Like newborn infants

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of a baby who was left on the steps of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris the Second Sunday of Easter. The baby was found and adopted by a priest, who gave the baby a name derived from the Latin name for that day. The story of Quasimodo is not much of an Easter story. It has more sorrow than joy, more tragedy than triumph. Yet its origins link the novel to the life of the Church, and as such the story can be used to illustrate and celebrate the Christian season of Easter.

But a few things must be explained. When I was a boy and heard that the story of “the Hunchback of Notre Dame” would be shown on television, I assumed that the movie would be about football. I knew that Notre Dame had a football team (confusing the university in Indiana, USA, with the cathedral in Paris, France). I guessed that hunchback was a football position, something like quarterback and halfback and fullback. I did not expect priests and gypsies to be part of the story. But I saw the movie; I have read the book several times since then. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are as meaningful to me as the three musketeers or Christine Daae. Classic French literature is a joy, even if its sentences and paragraphs require more effort to consume than our post-Hemingway American novels and stories.

Other people might question what is meant by “the Second Sunday of Easter.” The traditional Christian calendar assigns more than a day to Easter—the Easter season is a week of weeks, forty-nine days, ending on the fiftieth day which is the festival of Pentecost, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit. During those seven weeks, especially on the seven Sundays, the resurrection continues to be celebrated—not with colored eggs and candy, but with Bible readings and hymns and sermons and prayers that remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ and apply his victory to our lives today.

Like all the Sundays and holidays on the Christian calendar, the Sundays of Easter each have a special “praise song” called an Introit. The words of the Introit are taken from the Bible, mostly from the book of Psalms, although other verses of praise are also used. The Introit for the Second Sunday of Easter begins with a quote from I Peter 2:2-3: “Like new-born infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The Latin words for “like new-born infants” are “Quasi Modo Geniti”—hence the name given to the baby hunchback, Quasimodo.

The Quasimodo theme, though, is not about human deformities or about dancing gypsies. Quasi Modo Geniti speaks of new life—the new life Christians receive through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his work, Christians are born again. Our old sinful selves are killed and buried with Christ; our new selves are raised with Christ and live with Christ forever. In his letter to the Romans, chapter six, the apostle Paul links this death and burial and resurrection to Baptism. Therefore, traditional Christians claim to be “born again,” not because of any prayer they prayed or invitation they gave to Jesus, but because of his death and burial and resurrection, because of baptism, and because of the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Because God is outside of time and unlimited by time, his people can be new every day. Every day we can be born again; every day we can be “like new-born infants.” Every song of praise is a new song sung to the Lord, even if we sang it before, even if Christians have been singing it for centuries. The commandment to love one another is a new commandment every day. Christ spoke it as a new commandment the night he was betrayed, but it had already been spoken in the past by Moses and the prophets. It is new because Christians are new—new-born infants, born every day through the resurrection of Christ and through his forgiveness, his restoration, and his transforming power.

Two years ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame was damaged by fire. Today it is being rebuilt. That holy place, dedicated to God, is both old and new, transformed even as each Christian is transformed through the work of Jesus. The fire of God’s judgment is quenched by the water of his Sacrament, washing away our sins and adopting us into God’s family. Jesus endured that fire for us on the cross. Jesus provided us with victory. Jesus makes us new every day—born again by his grace as children of the heavenly Father and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. We have tasted that the Lord is good. We rejoice in his goodness forever. J.

SCIENCE AND LIFE

The good thing about science is that it is always changing. The more experts observe the world around us and try to understand it, the more they discover and share with the rest of us. From the tiniest elements of creation—the particles from which atoms are made—to the vastness that contains galaxies beyond number, the universe is filled with marvels. New living beings are frequently found in the depths of the oceans, the hearts of the rain forests, and even in our own backyards. Health and disease, gladness and depression, the quality of our environment—they all matter to us, and they all are subject to study, observation, experiment, and the other tools of science. These tools help improve our lives and our care of the world around us.

