5th Sunday of Lent (March 22 2015)
‘Out of the Ashes of Old Life Comes New Life’
When I was still in junior high school, whenever we came to school late, our teachers used to punish us by making us stand in line in the school hallway. The idea was to embarrass us by putting us on display, in full view of other students and teachers. (Mind you, it was not an effective form of punishment since some students actually enjoyed being the center of attention.)
We would stay there for about an hour, after which time the teacher would let us return to our classes. And once we were back in our classes, it usually felt as if nothing had happened. Everything was back to normal and, by the time the school finished, most of us did not even remember our early morning predicament.
The prophecy that we hear today from Jeremiah was given to the people of Israel and Judah as they too ‘lined in their school hallway’. They had been living in exile as a kind of punishment for their sins in the past. But the time of judgment was now over. The time for healing and rebuilding had come. Through the mouth of Jeremiah, God promised the people of Israel and Judah that God would begin anew.
The image given in today's passage was compelling. The land of Judah and Israel was seen as an empty land devoid of living beings. Indeed, the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel had been destroyed and many of their inhabitants had been taken as exile. So the land had literally been neglected and lost its former glory.
Yet God promised that God would scatter seeds of human and animals in the land. Here, we are taken back to the creation story in the book of Genesis (chapter 2) when God created human beings and animals from the soil. The time after exile would indeed be like the second creation. God would start anew with the people of Judah and Israel. A new people would be born; a people who would enter into a new covenant with God.
All these would never happen without God’s judgment on the people’s sins. We often think judgment ends only with punishment. But God’s judgment is never an end in itself; God’s judgment is a means to an end. Without God’s judgment, the new people would never be born and the new covenant would never be written.
Indeed, just like what Jesus said in John’s Gospel, something had to die first before something new and more beautiful could be born out of its ashes. He used the metaphor a grain of wheat that had to fall into the soil and died before it could become fruitful.
Here, Jesus specifically talked about his own death on the cross. He never saw his death on the cross as a failure, but as a new beginning. He knew that the resurrection would never happen without his suffering and death. And without his resurrection, the new community of God’s people would never be born.
So, for Jesus, his death on the cross was not the end of the story; it was the beginning of the new one. His death was the gateway to new life. That was why he chose not to run away from suffering, even though he was deeply troubled by it. Here, in John's Gospel, we hear an echo of the scene in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus deeply troubled as he made the decision whether or not to drink from the cup of suffering (Matthew 26:36-46). In the end of his struggle in Gethsemane, he accepted that his mission was to let God’s will be done in his life. Likewise, in John, Jesus determined to face his hour of darkness so that he could glorify God in his life.
Jesus’ words, however, were not only a declaration of his determination; it was also an invitation to his followers. Indeed, the path that he took was the path that those who dared to follow him must also follow. To receive new life or give new life to other people, they had to be ready to let go of things that they held dearly in life; things that may include their own lives.
Likewise, the psalmist of psalm 51 understood that a new life could only be born out of the ashes of one’s self. True sacrifice, according to the psalmist, was not the offering of animals in the temple, but a broken heart. True repentance is born out of a broken heart because a heart that is broken is a willing heart; a heart that is ready to be transformed into something new.
The psalmist expressed in his Psalm how his heart was burdened by the transgressions that he had made. His life had been afflicted with the consequences of his sin. His sense of guilt had troubled him.
Yet, from the ashes of his life, he reached out to God. He took personal responsibility for his sin and did not blame anyone or anything for his great affliction. As such, his heart was ready to receive God’s grace. He had closed the old chapter of his life. Now, he was ready to open a new chapter.
Psalm 51 can easily be the prayer of the two men who have grabbed my attention and sympathy recently, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. In April 2005, they were these two brazen young men who were caught as the ringleaders of a group of drug smugglers in Denpasar Airport, Bali. They tried to smuggle eight kilograms of drugs, worth around $4 Million, from Bali to Australia. Fully aware that their crime could result in severe punishments, they gambled with their lives and the lives of other people.
Yet, almost ten years later in the prison, they have transformed themselves. Like most of you would know, Andrew Chan was ordained as a Minister/Pastor. He regularly led groups of Christians in the prison to study the Bible and pray together. He also provided counseling for other inmates.
Myuran Sukumaran had become like an artist in residence. He organised an art class and gallery in the prison that had attracted not only his fellow inmates, but also other people from all around the world. His art class and gallery had become a safe haven and a road to rehabilitation for other inmates.
Now, people have different opinions about their predicaments. It’s not my goal to convince you one-way or the other. What I would like to do today is to show you how a new life can indeed be born out of the ashes of the old one. The severe punishment that these two men received had somehow awakened something beautiful within their souls.
Some have said, somehow cynically, that if they had not been caught, they would have been driving expensive cars and living in luxurious houses in Sydney. Well, we will never know what they would have become if they had not been caught. What we know now is that these two young men had truly transformed their lives and became inspirations for many people. Yes, their lives, and the lives of their families, had been shattered because of their stupidity. Yet, out of their shattered lives, new and more beautiful and fruitful lives have been born.
Friends, I’m in no way suggesting that we need to do something similar or to get a similar kind of punishment to be able to have a fruitful life. No. But something sometimes needs to be first shattered and broken in us before our lives can truly achieve their true potential and be aligned to God’s will in our lives.
So, today, the questions that I would like us to ponder are these: What are the things in our life that we need to let go; things that need to die in us so that new life can born? What are the doors that we need to close so that we can open new ones with hope and expectation?
As we come closer to the Easter Holy Week services, let us reflect again on these questions. Let us think again of the things in our life that we need to carry to the cross of Christ so that we can be raised into a new existence with Him.
 Bali Nine, an article on http://en.wikipedia.org