Maundy Thursday, 2014 – Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Here we are one year later, and I’m preaching on the exact same texts as last year. I’m even going to preach the same essential thing – something of a recap of one of the main themes of my sermons this year, thankfulness and its connection to our faith, but coming at it from yet another angle, that of servanthood. I hope this isn’t tedious, but that’s for you to decide. I think there are always fresh insights to be found each time you turn over these texts in your mind. This is because the Bible characteristically uses images rather than logical steps. It’s not a philosophy text book. Rather it uses images to evoke other images and those images evoke others still. It’s as if God is a poet whose words are the created things of this world: sheep, bread, wine, blood, bodies, doorposts, houses, towels, heads and feet, ears and voices – at least these are some of the things mentioned tonight. And because the world is an interconnected whole, it’s hard to think of anything in isolation without lighting our minds on everything else. This is why we should be able to come back to texts like these and always find more.
This is also why we should never think that we have entirely figured out the full significance of the Cross of Christ. To get to the bottom of this event would mean fully grasping the significance of the whole world and everything in it. In light of the impossibility of such a grasping, the Cross of Christ will always remain fresh. We will never be able to exhaust its depths. We will never be able to give it a tidy little explanation.
Let us, then, look at the poetic images in Psalm 116 and see what kind of fresh insights we can get, maybe connecting this all up to my theme of thankfulness.
“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.”
The ear is a passive organ over against the voice, yet one has to pay attention to really hear what is being said. Consider how much goes in one ear and out the other. We have to intentionally make ourselves listen to those who we might overlook. This is not a problem, though, for God, who says to Moses, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians…” Slaves are characterized by their passive obedience to the commandments of their lord, and yet here we have the Lord coming down to become receptive to our cries! Here we have a hint that God himself will take on flesh in order to hear us and become obedient to us. This is funny because we are supposed to be God’s servants.
St. Paul says that in this life we are either a slave to sin or a slave to God. When we cry to God to free us from our slavery, we become his servant instead. Giving thanks for this, the Psalmist writes, “O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds.” Our bonds are sin and death, two things that we are powerless to overcome but for the power of the Cross.
When God inclined his ear to us, however, we bound him and handed him over to death. So when Christ prays the psalm, “O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds,” he thanks the Father for loosing him from the consequences of our sin. Again, he came down to become receptive to our cry, which made him mortal and enslave-able. He, who was never a slave because of his own sin, but always remained a faithful servant of the Father, he is enslaved to the consequences of our evil. Nonetheless, the Psalmist, Jesus, sings, “…you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” The Father rescued his Son from the grave. Why? Hebrews writes, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” Jesus may have become a servant to us, yet he never slackened in service to his Father like we did.
And what does Jesus’ service to his Father consist in? It’s what every human being ought to do, but doesn’t. It is to receive everything from God as a pure gift and render thanks. Our life is a gift since we are dependent on God’s Being for our being. His commandments are a gift since they are the very parameters that make life possible in the first place; without them, all things would die. His offer of salvation is a gift since being enslaved to death, we have been given life again. Thus, when Jesus prays in verse 17 to the Father, “I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD,” he is doing just what humanity was created to do.
Our greatest service to God is just to recognize him as the source of all things and to be thankful.
One thing I want to emphasize, though, is that it isn’t Jesus’ job, it isn’t our job, just to give a sacrifice of heartfelt thanksgiving when times are good or when we’ve been saved from something. Thanksgiving is a full-time job even when things fall apart. Jesus was heard because of his “reverent submission” to this calling. To this calling he was “all ears.” Did you know that in the Old Testament when a slave was given his freedom he could choose to remain with his Lord? In this case the master and his servant would walk up to a doorpost and they would pierce his ear with an awl (Ex 21:5,6). There is even a Psalm about it, Psalm 40, which reads, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come…'” It is a way of saying, “my body is yours; here I am at your service.” The Bible has even preserved an alternative rendering of this passage to say as much. Hebrews states, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me…” Our body must be available at all times, easy or hard, to offer thanks to God. And not only our body, but everything we have must be available to God.
For the Israelites that included everything from the first-fruits of their crops to the Passover Lamb we read about tonight. The lamb was a substitute for the firstborn son of each household over which the angel of death passed that fateful night. Its blood running down the doorposts of each Israelite house was a sign to Death that that house was God’s property. God’s servants were to eat it with their loins girded, their sandals on their feet, and their staff in their hand, in a hurry as if to say, “Here I am, Lord, I’m all ears. Where do we go?” This was the same attitude the Apostles had when Peter said, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
Often we think that the choice of what we will sacrifice to God is ours. But more often than not it’s not up to us at all. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, deliberately broke off his engagement in order to dedicate himself to God, but most people don’t sit down and say to themselves, “you know, the ultimate sacrifice for me right now would be to give up such and such.” Things just happen for various reasons and as a result other things are taken away quite against our wishes. This is where we find ourselves most of the time.
God gives us something for a time then it passes away: loved ones, possessions, reputations, health, whatever. Everyday God takes back something he loaned us for a time, and because it is very easy to forget that he gave it to us in the first place, he constantly reminds us. As God’s servants we must always remember this and be ready to let God determine when and what he will take back, including our own lives. For, this is what Jesus did perfectly.
This doesn’t mean we live a detached life fearful of love. We should really love the things God has given us. We should love our family, our friends, our selves. Undertaker and author Thomas Lynch has said, “Grief is the tax we pay on our attachments, not on our interests or diversions or our entertainments. We grieve according to the emotional capital we invest in the lives and times of others…We only grieve our losses when we play for keeps…” Lynch is right. This is the way it should be, too. The point I am trying to make is that on this side of the Fall grief, love, and thankfulness are inseparable. God is always asking us to offer back to him what he has given us for a time, not without grief, but without resentment and even with thanks. Where we have failed at this, the Cross of Christ has succeeded. There Jesus, “the man of sorrows” (Isa 53), offered his life back to the Father in our place. Yet because he also did this joyfully (John 16), and not under the kind of compulsion that popular views of the Cross sometimes convey, the Father gave him back his life. God did not have to do anything for our salvation, but he did and now our joy can be complete. Because of the Cross, we have been delivered from slavery to sin and death in order to be God’s servants, servants no doubt who will be asked to give up our whole lives. But the service and sacrifice we make to follow this calling will be returned to us in the form of Resurrection life, a life of joy added on joy, a life with always increasing reasons to give thanks. Amen.