The bad thing about science is that it is always changing. Coffee and dark chocolate and red wine are bad for us, except when they are good for us. The innards of the atom and the inhabitants of this planet require further study. What seemed true yesterday might be disproved today; what seems true today might be shown to have been mistaken by tomorrow. Science itself is a useful tool for our lives, but it is only a tool. Science lacks the authority and stability to be a foundation for our lives.

When I was young, my parents invested in several series of books. They bought Funk &Wagnall’s encyclopedia set, one volume at a time. They also bought reference books on their hobbies, photography and sewing, that came out once a month for a year or two. To top it all, my parents bought the LIFE set of books about science—those colorful volumes that could be found in many living rooms and studies a number of years ago. I did a fair amount of research in those LIFE books, both for school assignments and for casual learning. As an adult, I was able to obtain a set of the same books for my family library. They look nice on the shelf, but they are heavy to move, and the science in them is old. They are useful to learn the history of science, but they cannot compete with the Internet for up-to-date descriptions of scientific theory and investigation. This reality was reinforced this month when I picked up one of those LIFE books and started reading it from page one.

This book from the LIFE Nature Library, is called “The Poles.” At describes the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the Earth, detailing climate, flora and fauna, human exploration and inhabitation, and research endeavors in the far north and the far south. I was fascinated to learn that the South Pole is colder than the North Pole because of the continent Antarctica; the ocean under the polar ice in the north moderates the temperature of the northern region. Also, because the polar ice sheet moves and shatters and reforms, it is difficult to establish the location of the North Pole at any given time—a flag planted there this summer might be several miles away from the Pole in the future. This book, which was published in 1962, has much interesting information about the polar regions, but science has learned far more information in the past sixty years. For that matter, accounts of human exploration of the north have been reviewed and found inaccurate; Robert Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1908, even though the LIFE editors were still willing to hand him the prize as recently as 1962.

Even sixty years ago, scientists studying Greenland and Antarctica had uncovered evidence that these bodies of land once supported “warm forests and plains.” This led the editors of “The Poles” to write these words in the third paragraph of their introduction to their book: “Today we are entering an era of unlimited power, when science may be able to alter the temperature balance and convert the cold regions to hospitable, productive ones. To do this would require the greatest political courage, for the rewards certainly would not be equally divided over all political borders. But if it were done, the problem of containing and feeding future generations could be solved. Unfortunately we as a nation are not yet confronted with the problem and we give it only token attention; but the world storms generated by hunger are brewing.”

Need I say more? J.

Grammar dalek and the pair tree

One of my elementary school teachers used a bulletin board for a class project which she called “The Pair Tree.” She used construction paper to create a tree trunk and branches and a few green leaves; then she cut out a number of yellow pear-shaped fruits to hand on the tree. Each fruit was to have two words which sound the same (homophones) such as—of course—pair and pear. She challenged the class to see how many pairs of homophones we could remember. With this creative exercise, she taught us to pay attention to words and to be aware of some of the tricky situations that arise in the English language.

In my work, in my private correspondence, and in my social media presence (including WordPress), I often notice writers who are confused by homophones or even by near-homophones. My eyes catch the mistakes. Usually I can ignore them and read the sentences for their intended meaning; sometimes misuse of words can grate upon my inner ear. Here, in alphabetical order, are seven pairs of homophones that often come to my attention:

Altar: a table-like structure upon which a sacrifice is offered; also used to describe the structure in a church building from which Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is served to the congregation. Always used as a noun, except when someone is making a deliberate or accidental pun about changing a life by offering it to the Lord.

Alter: to change. Many things, from clothing to news reports, are altered, but rarely does such a change have anything to do with sacrifices.

Anecdote: a brief story, sometimes told for amusement or entertainment, but often used to illustrate a point in a conversation or a writing.

Antidote: a remedy or cure, frequently a medication given to counteract a poison. Rarely can an amusing story cure a problem, although a few such anecdotes might be the antidote to a boring speech.

Calvary: The hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. From the Latin, translating the Aramaic “Golgotha,” which means “the place of the skull.” This hill, an outcropping of Mount Moriah (on which the Temple stood) evidently reminded people of a skull.

