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Still Writing

Jeremiah 31:31-34

 

I preached from the book of Jeremiah three weeks ago, and the context for this week’s passage is the same. But since I know that all of you weren’t here that day, and since I know that you don’t hang on my every word and commit it to memory, I’ll give you a brief recap!

For most of his ministry, Jeremiah was the prophet of bad news. He pronounced God’s judgment upon the leaders of Judah. He berated the people, but particularly the leaders, for not upholding the covenant with God. In the original covenant (the one God made with Moses at Mount Sinai), God “promised to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and in return they promised to act like liberated people. That meant two things: worshiping only [God], and treating others in the same manner that they had been treated by God.”[1]

Over and over God told the people how to behave toward those on the margins because they were once on the margins and God saved them. Deuteronomy 10: “You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 24: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice…. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and God redeemed you from there.”

But the people did not do it, and Jeremiah blasted them for it. From Jeremiah 5: “They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.” So he pronounced and predicted God’s judgment upon them. To Jeremiah, and to the Israelite people, their exile in Babylon was God’s punishment. Whether or not we believe that’s the way God works, that’s what they believed because they failed to keep the covenant.

But at this point in our story, Jeremiah’s doom and gloom was behind him. Once Jerusalem had fallen, he turned to offering comfort and hope. In this passage Jeremiah promised hope because of a new covenant. The new covenant didn’t replace the old covenant in content. It was still based on Torah, and it still contained the same rules: worship only God, and treat others the way God had treated them. “It would not be new in terms of content … but in terms of place. This new covenant which would be made available to them would not be imposed upon them from the outside, but would be ‘within them,’ ‘on their hearts,’ or ‘in their center.’”[2] This new covenant that God promised to them, and to us, is that it will emanate from within rather than be imposed from outside. God will write on our hearts.

I love this image, love this idea that God will write on our hearts. The question is: when? When will God do such a thing? According to Jeremiah, all we know is “The day is surely coming.” Has that day arrived? Some scholars and theologians believe that day will only come to fruition in the eschaton—meaning either in the end times or in eternal life. Only then will God’s law be written on our hearts. My argument against this theory is: why would God wait so long? Why would God wait until we were already in God’s presence? We won’t need it then. We need it now!

Maybe it’s not an either/or. Maybe it’s not a question of already or not yet. Maybe it’s both. Throughout the centuries theologians have tried to explain the way we are drawn to God. St. Augustine wrote, “My soul is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Karl Rahner taught that we are created for relationship with God, are bent toward God, are hard-wired for relationship with God. Others have referred to the God-shaped vacuum inside of us that only God can fill. These are all ways of articulating the same truth—the covenant is within us. No longer are we constrained by outward laws; now we are guided by internal laws. No longer are we told what to do by authorities and rulers; now our hearts speak to us of truth. . . .

Sort of. At least partially. Our hearts do speak to us of truth, and we are guided by that internal voice. And yet this promise has been fulfilled only in part; we are still living into the rest. Our hearts can be wrong. Our conscience can be deceived. The inner voice that speaks to us can be a recording of someone else. God isn’t the only one who tries to write on our hearts.

So I have to ask: who has written on your heart, for good or for ill? Maybe it was a teacher who believed in you or a teacher who said you were too dumb to learn. Maybe it was a parent who wrote loving messages on your heart every day, or maybe a parent whose care was never adequate and whose love was too limited. Maybe it was the love of your life who taught you that you were infinitely lovable, or maybe it was someone you loved who assaulted you. Sometimes it is hard to read God’s covenant under the world’s graffiti.

In the Harry Potter series of books, there is a horrible woman named Dolores Umbridge who does her best to silence Harry Potter when he speaks an uncomfortable truth. She forces him to “write lines”—to write the same words over and over as a form of punishment. He must write “I must not tell lies. I must not tell lies.” But, since this is a magical world, she gives him a magical quill that doesn’t use ink. Instead, when it is pressed to paper, it writes the words on the person’s own skin. Harry is forced to carve “I must not tell lies” onto the back of his hand, even though he knows he is telling the truth. I don’t know how long the scars remain, but they are still visible a year and a half later.

