A New Heart

Jeremiah 31

In 6th grade when we all started to play in the school band, I took it into my head to play the oboe. In hindsight, this was not a great idea for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a really hard instrument to learn and if you don’t learn it well it sounds like a dying duck. Admittedly, I never really learned it well. Another reason it wasn’t a great idea is that it turns out I love marching band and you can’t march with an oboe. So instead you have to just carry the banner in the parade, or try to play the marching xylophone, and when everyone else is marching in formation on the field, you’re standing on the sidelines again trying to play the xylophone, which is way harder than it looks. Unless of course you’re good enough to make drum major. Which I wasn’t. Yet another reason the oboe is no good is that it is also completely useless in the pep band during basketball season. Just imagine a peppy rendition of “Smoke on the Water” on the oboe and you’ll see what I mean. 

But God is a redeemer and in basketball pep band, I experienced redemption. Because this time instead of the xylophone, I was blessed to be entrusted with all the other cool auxiliary percussion instruments. Like the maracas, egg shakers, wood claves, finger cymbals, cabasa, (I kid you not) the vibraslap, and my very favorite, the joy of my heart, the tambourine.

I love the tambourine. You add a tambourine to any song and it’s instantly better. Christopher Walken might think that we need more cowbell, but I think we need more tambourine. In fact, I love the tambourine so much that I carry one with me at all times in the trunk of my car. I’m not kidding. You can go check. 

Bonus Material: YouTube playlist of Pastor Beth’s favorite tambourine songs. (“Green Tambourine” is not on here. On purpose.)

At this point you are probably wondering how this essential piece of Beth Gedert trivia fits in with the Bible. And the answer is that this morning’s reading includes a verse that I have decided is my life verse. Or at least my verse for this bizarre year of 2020. And yes, it has to do with tambourines.

This morning we are reading from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the longest book in the Bible with about 33,000 words. And before Jeremiah was a bullfrog, Jeremiah was a prophet who spoke both words of warning and words of encouragment to the people in the southern kingdom of Judah. Remember that after King Solomon died, the ancient kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms; the norther one was still called Israel and the southern one was called Judah. Both of these kingdoms made the deliberate choices to not live in God’s way. Again and again prophets warn them that straying from God’s path will lead to their downfall. Specifically, the issues were idolatry— ascribing ultimate value to something other than God— violence— actual physical harm to other humans— and greed— which included ignoring the needs of the poor and exploiting workers. These three things together— idolatry, violence, and greed— constituted such massive religious hypocrisy that eventually God gave the people over to their choices. If they didn’t actually want God, then they didn’t get God. Instead, they got the other gods they had been following. They got invaded and conquered and captured and exiled to the lands of those foreign gods whose values did not align with Yahweh God’s values. And then they had to live with those consequences. 

That experience is called the exile and it is one of the most important events in the Old Testament. If you only know two things about the ancient Hebrews you should know about the exodus and the exile. You should know that God brought them out of slavery in Egpyt and that eventually they allowed themselves to be taken away in bondage again. Some scholars believe that most of the books of the Old Testament were written down and edited into their final forms during and and just after the experience of exile. It was the worst thing that could happen to the people. They believed they were favored by God because they had a land, and a king, and a temple. And after first the northern kingdom of Israel and then the southern kingdom of Judah are conquered, they lose all three: land, king, and temple. It’s all gone.

And what’s so sad is that, like most of our screw-ups, it didn’t have to be that way. The people had plenty of warning. Before we get to our main text this morning, I want to show you one of the warnings from the book of Jeremiah. This is from chapter 17, verses 1-6.

The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts, and on the horns of their altars, while their children remember their altars and their sacred poles, beside every green tree, and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country. Your wealth and all your treasures I will give for spoil as the price of your sin throughout all your territory. By your own act you shall lose the heritage that I gave you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger is a fire you kindled that shall burn forever.

Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
    and make mere flesh their strength,
    whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
    and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
    in an uninhabited salt land.

Jeremiah 17:1-6

Yikes. Apparently Yahweh God takes idolatry and violence and greed very seriously. That’s important for us to know because of what happens later. These are real warnings about real problems. God is not making idle threats here. And what I want you to see is that although we usually read this as God making threats, what happens to the people is a result of their own choices. Their sin is engraved on the tablets of their hearts. In this image the hearts of the people collectively are stone tablets and the sin has been chiseled into them. Not just written, but dug or plowed or engraved, with an diamond-tipped iron pen into the stone tablets of their hearts. Doesn’t sound like it’s getting erased. 

And how did that happen? Verse 4 says, “By your own act you shall lose the heritage I gave you.” They made their choices. Probably not giant choices, because we usually don’t do that. But small choices of greed. Small choices of violence. Small choices of putting something else in the highest seat in our life instead of God. And each choice hardens their heart. Each choice hardens our heart a little more, each choice engraves another mark that is out of line with God’s way of love, another mark that turns our hearts away from the Lord, from Yahweh God. Until what happens? Verse 6 says that these hard-hearted sin-inscribed people wind up living in the wilderness, in a land where nothing can grow, where there is no fertility, no life. Jeremiah warns them. They don’t heed the warning. And history bears witness to what happened. Jerusalem was beseiged and eventually sacked and many of the people were carried away to a foreign land.