Cavalry: A military unit traveling and fighting on horseback. In the last hundred years or so, the term can be applied to fighters traveling in motorized vehicles. Family researchers and historians often say “Calvary” when they mean to say “cavalry.”

Counsel: Advice given to another; also, a team of lawyers involved in advising the prosecution or the defense in a trial. Some organizations maintain a salaried team of lawyers which they call their counsel.

Council: A group of people meeting to direct an organization. Churches, schools, businesses, and other entities, including government agencies, frequently are run by councils.

Lightening: making lighter—often used to describe a change in weight, whether literal or metaphorical (“The encouragement of his friends was lightening his burden.”) Can also be used of colors or colored objects (including the sky) becoming less dark.

Lightning: An enormous spark of electricity, jumping from cloud to cloud or from cloud to ground. Generally occurring in storms and often accompanied by thunder. Sadly, not effective in weight reduction.

Ordinance: A rule, often made by a council. For some reason, this word seems to apply more to city regulations than to state or national regulations.

Ordnance: Artillery, or guns, generally mounted. Also a short-hand label for the military unit in charge of such equipment.

Personal: Applying to a person, frequently used to describe matters that should not be shared with the general public or with a larger group of people. Confidential records might be labeled “personal.”

Personnel: The list of people working for an organization or agency. Such a list would generally be available to anyone interested, although some personnel details (including salaries and work evaluations) might be considered personal.

Please note that spell-check programs will not ask you which of these meanings you intend when you are typing. If you want to say that an idea “struck like lightning” but you type “lightening,” the mistake will be published unless you catch it yourself. J.

Easter hymn

Christ is arisen

From the grave’s dark prison.

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ with comfort lights our eyes. Alleluia!

All our hopes were ended

Had Jesus not ascended

From the grave triumphantly

Our never-ending life to be. Alleluia!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ, our comfort, fills the skies. Alleluia!

Traditional German Easter hymn, ca. 1100.

A Good Friday hymn

O sacred Head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down,

Now scornfully surrounded With thorns, Thine only crown.

O sacred Head, what glory, What bliss ‘til now was thine!

Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,

Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee And flee before Thy glance.

How art Thou pale with anguish, With sore abuse and scorn!

How dost Thy visage languish That once was bright as morn!

Now from Thy cheeks has vanished Their color, once so fair;

From Thy red lips is banished The splendor that was there.

Grim death, with cruel rigor, Hath robbed Thee of Thy life;

Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, They strength, in this sad strife.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,

For it was my transgression Which brought this woe on Thee.

I cast me down before Thee; Wrath were my rightful lot.

Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

My Shepherd, now receive me; My Guardian, own me Thine.

Great blessings Thou didst give me, O Source of gifts divine.

Thy lips have often fed me With words of truth and love;

Thy Spirit oft hath led me To heavenly joys above.

Here I will stand beside Thee, From Thee I will not part;

O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart,

When soul and body languish In death’s cold, cruel grasp,

Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.

The joy can ne’er be spoken, Above all joys beside,

When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide.

O Lord of Life, desiring Thy glory now to see,

Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend,

For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?

Oh, make me Thine forever! And should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love for Thee.

My Savior, be Thou near me When death is at my door;

Then let Thy presence cheer me, Forsake me nevermore!

When soul and body languish, Oh, leave me not alone,

But take away mine anguish By virtue of Thine own!

Be Thou my Consolation, My Shield, when I must die;

Remind me of Thy Passion When my last hour draws nigh.

Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, Upon Thy cross shall dwell,

My heart by faith enfold Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

No need to jump, part two

I have found a way to work my latest story idea into a long-standing unfinished novel that has been brewing for roughly thirty years. The main character, Roger Sorenson, will be the poisoning victim I mentioned in my last post. The story begins with his death and the beginning of the police investigation. It then jumps backward in time to the beginning of his relationship with Rose Gardner, his ex-wife who is a suspect in his murder.

