Jesus, and so was seemingly able to put the pieces together more quickly and thoroughly. Peter still needed some coaching after the Resurrection and even after the Ascension as we read in the book of Acts.
Though they came to the correct conclusions about Jesus only after His resurrection, the Disciples did all ultimately solve the mystery. The harbingers became clear and in 20-20 hindsight they understood why all things had to happen as they did. Church history tells us that all of the original Disciples (except Judas) were martyred for their beliefs – foreshadowing the martyrs that would follow over the first three centuries of Christianity. They all decided to follow Jesus come what may – even though it might lead to their traumatic earthly deaths.
What about you? How do you interpret the harbingers of Jesus in your own life? How do you understand, maybe not as clearly as Paul and the Disciples yet, how it is that you are to give your life to God in ministry through Jesus? What do you hear in the teachings of Jesus that are harbingers of your call? The answers to these questions will draw you ever deeper into the mystery of faith and the grace of God and show you the way, the truth and the life. Thanks be to God, amen!