Preaching text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
I have this problem. It might be unique to clergy who have been steeped in a low anthropology (a fancy way of saying that humanity’s basic moral orientation is toward the crappy). Whenever anyone says something like, “You deserve it” or “But she’s such a good person” or “There are good people on both sides,” I am sudden smitten by an urge to grip them by the shoulders and scream, “WE ARE ALL FUNDAMENTALLY TERRIBLE AND DO NOT DESERVE NICE THINGS.”
For such as I, the book of Jeremiah was written. The prophet’s narrative—composed of events like drought, war, famine, idolatry, faithlessness, the loss of a perfectly good loincloth—is relentlessly driven by same subtext that makes low-anthropology-theologians like me and Jeremiah such delightful party guests: humans are fundamentally terrible and do not deserve nice things.
The language of a traditional collect puts the problem succinctly: we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. It’s kinda like we have a magnetic needle inside our souls, but instead of pointing north it points us further and further into ourselves, until we’re so turned in that we lose track of who (and whose) we are, and when that happens, we can’t help it: all of our actions will be marked by that lostness, that self-centeredness that leaves no room for empathy, compassion, love, or worship of anything other than oneself.
Even if we recognize the depth and seriousness of our condition, what are we to do?
Enter: the new promise.
The God of Jeremiah is angry and disappointed and unrelenting…except when God is not. And in chapter 31, despite repeated assurances that God will not forget or forgive the sins of Israel and especially Judah, we hear this:
“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 was their husband, 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.”Jeremiah 31:31-33
Why do the Israelites need it?
This is the second time in Jeremiah that the prophet describes this graven heart business. The first is in chapter 17:
“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”Jeremiah 17:1
Jeremiah chose that metaphor quite literally, wanting to evoke the tablets of the 10 Commandments. He was a prophet who stood between two covenants: the aforementioned 10, and the covenant God made with the house of David (1 Samuel 7) that priests in Jeremiah’s time were leveraging to get everyone to worship in Jerusalem. To Jeremiah, this emphasis on worshiping in the right place was leading people into a false religion where they thought that as long as they did their due religious diligence in Jerusalem, everything would be fine. Jeremiah wanted them to know—particularly during a time of exile, when the Temple had been destroyed—that God cared a lot more about whether they bent their hearts to God’s will than where they bent their knees.
Why does God need it?
God has changed a lot over the arc of these covenants (puns!). We started in Genesis 7 with a God who decided to wipe out God’s own creation out of pure frustration. We’ve come now to a God who, despite provocation and extreme disappointment, continues to honor the restraints God has placed on Their own behavior for the sake of Their beloved people. Instead of backing away from a people who have grievously screwed up, God chooses to step further in.
Despite the fact that throughout this biblical book, Jeremiah’s record of God’s speech and behavior is deeply toxic, reminiscent of a bitter, dangerous, and misogynistic ex-boyfriend, two things are clear about this God: 1) whatever Their people do and have done, God is still deeply in love with them, and 2) God knows that this partnership isn’t working, and is determined to find a way to wholeness for both Themselves and Their beloved.
Closing in on the end of this book, even fully knowing what a long way there is to go in making this relationship work, God casts a vision of that happy ending, and damn if it isn’t beautiful. A time is coming when all those sins and failures carved into the hearts of God’s beloved will be obscured and transformed by the marks of a new covenant etched in its place. Instead of hearts burdened by a record of failure, God’s people will have hearts that burn with a promise. The covenant won’t come from without, but from within. It won’t be mediated by Moses or prophets or priests; it will as near and known to each one of us as our own pulse.
Why do we need it?
In the achingly beautiful book Hard to Love, author Briallen Hopper talks about the unexpected beauty of dependency in a culture that preaches self-reliance as a virtue. She writes:
“To do without the illusion of independence…is a reprieve from the relentless self-scrutiny of the independent lens; it is a newly restored home movie that documents the miraculous moments our own severity or selective memory might have forced us to forget. Look, there’s the time you rose to the occasion, and there’s the time you were surprised by kindness; watch now, this next scene, the night I needed you, see how you were there to meet me.”
I know—and I suspect perhaps you might too—what it’s like to walk around with a Jeremiah 17 heart, one ready to report all of my failings, with a particular fondness for doing so in the loneliest hours of the night. As one who embraces low anthropology, I also have to acknowledge its shadow-side: diving too deeply into the belief that I cannot choose to do good is to abandon the truth that I am also created in God’s image, and am deeply beloved. I need the Jeremiah 31 heart, and I need it as a gift that I don’t have to earn, because truth be told, I don’t believe I ever will.
I need God to write those words on my heart, not only the tenets of the Law but also all the times when I’ve lived out its beauty, not because I’m a good person but because God has claimed me, and we who are claimed by God find an irresistible graciousness that delights in refracting itself through us and into the world.
It’s only then, when the record of my sins and failures is effaced by new writing, that I am able to open myself to growth. As Hopper concludes: “Even our faults and flaws can become bearable when mediated through the eyes of others, since our closest friends can show us the awful sides of ourselves that we would never have seen, but in ways that sharpen us instead of wearing us away.”