Ernest Gardner had nothing in his life but his business and his family, and long ago he combined the two into one. His wife is long-gone, but all three of his daughters—Rose, Lily, and Violet—work at his florist shop. (Those names may be too cute, but for the time being they will work as place-holders.) Ernest’s florist shop is no small business at one end of a strip mall, ordering produce from chain suppliers. The shop occupies most of a city block, complete with greenhouses, showrooms, and office space. Ernest inherited the business before he was married, and his daughters have grown up with the business. Violet is still in school, but she works in the shop evenings and weekends. Lily is a full-time worker in the greenhouses. Rose, the eldest, has taken business classes and earned a degree; she is the company bookkeeper for Ernest’s shop.

For several years, Ernest has hired a student or two from the university across town to assist in the office with clerical work. He has never hinted this thought to any of his clerks or to any of his daughters, but at the back of his mind Ernest is always hoping to create a match. He would like to find a husband for his daughters, an educated man, but a man willing to take an interest in the family business. Rose is old enough and set in her ways; Ernest doubts at this point that any romantic match will come her way. Lily and Violet seem more eligible matches for the young men Ernest hires. Rose is strong-willed, firm in her opinions, and confident in her abilities. (Shakespeare may have helped a tiny bit to invent this character and her situation.)

Roger Sorenson is this year’s clerk. He is finishing his classwork to earn a doctorate in Philosophy. He has already begun contemplating the topic of his thesis. Most of his mind is focused on his schoolwork, but he appreciates the extra income from the clerk’s position. Moreover, Roger is a quick learner. In a few weeks he learned the basic tasks in the florist business; not only can he handle office paperwork, but he is also capable of serving in the shop, waiting on customers.

One day, when Roger and Rose are in the shop, a man enters and attempts an armed robbery. Roger heroically protects Rose from harm and disarms the robber, but not before Roger is injured. (I have fantasized this event in many ways over the years; the details will not be hard to write.) Because all his family is out of town, Roger is welcomed into the Gardner household to continue his recovery once he is released from the hospital. Rose is at his side as often as her schedule allows. Romance and marriage will follow.

Since Roger is studying philosophy, he will have many opportunities during his convalescence to explain the workings of philosophy to a skeptical Rose. To show the value of his discipline, Roger will begin with aesthetics—the question of what things are beautiful, and why. Rose must analyze flowers and flower arrangements according to structured thought rather than intuitive design. From that beginning, Rose will also learn about ethics and finally about the eternal questions regarding the universe—what is real, and how do we know? These questions become increasingly important as the accused robber and his friends present a version of what happened that fateful day in the shop which is dramatically different from the event as Roger and Rose remember it.

A jury hears the evidence, including the conflicting testimony, and it convicts the robber of attempted murder. He spends the next several years in prison, learning from his fellow prisoners about crime, making connections with other members of the local criminal community. His release from prison happens only a few weeks before Roger receives the package of poisoned candy. By this time, Roger and Rose have been married and divorced. Did she send him the candy, or was she framed by the man who once threatened her with a gun? Will the truth ever be found?

This story permits the insertion of various explanations of philosophy and its applications to contemporary life. One version or another of this book has been in my mind for many years. Like me, Roger Sorenson is a Christian, a fan of Kierkegaard, and an avid reader of western civilization’s classic works. Can he share this passion with Rose, or will the Great Thoughts be the nemesis of their relationship? J.

No need to jump

This morning I awoke from a dream in which I overheard the following conversation:

“Time to get up, get moving! Time to strap on a parachute and jump into an adventure.”

“No, thanks, I’m not planning on taking any adventure.”

“But you’re a writer! You’re supposed to be all about adventure.”

“No—I let my characters have the adventure. A writer—if that writer takes a flight in an airplane at all—is going to stay inside the airplane until it’s safely on the ground again.”

I’m not sure about all the words from that dream, but the final line is pretty much the way I dreamed it. And what I heard in my dream, I also endorse in my waking life. A writer’s job is not to have adventures: a writer’s job is to send out characters on adventures and then describe those adventures for the rest of us.

