Grace Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016, Pentecost 22C
Written On Our Hearts
Hope is one of the most elusive things we humans ever try to describe.
The poet Emily Dickinson was rather fond of hope as a theme in her poetry. Perhaps most famously she wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all…
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke of hope many times, even if the word itself was not always apparent. Particularly striking is the terse sentence “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
This is an important point about hope; it’s not really at its most valuable or important or even noticeable in times of ease and comfort, but stands out in sharpest relief in times of adversity – or, to cite another quote attributed to Dr. King, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
Again, Jeremiah is writing to exiles in today’s reading, those who were carried away to Babylon before the final destruction of Jerusalem. You will remember in last week’s reading Jeremiah gave the exiles the surprising and counter-intuitive counsel of God to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.”
The problem was, that Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet delivering messages to the exiles. Furthermore, some of those other prophets were giving messages that were directly contrary to the word God gave to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah had already come into conflict with one such prophet, a man named Hananiah. You can read in chapter 28 of this book how Hananiah directly challenged Jeremiah in the Temple, prophesying that the exile would be broken within two years. Hananiah not only ended up being proved wrong (the exile ended up lasting seventy years), but also ended up dead for his intransigence.
Nonetheless, there were still plenty of prophets about who sought to tell the exiles what they wanted to hear. Hananiah’s two-year exile story refused to die with him. As a result, Jeremiah has to deliver a hard message to those exiles, one which would not be popular and would likely be opposed and rejected by many of them, their ears still attuned to the words of those false prophets and their promises of a quick fix, overthrowing the hated Babylonian rulers and restoring the now-broken kingdoms of Israel and Judah to the peace and safety the exiles remembered (in spite of all evidence to the contrary).
Amidst what looks like bad news, though, Jeremiah is in fact preaching a word of hope, to those whose perceptions have not been so distorted by years of idolatry in Israel and Judah or by the words of those false prophets. It wasn’t an instant-gratification kind of hope, not by a long shot. Indeed, many of those who were taken into exile would not live to see Israel and Judah’s return from exile in the seventy years Jeremiah proclaimed. All of that building houses and planting gardens no doubt seemed a bitter pill to swallow for those who knew their days would end in this foreign land, even if they took to heart God’s instruction through Jeremiah.
But the scripture we read for today stretches the idea of long-term hope to an extreme. Through Jeremiah’s words, God is preparing the people of the covenant for something much farther into the future, even in the midst of their current struggles.
You might have noticed, if you were reading this scripture in your pew Bibles, that the layout of this text as it has been edited for this publication gives away something about it, something that is different. It is set apart from the surrounding text by being rendered as ordinary prose, rather than as more lofty-sounding poetry. We’re being tipped off that the tone is changing here—while much of Jeremiah’s text has poetic quality and content to it, this bit of instruction is blunt and direct. It’s also set off by that repeated introductory phrase “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…”. If nothing else we are being told to pay attention, even if our minds have wandered somehow at this point. This is a Thing That Will Happen; listen up.
The first portion of this scripture seems odd, unless we consider that Jeremiah’s words are overturning a long-held belief in Temple-era Judaism about how sin rippled out from those who committed it, to the point that later generations would “be punished” or suffer for the sins of their ancestors. No longer, says Jeremiah; your sin is your own responsibility, and you alone will bear the consequences.
It is the second half of this passage, though (introduced by another “the days are surely coming…”), that signals something quite new to Jeremiah’s hearers.
I wonder how many of you have seen a painting, or probably a reproduction of that painting, which depicts a very pale, long-haired Jesus standing at a door and knocking. Clearly the painting plays off the verse from the book of Revelation:
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
It’s pretty familiar to us, but would have sounded quite alien to Jeremiah’s hearers or readers. Images of God coming into an individual’s heart, while common from that Revelation verse and numerous gospel hymns, would not have made sense at all in Temple-era Jerusalem. “God’s people” was a communal concept, not an individual one.
Furthermore, if we read Jeremiah’s proclamation correctly (particularly around verse 33), that Revelation passage doesn’t really capture what Jeremiah is telling his listeners or readers either. God’s instruction through Jeremiah speaks of God’s law as being written on “their hearts.” Not “your heart” or “his heart” or “her heart”; their hearts. While there is more of an individual dimension than perhaps the covenant people might have ever experienced before, it is still the community, the covenant people together, for whom this covenant is written. It happens to God’s people together. It happens in the community. And it happens entirely at God’s doing.
We modern Christians tend to get hung up pretty often on the individual nature of faith (rendering Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, for example) and forget that where that faith is forged is here, in the community, in the people of God, in the body of Christ.
Of course, if we’re honest, we just might have to admit that Jeremiah’s prophecy seems to be yet forthcoming. We don’t always act or talk or live like people with God’s law written on our hearts. We are still easily seduced by the false prophets of our day, whether they be the false prophets who promise you that “you can lose five pounds a week with no dieting and with no exercise!” or the false prophets (frequently religious leaders these days) who push all our buttons by telling you it’s somebody else’s fault that your life isn’t exactly the way you want it, and promise to fix it for you by punishing those people.
The world out there can hardly be blamed for being uninterested in the church when the church seems more venomous and hateful than just about any other part of society. Really, who needs that? If all the church is going to do is make people more hateful and even violent, it’s no wonder nobody wants in.
We have a lot to do, friends. We in the church, the big church, have really given very little evidence that God’s law is written on our hearts, or that it’s a good thing if it is. But think about it; think about what that would mean. Jeremiah’s readers would not be thinking of God writing on our hearts with a really nice pen-and-paper set with elegant penmanship. Remember how they knew the law to have been written first; carved into stone tablets, written by no less than the finger of God. Not an easy thing, not something that could be washed away. Not like writing a note to yourself on your palm because you don’t have a piece of paper; more like being tattooed, or maybe even being branded. Being marked by God in such a way that it can’t be washed away or rubbed off. Being marked indelibly, permanently. Possibly even painfully – tattoos hurt, I’m told, and I can only imagine the pain involved in being branded.
To be marked or branded in such a way is to be so in thrall to God that those false prophets all around us can’t sway us. To be marked that way is to be unmistakably in service to no one or no thing that is not God, no matter how much it wants you to think it is God. It is to be so unswerving in our following God in Christ that the world out there would just have to stop and look, desperate to know more.
Yeah, there’s a long way to go. But this is our hope and God’s promise to us. We might want to examine ourselves in light of this hope, just in case there’s a world out there watching. Because there is.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#645 Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above
#45 I to the Hills Will Lift My Eyes
#53 O God Who Gives Us Life
#833 O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go