A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Lent 5 ~ Jeremiah 31:31-34
There are only four verses in today’s scripture reading but within those four verses are four distinct movements that describe how our relationship with God works. We have the promise, the problem, the placement, and the payoff.
What’s the promise? Jeremiah 31:31 “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant (a new sacred relationship) with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” The days are coming – which means they may not be here yet – which means that the writer is saying that we’re living in in-between times. I think we feel that way a lot. Especially in this long pandemic season. But while we have to wait for vaccines and whatnot to get through Covid-tide, we don’t have to wait for God’s promise.
What’s the promise? A new covenant – a new sacred relationship.
And what’s the problem? Why do we need a new covenant?
Um, how about because we keep breaking the old ones?!
Jeremiah 31:32 “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their (spouse), says the LORD.”
That’s a really interesting verse. It references the various covenants that the people of Israel have broken over the years. And the metaphor of God being our spouse is fascinating. It’s like saying that we’re married to God and God stayed faithful to us but we cheated on God by making love to other deities – like the deity called materialism, and the deity called consumerism, and the deity called greed, and the deity called self-interest, and the deity called privilege, and the deity called white supremacy, and, and, and. So God keeps God’s end of these bargains, and we keep screwing up our end of them, and yet God keeps trying. Thank God!
The promise is a new covenant.
The problem is that we keep breaking the old ones.
So what will be different this time? The placement and the payoff!
But before we get to that we need to consider something about God’s character.
One of the things I really love about this scripture passage from Jeremiah is that it helps to put the lie to the idea that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is an angry, vengeful, distant God and the God of the Christian Scriptures is a loving, compassionate, personal God. As you’ve heard me say before, there is only one God. The difference isn’t that God changed but that the people writing about their experience of God evolved.
What we have in passages like this is not an evolution of God. That’s important to get. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. God is a universal constant, and that constant is love and holiness. What evolved here is how humans understood God. In the beginning God was out there – powerful like nature, and weather, and stars because those things are so far beyond us and mysterious. But as humans grew in knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and experience we evolved, including our spirituality. We began to realize that God isn’t just out there, God is also in here. That’s what this passage in Jeremiah is wrestling with.
Jeremiah 31:33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law (my Way) within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
This is why ‘written on our hearts’ is such a great image – why the placement of this covenant love is so crucial. Compare the idea of being ‘written on our hearts’ to where the law was originally written – externally – on tablets of stone, even. What’s the difference? Jeremiah is asking us to realize that it’s also internal. Why is this new understanding better?
It’s better because it’s much harder to set something aside and ignore it if you understand that it’s part of you. If God’s law and way are written on your heart –at the centre of your being – then you cannot ever escape their effect, their authority, or their power. God’s way is not something that is hidden away in a beautiful chest called the Ark of the Covenant that’s housed in the innermost part of the physical temple in a room that only the high priest of your religion gets to visit one time each year.
No, God’s way is written somewhere much more accessible, and immediate, and intimate – within you.
And that makes your heart, your inner being, YOU the holy temple. Your innermost part isn’t evil, or damaged, or stained forever – your innermost part is of God!
What guides and shapes your life? Is it the external laws and traditions of your society? Is it your own self-understanding, and values, and convictions?
Yes – to both of those. So what about God’s will, and God’s way – the way of Jesus?
“Well, isn’t that what church and the bible are for, and then we decide ourselves how to live it out?”
Yes – kinda.
AND – there’s something deeper.
There’s another, fuller, richer, more transformative way to look at this and understand it.
Religion and faith aren’t just external things – and they’re certainly not about behaviour modification, and really they’re not about how to be a good person even.
They’re primarily internal things. It’s not ‘knowing ABOUT’ – it’s ‘knowing and being known’! Jeremiah 31 says that God’s way is “Written on our hearts!”
God’s not ‘out there’ – God’s ‘in here’.
God loves us from the inside out.
God knows us from the inside out.
And that changes everything.
So what’s stopping us from accessing all this great inner knowing and loving?
Think about this inner parchment upon which God writes. We imagine that God is writing on a clean slate on our hearts, which is true. But it isn’t a clean slate because it’s virgin territory that has never been exposed before; it’s a clean slate because God has wiped it clean.
And that leads us into this bizarre and oh-so human vicious circle. God forgives or wipes clean our innermost barriers, and missteps, and sense of fallen-short-edness – and even our endless editing!
