Jeremiah 31:27-34, II Timothy 3:14-4:2
October 21, 2007
This passage we read from Jeremiah is about his vision of the New Covenant that was coming. It is about the law that would be written on the people’s hearts, as opposed to the tablets of stone, which we remember as their “Ten Commandments.” That was their law, their covenant with God.
Paul also liked to use this metaphor of the law, the new covenant, which was “written on the heart.” And that’s pretty amazing, coming from a Pharisee, one who was focused on keeping the law above all things! His life, and his whole orientation toward the Law of Moses had been totally changed by his relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Like Jeremiah, he would also tell us that, instead of a formulaic following of the law, it is the relationship with God that is important.
Jeremiah began his prophetic work began under King Josiah, and he continued it through the fall of Jerusalem and into the exile of the people in Babylon. An exile, by the way, which Jeremiah did not share. He was permitted by the Babylonians to stay in Jerusalem, along with some of the other Jews. Then later, when his life was in danger (as was often the case with Jeremiah!) he fled with some of his followers to Egypt, where he lived out the rest of his life.
During the time, though, the time of King Josiah, a very big thing happened! A book of the Law was discovered in Jerusalem. The Law of Moses had been lost for some time, and Jeremiah was excited because he believed this would bring about a much needed reformation in Israel. But before long, he observed that the people’s conduct was no better under the law than it had been before.
Jeremiah became convinced, as one writer put it, that “The nature of Man is that he follows his desire, rather than his intellect. And for that reason, he cannot change his ways until there has been a change of heart.” And Jeremiah believed that change of heart could only happen in relationship with God.
Isn’t that so true about people today? People want to live by their desires and their feelings. They want “instant gratification.” So they do and they buy what they want and desire. And as a result our society is in a credit crisis. Many people are sacrificing even their retirement, because they are getting what they want today, and they give no thought to the fact that they’ll be paying it off for years – if ever! Because of that, there’s also a related crisis in our world of anxiety and stress. People want to have peace and security, but they have no idea where to find it. And they’ve put their trust in things.
Jeremiah also believed that part of the people’s problem was the way they were conducting their faith. Their worship in the Temple was so formalized and so ritualized, that it failed to lead anywhere near this change of heart they needed. They were, in a very real sense, putting their trust in the Temple and its rituals, rather than the God they were worshipping! Jeremiah told them in his prophecies that in order to get them to see the true meaning of their faith, the day was coming when the things they were trusting, the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, even their nation, would be taken away.
Needless to say, Jeremiah was not a very popular prophet!! In fact, he was so persecuted by the new king, Jehoiakim, that he had to be taken into hiding by his friends. But he didn’t give up! While he was there, while he was out of sight, he dictated a series of prophecies about how the king was leading the people astray. He had the scroll with those prophecies sent to the king with instructions that it be read aloud in the king’s presence. And this was then that famous story where, as each part of the scroll was read by the messenger, the king cut it off with a knife, and threw into the fire! In the face of such disdain by the king, Jeremiah did the only thing he could do. He dictated another scroll and sent it to the king – to be read again!
I once heard a great sermon by a friend of mine in seminary in which he challenged us to think about the times we rebelled against what we knew God was calling us to do. And he suggest how that was tantamount to “cutting and burning the prophet’s scroll.” It made us want to listen more carefully to the voice of God, I’ll tell you, and to think about his call on our lives!
That’s the key here! Listening to God. Jeremiah believed that the Law alone was not enough to keep the people in a covenant relationship with God. That was its intent. And they had agreed to follow the law and to be God’s people. But they had not. Jeremiah realized that the only way they could do so was through this change of heart! So he wrote these words we read today. “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel… I will put my Law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.”
He did another thing as well. As he wrote about that new covenant, Jeremiah also challenged the age old idea that people’s covenant and relationship with God, as well as the judgments of God, were all about the nation as a whole. Instead, he said, those things are a matter of each individual’s heart. When his detractors began to respond to their growing hardships by saying that those hardships were happening because of the “sins of their ancestors,” Jeremiah responded by saying that it was the heart of each individual that was at stake!
We believe those things, too. Don’t we? We are not a believer because we belong to a church of believers. We are not a believer because our family may be believers. Our faith is a matter of our own individual relationship with God! We believe that!
Well more than that, in the course of his ministry, Jeremiah came to believe that a person’s faith was always a matter of the heart. He believed that the relationship between the person and God was “the most essential element in genuine religious experience.” He believed that everything that existed in a person’s faith – the rituals, the symbols, the buildings, the liturgies, all of it – existed to contribute to that relationship! He even believed that the Babylonian exile served to show people that. They were forced to see their faith – apart from all the religious “foundations” they used to know!
Now, that’s not an easy message. As another writer said in this, “Conformity to religious requirements is always the easier course to follow in one’s faith.” And that’s true. Personal faith and relationship with God, where we live our lives in a first hand “give and take” with the almighty God – God who searches the heart – is always harder. But it is that personal relationship that is the foundation of what our faith is supposed to be!
All of those ideals were the foundation of the message of Jesus, and the constant theme in the teaching of Paul! And I hope, for all of us, that they are the foundations of our lives of faith! I hope for us, it is the personal relationship with God that is the basis of all of our religious lives! But sometimes we slip back into these same problems of the people of old. Sometimes we start to “go through the motions,” thinking mainly about the liturgies, and the formulas of our faith, forgetting that relationship with God. Jeremiah knew that was the most important thing. And those people knew it, too. But they forgot. And so can we!
I want you to notice a practical part of all this. And it has to do with the way Jeremiah prayed. If you go through this book, you’ll find that Jeremiah’s prayers were very open and straightforward. He simply talked with God. And then he listened to God. Too often our prayers end up being like those “heaped up words and phrases” Jesus warned people about using, don’t they? It’s as though we think they have to “sound good” – to us, I suppose, or to others. It’s as though the inspirational nature of the prayer itself is what does us good, rather than the connection with God they are supposed to be!
This is one practical place where we can take Jeremiah’s message to heart. We can practice that “conversational” kind of prayer with God. And while we’re at it, I’d like us to remember that part of that “familiarity” with God is that, if we have a problem with something about God, if we have a “beef” with God, we need to tell him. Sometimes we think God couldn’t take it if we disapproved of something he did. But he can. And I think God would rather have an argument. I think he would rather we were honest with him and spoke those disappointments, than keep prayer all formalized and “sterile.”
So we might think about that this week and in the days to come, as we remember these wonderful words of the prophet Jeremiah. And we should consider, each one of us if we are going to take them “to heart” – that place where things really matter to God. We should ask ourselves whether or not our relationship with God is going to be the most important part of our faith, and that everything else will serve to point us to that relationship. We should ask ourselves if we’re going to take that personal look at our faith or not. Or worse, if we’re going to cut and burn the prophet’s scroll!
Eternal God, we know that you look on the heart of each of us. We know that we forget that at times, and that our faith and the trappings of our faith take on a life of their own. Help us to know you, to hear you speaking to us, to draw closer to you and feel you drawing closer to us. Fill us with your Holy Spirit, Lord, that we can know of your presence in our lives every day! For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.