In the last twelve months, I’ve had enough personal adventures to keep me satisfied for a very long time. Over the weekend, I found myself on the Internet researching various poisons. What did the Russian government use against Alexai Navaly, and how did they acquire it? What common household items are toxic? What about plants in the house or garden? What combinations of various available chemicals are highly dangerous? Along the way, I read about the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Tom Petty, Prince, and a few others, even following the absurd rabbit hole of the “27 Club.” Then, to justify this research, I invented the plot of a murder mystery. A man receives a box of candy at work. After eating two pieces of the candy, he keels over, dead. His ex-wife is the primary suspect. The package had no return address, but the postmark indicates it was mailed from the post office nearest her home. From the time on the postmark, police investigators are able to view security footage of the package being mailed. The person mailing the package appears to be a woman of about the ex-wife’s build, but the mailer is unrecognizable, wearing a face mask, sunglasses, and a scarf over her head. Police chemists test the remaining candy and identify the poison—it can be made from ingredients available at the local Walmart. Obtaining a search warrant for the ex-wife’s home, investigators find wrappings from such ingredients lying behind her outdoor trash can, against the side of the house. A Walmart receipt is with those wrappings. From the date and time on the receipt, the investigators can view the shopper who bought and paid for those items—paid in cash, by the way, as that person also paid at the post office. The Walmart shopper wore the same mask, the same sunglasses, and the same scarf—which is interesting, since the purchase of those ingredients and of the box of candy happened two days before they were mailed. Is the ex-wife guilty of murder, or has someone gone out of their way to frame her for the crime? If she was framed, by whom? The only person with a motive to harm her in that way, is her dead ex-husband. Did he kill himself to get revenge on her? If so, who was his confederate, the person seen at Walmart and at the post office. That person was too small to be that man, but would any person have knowingly helped him in this crime? Or could he have tricked someone into the visits to Walmart and the post office, not telling them the reason he asked them to make those trips?

It’s an OK basis for a story, although it needs to be fleshed out with the personalities of the victim and his ex-wife, his reasons for possibly wanting to kill himself while framing his ex-wife for murder, and perhaps an additional red herring or two. I also had a subplot about the same man recently preventing a violent crime in a heroic manner, only to mutter afterward that he had hoped to be killed while performing that heroic deed. Maybe somehow the intended perpetrator of that violent crime had a way of getting even through the poisoned candy and framed the ex-wife only to draw attention away from himself or herself. The story could build from there, with perhaps an entire gang of terrorists plotting to frighten a city but thrown off balance by the random action of an average man.

I have several other writing projects stacked, ready to be written when I find the time to write. I doubt this murder mystery/adventure will be added to the queue. I might change my mind. It doesn’t have to be my adventure: I can sit home and write and send these characters out on their adventure. J.

A Palm Sunday hymn

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

Hark! All the tribes Hosanna cry,

O Savior meek, pursue Thy road,

With palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die.

O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin

O’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

The angel armies of the sky

Look down with sad and wond’ring eyes

To see th’approaching sacrifice.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

The last and fiercest strife is nigh.

The Father on His sapphire throne

Awaits His own anointed Son.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp, ride on to die.

Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,

Then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign.

Henry H. Milman (1791-1868)

Christ’s new covenant

(a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 10:35-45)

              We take it for granted, and generally we don’t even think about it. When we do stop and think about it, the topic confuses us. Sometimes it seems to rush by quickly; other times it seems to drag. Physicists like Isaac Newton assumed that it is the same for everyone everywhere, but Albert Einstein insisted that it is relative. Many modern philosophers say that it doesn’t really exist, that it is only there when we notice it.

              This strange quality is called time. We measure time with years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Without time, nothing could move and nothing could change. Nothing would be new or old if time did not exist. Time has a direction: we move from past to present and from present to future. Because of time, we have worries; and because of time, we have hope. Our lives are shaped by time. Yet the more we think about time, the less we understand it.