 So the question becomes, “What now?” What now, when the mistake is already made? What now, when the damage is already done? Is that the end of their story? The word of the Lord comes again to Jeremiah to say, “No. That is not the end of their story.” Once the die was cast, when the consequences were being lived out, the same prophet who gave the warning now gives a powerful and resounding word of hope. The point is not eternal punishment. The point is consequences that get their attention, that snap them back into reality, that break the cycle of their own violence and greed. It’s a harsh cure, a hard reset. A new start is on the horizon.

Now let’s read our main text, selected verses from Jeremiah chapter 31, starting with verses 1 through 3.

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
    the Lord appeared to me from far away.

I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

Jeremiah 31:1-3

At that time, after the harsh cure has done its work, after the hard reset, the relationship will be restored. The covenant, the promise of mutual loyalty that the people broke will be renewed. Yahweh will be the God of all the families of Israel and they will be Yahweh’s people. That is the promise over and over and over again. Whatever other benefits they also get, the main promise is that the relationship will be healed. And notice where the breach was. This is important because some churches preach that God has moved away from us because of our sin. But these verses say something different. God has loved us with an everlasting love and has continued to be faithful to us even when we are not faithful to God. Friends that is very different. A harsh cure for our own good administered by a loving and faithful doctor is very different from an a vengeful punishment administered by an angry and distant God. This is why it’s important to slow down and actually read the Bible for yourself and not just believe everything you’re told, even by me.

Let’s continue, verses 4 through 6 and here comes my life verse for 2020:

Again I will build you, and you shall be built
  O virgin Israel!
Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines, 
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.

Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.”

Jeremiah 31:4-6

Let’s skip to verse 16 and 17 …

Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
    and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
    they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord.

Jeremiah 31:16-17

There is hope for your future. There IS hope for your future. There is HOPE for your future. Says the Lord. Says Yahweh. Says the one who calls you out of your comfortable sameness into places of new challenge and blessing. Says the one who saves, who rescues and heals and gives victory over bondage. Says the one who warns you when you get off course. Says the one who will administer a harsh cure if it comes to that, but always with the goal of a new start. There is hope for your future. 

Let’s do a little more:

Verses 27 through 30

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:

“The parents have eaten sour grapes,
    and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

Jeremiah 31:27-30

So much here that we don’t have time to get to today, but I want you to see that same building and planting images that we saw just a few minutes ago. Sometimes it is God’s work to pluck up and break down, sometimes it is, ultimately after that, it is always God’s work to build and to plant, to help us start again.

And here’s the big finish, verses 31 through 34.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 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 espoused them, says the Lord. 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 within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

We’ve come full circle from chapter 17. Those people who had sin (violence, greed and religious hypocrisy) gouged into their stone hearts have been reclaimed by God who has written God’s law on their hearts. Engraving that seemed un-eraseable has been overwritten, simply writing, not gouging, by the law, the teaching of Yahweh. And although Christians will later come along and claim this as a text about the Messiah, it had meaning before that. Yahweh is not talking here about a new law, but a new covenant. The law is the same. The 10 Commandments that provide boundaries instead of bondage are the same. The law to love neighbor in the same way we love ourselves, to welcome the foreigner, to provide for the poor, that law is the same. What is new is the covenant. It’s a new agreement because the people violated the old one. And this time, instead of the law being imposed from the outside in, God designs it to work from the inside out. 

This text remains sacred to the Jews in ways that are meaningful and valid for them. For Christians, this is where we see Jesus fitting, and this is how I want to wrap up this morning. It’s Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate the Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. Jesus is the only one who is worthy of our highest allegiance. And why? Because as he tells us at the last supper, his blood, his sacrificial love makes the new covenant possible. As Christians we believe that it is through trusting the grace of Jesus, by aligning ourselves with Christ, that the law of God begins to work on us from the inside out. The prophet Ezekiel imagines this promise as Yahweh God putting a new heart in us, removing our hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh. Hearts that beat. Hearts that are soft. Hearts that break with the pain of the world. Hearts that are able to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit when we succumb to the temptations of violence and greed. Hearts that are able to recognize our own religious hypocrisy. Hearts that are flexible enough to repent and start again before we reach the need for a harsh cure. 

All this through Christ, the one who initiates a new covenant, a new promise of mutual loyalty between us and God. He is the same one who then gives us a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved us. Not only to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, but to love our neighbors as God loves us. Sacrificially. Faithfully. Everlastingly. Not just with words, but with actions and in truth. Not to earn the grace that is already ours, but because it is the way to abundant life. A new heart that follows a new commandment from the inside out as part of a new covenant. Christ the King shows us the way. Amen.

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