A New Covenant of the Heart: a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34
On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we find an encouraging word from Jeremiah, sometimes called “The Weeping Prophet.” Much of his writing contains laments or cries of hurt on behalf of his people. He wept for others, and he frequently voiced displeasure over his predicament. God called him to proclaim a message that no one wanted to hear. He tried to get people to see things from God’s perspective rather than their selfish ambitions. He sees how off-track governmental officials, and the religious establishment, and the people had veered.
You remember a couple of weeks ago we talked about how everyone—even the cows repented when Jonah preached. But Jeremiah inspired very few to correct their behavior. Instead, they mocked him and threw him in prison, and did all sorts of other horrible things to show their displeasure with his message.
Jeremiah Accuses the People of Breaking their Covenant with God
Jeremiah’s message accused people of breaking their covenant with God. He called out the people for idolatry, their selfishness, and abandonment of God’s ways. Similarly, he condemned the corrupt government leaders and religious establishment that enabled them to abandon justice for the little guy. They failed at society’s fundamental moral obligations of taking care of the poor–especially the widows, orphans, and immigrants.
The prophet warned that a society suffering so many corrosive effects would either crumble from within or fall to a foreign power. Therefore, it came as no surprise when the Babylonian Empire smashed Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried most of the population into exile.
Jeremiah’s Message of Hope after Calamity
Jeremiah, however, was not among the exiles. When everything turned to its darkest moment, he discovered hope. That’s what God’s people do. Jeremiah said that God would help them return and rebuild. More importantly, in the passage we focus on today, he said that God would help them revitalize faith by shifting its focus.
The New Covenant is Relationship-Oriented instead of Rule-Based.
He envisions a new covenant between God and humans. The new covenant is not based on blind obedience to a set of rules. Instead, the new covenant is based on the quality of one’s relationship with God. Faith that is reduced to a mechanistic adherence to rules loses joy. It diminishes a desire for God. Somehow religion got twisted into an oversimplistic formula. Obey the rules. If you don’t, God will punish you.
When faith distills into a matter of mere adherence to a set of rules, the core of it, the joy, and the life in it die. You spend your time feeling ashamed and guilty, avoiding God because you don’t live up. Kind of like when you avoid someone, you’ve disappointed in some way. Perhaps you avoid the dentist because you haven’t flossed. Or you don’t go to the doctor because you haven’t lost that twenty pounds you promised to lose. Lord forbid you avoid your pastor because you haven’t been to church in a while.
Someone once confessed that they had signed up to call on some people at church every month. He had a list of people, but he didn’t follow through. He felt so guilty that when he’d see people on his list at Wal-Mart, he’d avoid them by walking down a different aisle. A rule-oriented faith can lead to us avoiding God.
When the Formula Doesn’t Ring True
Eventually, you will notice that when you break a rule, nothing catastrophic happens. God doesn’t zap you from the sky or cause some horrible thing to happen to you. You can even look around and see that sometimes even the most corrupt and morally rotten people rise to positions of great wealth, power and influence, so you throw in the towel on faith itself.
The Role of Rules in our Faith
Our faith affirms rules, including the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the Sermon on the Mount. When someone wrongs you don’t retaliate but turn the other cheek, forgive, give, be compassionate, and serve. The rules give us a structure and a moral framework for our lives.
But something pernicious happens when blind obedience to the rules becomes the focus of faith. It can come across as do this, or you are going to hell. Do that you are toast. God will not only punish you after you die, but he will cause bad things to happen to you in this life. I hear it all the time from people who grew up that way. One man told me at first confused, take things too lightly, but then he found joy because he realized God not into zapping people for misdeeds. Instead, God is our fan. Forgiving. It’s about a relationship.
He’s correct. Christianity was never about how well you follow the rules. It’s always been about your spiritual connection that brings out your best self.
When you have a good relationship with someone, you want to please them, to honor them. It’s not out of fear but out of respect and acknowledgment that this is a right and honorable way to live one’s life.
Rule-based religion turns into gatekeeping. We are on the lookout for the misdeeds of others. It becomes a means to self-righteousness, which is a terrible sin. One of the great tragedies of faith is when it is used to make people feel small and judged, unwelcome.
Many people have told me they think they will get into heaven because their sins aren’t that horrible compared to other people’s sins.
The new covenant that Jeremiah envisioned was one where there was equality, forgiveness for all. During the Last Supper, Jesus held up the cup and said, “This is the blood of the new covenant, for the forgiveness of sins.” Our entrance into heaven is a matter of grace rather than adherence to the rules. Our access to transformed and meaningful lives in this world is an acceptance of grace. It moves us to live up to it by our actions, our words.
Jeremiah says the new covenant reflects God’s will. No longer will faith be identified with judgmentalism and division and exclusion. God has something better in mind. The rules, the law will be written on our hearts. We have something within us that knows right from wrong. A preschooler recognizes unfairness on the playground.
What’s Written on our Hearts?
Our passage tells us that the new covenant will not be like the former one. God writes the New Covenant on our hearts. Why written on our hearts, not in our hearts? Part of the rabbinic tradition says that God can only write it on our hearts when our hearts are broken when we experience pain, sadness, and heartache. Our hearts break open, and the words fall in. I can say the moments of pain and defeat in my life have lead to this. It arouses a more profound sense of empathy for the plight of others who struggle.
In the new covenant, everyone will do what’s right because it will be written on their hearts. It implies a new kind of relationship between God and humans.
Become Virtuous Rather than a Mere Rule-follower
Morality is not just about making sure you follow the rules but also about becoming a virtuous lifestyle. For example, It’s not that you tell the truth because there is a rule. You seek to become an honest person because you know in your heart that is what is right. It’s not that you don’t take something that doesn’t belong to you because you worry about what will happen if you get caught. You don’t take it because you are the kind of person who respects other people and seeks to have integrity. You can usually look inward to find the best path. You will be transformed into a virtuous person.
Tattoos on the Heart
I’m reminded of Father Gregory Boyle’s who talks about the covenant written on our hearts in his book, “Tattoos on the Heart.” For years, he has ministered to some of L.A.’s most hardened gang members. It is a book about what is written on our hearts–and what happens when that message changes. He tells Cesar’s story, a young man Boyle knew as a child who grew up and joined a gang. After serving a four-year prison sentence, he called Boyle because he needed some clothes. The story talks about their day of shopping. At three o’clock in the morning, Cesar calls Boyle with a sense of urgency in his voice. Here is the conversation:
I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father – ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.
Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I…been…your, son?”
“O *!*#, yeah,” I say.
“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”
Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then…I will be…your son. And you…will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”
[Boyle reflecting] In this early morning call, Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved.
Changing Our Minds about God
In another place, in the book, he says, “we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our image.” We make God out to be disapproving, in need of appeasement because that is how we think – not God.
There is a beautiful quote out of the Franciscan tradition that says, “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”
Maybe the new thing about the new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks is that it is new to us–not new to God. We are, and always will be, beloved. And if there is anything to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, we can start from there. We see that God does not separate us, but God’s image is within us–always. And we know where to look for all of our blessings and learn to praise God from whom all blessings flow. Amen