And we say, “Cool! Thanks, God! You rock!”, but then we go right back to mucking it up again.
Let’s play with the metaphor that Jeremiah is employing. He says that instead of God writing God’s way on outside things like tablets of stone, or even in books (like bibles), that God writes God’s way directly on our hearts. It’s an inner thing, an inside job!
So let’s take it the next step.
Now we’re walking around with the very will of God imprinted on the innermost parts of our being – written on our hearts, as it were.
With God’s way so clearly imprinted how could any of us ever possibly go wrong?
It’s because God made a big miscalculation here. God lovingly left it wide open for us to easily access. That means it’s just sitting there waiting for us to read and follow through on, but instead of doing that we sneak in to this unguarded masterpiece, take out our extended rainbow pack of sharpies and start editing!
I think God writes this on our hearts: love God, love people, and love one another – love, love, love.
We say, “Great! – except that loving God means I have to love stuff less, and I may have to say no when the world is saying yes and that’s hard to do. So I’ll just make that say, ‘love God as often as you can!’
“And that love people thing – that’s a good one too, but I’ll just edit it to say ‘love people as long as they’re not too different from me, or as long as I can write a cheque for it but not become too invested, or as long as it doesn’t put me out too much or make me feel too guilty.
“And that whole love one another thing, that’s a great one too, except that sometimes church people can really tick me off, and that minister sometimes says stuff that’s just…ridiculous, and sometimes they do things that we’ve never done before and it makes me uncomfortable, so I’ll just stroke out the “as Jesus loved” part and write ‘Love one another the best I can manage today.’ There! Now I can get back to living in the “real” world instead of that crazy God stuff that Jesus taught.”
And yet, in our rare moments of spiritual clarity and depth we stand back and look at our hearts and see that we’ve taken the masterpiece that God has crafted and realize we’ve scribbled all over it and messed it up virtually beyond recognition.
And we are convicted.
Now – here’s the big question.
How does God react to all this graffiti smeared upon a masterwork?
You could certainly understand if the reaction was anger, or even frustration. But those are human reactions – like if your child took a box of crayons and wrote on your walls. You’d feel anger and frustration – in love of course – and you’d try to correct the behaviour and scold the heck out of the kid to make sure it didn’t happen again.
But God doesn’t work that way. God is not human! God’s reaction isn’t anger, or even frustration – it’s much holier than that. God’s reaction is our equivalent of a deep breath, a knowing sigh, a little pat on the head with a ‘there, there’, a loving smile, a brush of an arm that cleans all the junk off the masterpiece that is your heart, and God writes anew the words we so desperately need to hear and follow – love, love, love.
So we’ve heard the promise (a new covenant), we’ve heard the problem (we keep breaking the former ones), and we’ve explored the placement (that God’s presence is internal creating a masterpiece within us – that we keep trying to edit), and now we get the payoff.
Jeremiah 31:34 “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
For they shall all know me. From the least to the greatest – no one is excluded – ever. They shall all know me. Not just know about, but really know. Knowing deeply, in the biblical sense, as they say. Remember the language of God being our spouse? That’s the kind of relationship God apparently desires with us. That’s the kind of intimacy God offers. God has placed a lover’s whisper in our ear. Yes, it has sexual overtones. If that kind of language makes you uncomfortable – to think about God loving you like a lover – then I would humbly suggest that you haven’t spent enough time reading the masterpiece God has written on your heart. This is God’s covenant love – for us – with us.
If you want your heart to be content you need to spend some time thinking of your heart’s content. And by that I don’t mean the things you’ve done right or wrong, or the imaginary scorecard of how you love others.
I mean the stuff that God writes, and writes, and writes in the very centre of your being:
“I love you. I know you. You’re awesome. Commune with me. Know me. Receive my love – and in return, love. Show compassion to the world. Connect with those around you. You were meant for love, so love.”
God out there, far away, supposedly making rules and dogmas – can’t love you.
God in here, in your deepest being, writing love on your heart – can’t help but love you.
If you’re aware of that, if you really get it, if you’re weak-in-the-knees-gaga-for-God, if you really KNOW God intimately, and regularly read the love poem God has inscribed in the core of your being, then you understand your heart’s content, and you will live and love to your heart’s content!
And God will be our God and we will be God’s people.
And God’s people all say….