              God created time. He made the universe and all that exists in it “in the beginning.” God established time by making evening and morning, the first day. Our relationship to the sun creates days and years; our relationship to the moon creates months. Weeks are special; God created weeks by making the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, giving the people created in his image a day of rest every seventh day. God’s commandments of sabbath rest extended to sets of seven years, in which farmland got to rest every seventh year. God also created the Jubilee Year after every seven sets of years. On the Jubilee Year, debts were canceled, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the families who had received that land from God.

              God created time. We live in time. Our relationship with God works in time. When God speaks to us, he mentions time. Yet time does not limit God. He exists in time, but he also exists beyond time. To God, it is always “today.” God is eternal and unchanging. He sees all time at a glance. To God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. “Old” and “new” do not have meaning to God as they have meaning to us. Therefore, when God speaks to us, he uses our sense of “old” and “new.” Yet to God, everything is new and nothing is old. What seems old to us might be very recent for God, and what seems new to us might be old news for God.

              The prophet Jeremiah lived centuries after the time of Moses. When God called Moses, he had Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. On the way, Moses and the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, and God made a covenant with his people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God spoke about the behavior of his people under that covenant. They would have no other gods. They would respect God’s name, God’s time, and the human authorities that represent God’s authority. They would love their neighbors and respect their lives, their marriages, their property and their reputations. They would be content with what God provided them; they would not covet the things God provided to their neighbors.

              Under the terms of this old covenant, God would bless his people when they obeyed him, and God would punish his people when they disobeyed him. While his people obeyed, God would provide favorable weather, fertile fields, abundance of crops, and security from their enemies. But if they broke the covenant, God would withhold the rain and would let the crops fail. He would allow enemies to invade and to harm his people. If they obeyed the old covenant, they could stay on the land God had given to them; but if they broke that covenant, God would take them away from the land and would force them to live among their enemies, even though their enemies were also God’s enemies.

              When Jeremiah came, the Israelites had been breaking the old covenant for generations. They had worshiped false gods, the gods of the Canaanites and other neighboring nations. They had taken advantage of one another, forcing their neighbors into poverty for their own wealth and comfort. They had broken the sabbath commandments about rest and freedom and restoration. Under the terms of the old covenant, God had no reason to provide for them or protect them. Jeremiah, like the prophets before him, warned that consequences were coming because of the broken old covenant. Enemies would destroy the nation Israel, killing many of its citizens and carrying others away from the land. God had no obligation to prevent these bad things from happening, because his people had already broken the covenant God made with them. The Assyrians and Babylonians were tools in the hands of God, instruments used to accomplish his plan according to the terms of the covenant he had spoken to his people at Mount Sinai.

              Terms of the old covenant seem natural to us. Some people call it karma. We expect good things to happen when we do good things; we expect bad things to happen when we do bad things. If we obey the commands of God, we expect God to reward us. If we break his commandments, we expect God to punish us. We all know how the old covenant works: what comes around goes around. You harvest whatever you plant. In the end, we all get what we deserve. Therefore, if something good happens to you, sometime in the past you must have done something good. If something bad happens to you, the first question you ask is, “What did I do to deserve this?”

              Jeremiah spent much of his career warning God’s people of the consequences of breaking God’s covenant. But Jeremiah, like the other prophets, knew that God has an old covenant and a new covenant. Under the old covenant we get what we deserve. Under the new covenant, God forgives our sins and blesses us. The new covenant is based on God’s grace, not on our obedience. Under the new covenant, God rescues us from our sins. He rescues us from what we deserve. He rescues us from the power of evil, because God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.

              The new covenant is not fair. The new covenant involves an exchange. In that exchange, the Son of God becomes one of us and lives among us. He obeys the commandments and earns God’s blessings. He deserves nothing but good. But, in the new covenant, the Son of God takes the burden of sins and iniquity, and he pays the price in full. The guilt of the world’s sins falls upon him, and he consumes the punishment that sinners deserve. In return, when God has forgiven iniquity and forgotten sin, he is able to bless those who broke the old covenant. God is able to claim us as his people and to give us the good things that Jesus deserves. He is our God and we are his people, just as he said in the old covenant. But the sins of our past have not destroyed that relationship. He remains our God and we remain his people, because through the cross of Christ God has forgiven our iniquity. He remembers our sin no more.