It takes time to heal the wounds and brokenness when someone has written on our hearts. It also takes belief in the first one who wrote on our hearts, the one who created us and calls us into relationship. God already wrote on our hearts, but God is writing still.

God writes upon our hearts through the songs we sing in worship, the liturgy we speak, and—I pray—through the sermons we hear. God writes upon our hearts as we increase in knowledge about God and the way the Divine works within us. God writes upon our hearts when we pray and when we come to the table of communion. Or maybe it’s that through these things we recognize the writing and its source

You see, when God writes on our hearts, it’s not like Dolores Umbridge. It’s not forced, and it’s not lies. There’s a different Harry Potter example for the way God writes on our hearts.

Throughout the books, Harry’s hero Professor Dumbledore insists that Harry has power that the dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, does not have. Harry argues vehemently with Dumbledore about this fact, but Dumbledore is insistent. Harry has the power of love. During the climax of the very first book, Professor Quirrell tries to kill Harry. But Quirrell has given himself over to Voldemort, and when Quirrell tries to touch Harry, it literally burns his skin, and he recoils in pain. When Harry is recovering in the hospital, he asks Professor Dumbledore why. Dumbledore replies: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark.”

Harry, forever marked by a lightning bolt scar that he earned as a baby when Voldemort’s curse failed to kill him, immediately thinks Dumbledore means his scar. But Dumbledore continues: “Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.”

The power of sacrificial love does indeed leave a mark. God has written on our hearts and is writing still.

God writes upon our hearts every time we open our lives to someone we’d rather exclude. God writes upon our hearts every time we risk something big for something good. God writes upon our hearts every time we refuse to promote ourselves if it means tearing someone else down. God writes upon our hearts every time we earnestly try to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And every time God writes on our hearts, the words get a little clearer, a little easier to read through the graffiti. Once it is there, it directly affects the way we live. When God’s covenant is written that clearly on our hearts, we cannot continue to hold a grudge or seek revenge. When God’s covenant is written on our hearts, we cannot help but stop and thank God for a glorious sunset or for our beloved’s embrace or for the memory of it. When God’s covenant is written on our hearts, we do not ask “How much do I have to give to the church?” We ask, “How much can I give in return for what God has given me?” When God’s covenant is written on our hearts, we give without reservation and love without limit.

This is not to say we’re incapable of living in contradiction with what is written on our hearts. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know when it happens. We know when what we do is inconsistent with the Word of God already imprinted on our hearts. Our hearts ache with the disconnect. We burn with the dichotomy. You can call it a guilty conscience or the voice of your mother, but whatever you call it, it is a sign that we are acting in a way that is inconsistent with what God has already written on our hearts.

I won’t presume to tell you what God thinks, or even what I think God thinks about every situation or ethical issue or political topic. But I will tell you what I think God writes. God writes justice . . . not judgment. God writes grace . . . not shame. God writes mercy . . . not abomination. God writes love . . . not hate. Anything else you find written on your heart is not part of the covenant. And anything else you find yourself writing on someone else’s heart is a sin.

Those of you who know me know I do not use that word often or lightly. I believe the word “sin” has been over-used and under-interpreted. Pure and simple, sin is separation from God—and when we write anything but grace, mercy, and love on the heart of another human being, we are guilty of separation from God. God does not write “hate” on human hearts.

Yes, to quote the old United Church of Christ slogan, God is still speaking. God’s word is not over and done with, not typeset and bound in leather, not wrapped in a cover and closed off forever. Never place a period where God has placed a comma. God is still speaking. God is still writing on our hearts. Grace. Mercy. Love.

What are we writing?

 

[1] Duncan, Stan. “Written on Their Hearts.” homebynow.blogspot.com

[2] Ibid.

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