Psalm 119: 145 – 176, Exodus 6: 2 – 13 and Ephesians 2: 13 – 22
With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord. I will keep your statutes. Psalm 119: 145
Moses told this (God’s promises) to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery. Exodus 6: 9
But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2: 13
We beseech thee, Almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people; that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Collect for Fifth Sunday in Lent (Passion Sunday)
The beginning of the final portion of Psalm 119 begins with an impassioned cry for help. The psalmist cries for God to answer and insists he will keep God’s statutes. It reminds us that all our good intentions, however heavenly motivated, can come crashing down under discouraging circumstances. Setbacks occur, or we become distracted by things of the world. Today is also known as Passion Sunday and marks the beginning of Passiontide, as we approach Easter mindful of the sufferings of our Lord for our sakes. The confession in the closing verse of Psalm 119 is especially apt, as we acknowledge we are like straying sheep in need of saving.
As Lent soon draws to a close we will focus mainly on our reading from Ephesians chapter 2, where verse thirteen reflects the condition of straying sheep – we were ‘far off’ from God, separated by the darkness and barrier of our sinful lives. However, Paul tells us, we have been ‘brought near’ by the blood of Christ. In other words, salvation is not of our doing (beyond acknowledging our need for salvation and coming to the cross in repentance), but is wholly through the love of Christ for lost humanity and at his initiative. In the preceding verses Paul explains powerfully how the Gentile races, outside the commonwealth of Israel, were ‘strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ (verse 12). This bleak appraisal could have been written yesterday, as it describes precisely the ongoing condition of all those who continue to live in rebellion or ignorance, grappling with the hazards and injustice in the world, and the lack of inner peace or any hope for the future. Paul goes on to explain in verse 14 that Jesus is our peace; he conveys the gospel of eternal hope and provides the remedy. We are familiar with doom-mongers who enjoy pointing out everything that is wrong and condemning people who have failed or do not conform to certain norms, but who do not provide a solution. Yes, the Bible tells us we are all condemned for our sin, but does not stop with judgement and damnation. Through trust in Jesus, his death and resurrection gives us the means to remove that burden of individual sin, to be cleansed and released.
Paul develops his argument by describing the way the barriers between Jew and Gentile have been broken down and how a new single saved humanity is being created, with the obligations of the old law removed because Jesus has paid the price for our sin. In verse 17 Paul says this gospel was preached both to those who were ‘near’ because of their heritage or instruction (for example, the Jews who comprised most of Jesus’ audiences and proselytes who were actively searching) and those who were ‘far off’ (such as the pagans, Roman soldiers and foreigners who were unfamiliar with God’s dealings through the Hebrew scriptures). All were equally loved, and it is clear from Jesus’ words at the end of Matthew’s gospel that he wanted his followers to spread out through the world to offer a universal message of reconciliation and hope to the ends of the earth.
We then come to Paul’s use of the picture of a building again (verses 19 – 22), as he describes the way in which every soul that has been saved becomes part of a great building. We are citizens with the saints and part of God’s household, built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, and Jesus is that vital cornerstone that holds the structure together. The activity of the Holy Spirit in moulding and maturing our lives is the cement that binds the building together, making unity between every believer possible – whatever our race or background. Paul ends the chapter with the challenging thought that this holy temple is a dwelling place for God. This is clearly a humbling prospect when we consider our human frailties and constant need for forgiveness.
Our reading from Exodus 6 shows how morale can be broken by the setbacks of life, despite the mighty deeds the Children of Israel have seen God perform, or the promises Moses had given them from God. May we pray today’s collect with sincerity, in the knowledge we are in the loving hands of a merciful God, who saved us, protects us and has promised heaven.
Kevin Boak, Lay Reader