              The old covenant is fair. It makes sense. The new covenant is unfair. It transcends our understanding. In a perfectly fair world, the new covenant would not be allowed. Jesus could not suffer, because he never did anything wrong. Each of us would get what we deserve. Because we have all sinned—we all have broken the commands of God—we all have fallen short of his plan for our lives—he would no longer be our God, and we would no longer be his people.

              But God is not fair according to the terms of the old covenant. He replaces it with a new covenant that is unfair. He allows good people to suffer so he can suffer on the cross to pay for our sins. He allows sinful people to receive good things so he can give us good things we do not deserve. He is unfair for our benefit, breaking the terms of the old covenant and replacing it with a new covenant that allows him to remain our God and allows us to remain his people.

              In our travel through time, we encounter the old covenant first and then the new covenant comes later. Sinai happens first in history, and then comes Calvary. We are born knowing the justice of getting what we deserve, good in return for good and bad in return for bad. We then are told about the new covenant, an agreement when God reverses everything we took for granted. He absorbs our guilt upon the cross, paying our debt, reducing his wrath to zero; and he forgets our sins, gives us good things we do not deserve, and changes us to be his people. As a result, we also forgive those who sin against us. We also give good things to our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We also are unfair, showing love and mercy to our neighbors and loving them, even and especially when they do not deserve our love.

              For us, grace and mercy are a new covenant. For that reason, God speaks of an old covenant at Sinai and a new covenant at Calvary. But to God, nothing is old and nothing is new. In fact, the new covenant is (in a sense) older than the old covenant, because the new covenant is truer to the nature of God. God responds to sin with punishment; he reacts to evil by judging and condemning evil. At the core of his nature, though, God is love. He wants to give good things even to those who do not deserve good things. He wants to rescue victims of sin and evil. He wants the world to be good, and therefore he restores what is good, fixes what is broken, and reshapes us into the image of Christ after we first sinned and lost the image of God. He is our God, and we are his people, because that is what God desires. Forgiveness is more natural to God than judgment. He sees our sins for a while, but the blood of Christ erases our sins. Every day, in the sight of God, we are new people—cleansed, restored, and spotless in the eyes of God. Every song of praise we sing is a new song to God, and every time he tells us to love each other is a new commandment, because we never stop being new in the new covenant God has established with us through the cross of his Son.

              The old covenant comes in the course of time. The new covenant stands outside of time. Before God began to create, before he said, “Let there be light,” he had already planned our salvation. He knew that we would sin. He knew that his covenant based on our obedience would be broken. He knew the price he would pay to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. But God had already chosen his new covenant. That new (and timeless) covenant rests in the eternal and unchanging love of God, love by which God chooses to become a victim of evil on the cross to rescue us victims of evil and give us a share in his victory over evil and sin and death.

              We live under the terms of the new covenant. The old covenant no longer threatens us with punishment for our sins. But sometimes we forget where we live. We still want the benefits of the old covenant, so long as its judgment applies to others and not to ourselves. James and John, the disciples of Jesus, were thinking of the old covenant when they asked a special favor of Jesus. They wanted to be at his right hand and at his left when he claimed his glory. They were thinking in Old Testament terms of the kingdom, the power, and the glory when they made this request. They were not considering the unfair new covenant that Jesus had come to fulfill. Jesus denied them a place at his right and at his left when he claimed his kingdom and came into his glory. Those places belong to others—not to Moses and Elijah, not to Simon Peter, not to Martin Luther or any other great Christian heroes. Jesus claimed his kingdom and accomplished his glory on a cross. At his right and his left were two thieves, being punished for their crimes under the old covenant. Because Jesus was establishing his new covenant, when one of those thieves confessed his faith, he was promised a place with Jesus in Paradise. James and John and the rest of us are also promised a place in Paradise, not under the old covenant where people get what they deserve, but under the new covenant where, by grace through faith, we are forgiven of our sins and claimed as the people of God.

              Speaking of both covenants, Jesus speaks of a baptism and of a cup. Baptism washes and purifies. Jesus endured the cross as a baptism of fire, a baptism of his Father’s wrath, so we could be spared that wrath and our sins could be forgotten. The cup of God’s wrath is filled with our guilt and our sins. This cup contains a poison that kills, for the wages of sin is death. But Jesus drinks the poison in that cup. He consumes the wrath of his Father so he can adopt us into his family, making each of us a child of God.

              Jesus has another baptism, one of water rather than fire. Having endured the fire for us, Jesus washes us with water in Holy Baptism. As the new covenant is stronger than the old covenant, so the water of Holy Baptism extinguishes the fire of judgment and gives us eternal life in God’s kingdom.

              Jesus has another cup, the cup of salvation, the cup of the New Testament. At his Table, Jesus trades cup with us. He takes our cup, the cup of wrath, the poisoned cup, and he drinks from it until it is empty. Jesus did not want to drink from that cup. In Gethsemane, he prayed that the cup of his Father’s wrath would be taken from him. But he accepted the will of his Father and drank from that cup. Now, in exchange, Jesus gives us his cup. “This is the cup of the New Testament,” he says, “given for the forgiveness of your sins.” His blood removes our sins, because he shed that blood to take away our sins. They are forgiven and forgotten by God because of the work of Christ on the cross. As often as we drink from his cup of salvation, we proclaim the death of Christ until he comes. We proclaim the death that conquered death, the death that was followed by resurrection so we could rise to eternal life according to the terms of God’s new covenant.

              Jesus did not come to claim what belonged to him under the old covenant. The Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve and to give his life as a Ransom. Because he is a Ransom, our debt is paid. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten. The God who made all things—who created time itself—has chosen to be our God. He has chosen us to be his people. We are new every day because of the new covenant, the covenant fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. To our Savior Jesus Christ be glory and honor and praise, now and forever.                 Amen.

The best and worst of times

In January I began the great five-year adventure of reading through the Great Books—the classic writings of Western Civilization from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This being mid-March, I have just finished Herodotus’ historic description of the Greek war with Persia and have begun the equally famous Peloponnesian Wars.

Looking once again at the political adventures and battles that set the poleis, or city-states, in conflict with one another, I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ famous opening to his novel of the French Revolution. Everyone knows how the novel begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness….” Likewise, everyone knows the closing line of the novel: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done….” Probably not so many people can summarize the plot that fills four hundred pages between those lines or can remember any other memorable quotes from that novel. But I wander from my point, which is that for Greece in the years of the Peloponnesian Wars it also was the best of times and the worst of times.

Against all odds, the Greeks had withstood two invasions from the mighty Persian Empire. They had overcome both the massive land army raised by Persia and also its mighty navy. Now Athens was being rebuilt, fashioning the remarkable structures that still draw tourists today. The great Greek dramatists were writing the great timeless plays that are still read and studied today. Greek science and mathematics were reaching new and amazing heights, and for the first time philosophy was being developed in the European continent.

Yet at the same time, the Greeks were destroying themselves with constant warfare against one another. Men lost their lives on the battlefield in the prime of their life, sacrificing themselves nobly for petty squabbles that were unworthy of the price they demanded. Armies leveled the crops and orchards of their opponents. Money was wasted on military equipment—money that could have further advanced the architecture, drama, science, and philosophy of the age. Crowding into their cities to escape the battles, citizens spread plague that cost the Greeks more lives and more sorrow. Wisdom and foolishness, Light and Darkness: all these contrasts can be seen in the ancient Greek wars as clearly as in the French Revolution or any other modern conflict.

One of the lessons of classic literature is this: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Centuries have come and gone, and people continue to make the same mistakes. We study the past, but we fail to learn from it. Indeed, the history of the Peloponnesian wars is, without doubt, a tale of Thucydides. J.