March 22, 2015/Fifth Sunday of Lent
The movie, Return to Me, is a sweet story about a new heart; literally. Bob and Elizabeth, a young couple very much in love, are on their way home from an award gala when they are involved in a fatal car crash. Elizabeth is killed, and the decision is made to donate her organs. Her heart is given to a young woman named Grace, who without Elizabeth’s heart would have surely died herself.
Grace’s transplant is successful. She lives. Not only does she manage to keep breathing, she rides a bike, sings at the restaurant her grandfather owns, and does many other things she wasn’t able to. With this new heart, Grace lives more fully than she had ever been able to in the past. But she cannot forget that the life she is now living so completely is because of someone else’s death. Her family’s rejoicing at her new heart and new life so filled with possibility walks hand-in-hand with another family’s tragedy. Grace wants to somehow thank the family of her donor. She wants to honor their loss, so she writes a letter. The donor and donor family was anonymous so she has no names or personal information beyond an address. But she writes the letter regardless. The letter reaches Bob, the widower in the story. However in his grief he is unable to open it, so the letter sits on his desk, unread, and is eventually covered by other mail.
To make a long story short, Bob and Grace eventually meet and fall in love; Elizabeth’s heart beating in Grace’s body connects them in an unexpected way. They find their own happy ending, complete with the twists and turns that make for good cinema. But it was this new heart that opened up a new life for them both.
A new heart. A new life.
Although the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah is not exactly about a heart transplant, it is about something new – a new covenant. The Law, which was once written on tablets of stone, will now be written on the hearts of the people.
“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.”
Verse 31 begins, “The days are surely coming …” and then we hear these powerful words of hope and assurance that come with this new covenant, this new promise God will make with God’s people. God has forgotten what has passed. Now is the time for the new. Forgetting is a dominant theme in these verses in Jeremiah. As I understand the larger context, the people have been paying for the sins of their ancestors. Their complaint has been that God never forgets the sins of the past – even the sins committed by others. New generations continue to pay for the transgressions of the old. When will they stop being punished for the sins of their parents? When will God finally forget?
In the verses immediately preceding our passage, God assures the people that he has, indeed, forgotten. No more will the people be judged for the sins of those who went before them. No more will a child’s teeth be set on edge because a parent ate sour grapes. From now on, God tells them, there will be new life in your midst. Humans and animals will once again multiply. Judgment was brought on them for wrongdoing, but blessings will be bestowed as well. God tells them that he has plucked up, but he will also plant. One commentator wrote that God is reversing the previous relationship with Judah and Israel. No longer will their relationship with God be based on disobedience; instead it will be based on a new covenant, a new promise, a new heart.
These are some of the most recognized verses from Jeremiah. Some scholars see this as the gospel before the gospel. This covenant that God promises will not be like the old one. Before God took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Like a parent leading a small child, God carefully showed them the way they were supposed to live. God gave them the Law, but the people broke the Law over and over, and broke their relationship with God over and over.
But now, in this new covenant, the Law will be more than mere words. The Law will be written on their hearts. The Law will live within them. They will no longer need to teach or instruct one another on the Law. It will no longer be a course of study. Instead the people will fully and absolutely know the Lord. They will finally and completely be God’s people, and he will be their God. All people – learned and unlearned, rich and poor, strong and weak – will know God in both heart and mind. In the days that are surely coming, they will know the Lord, and the Lord will forgive their iniquity, remembering their sins no more. With this new covenant, God is giving the people a new promise, a new life, and a new heart.
The language of these verses in Jeremiah is so beautiful, so poetic, that it is easy for me to get caught up in the sound and the emotion of them, without really understanding in a practical way what they mean. But what do they mean? God promises the people that he will make a new covenant with them. It will be unlike the covenant of the past. It will not only be words on paper – or stone – it will be something that lives within them. When God tells them that they will know him, it seems to me that this will be an innate knowledge; instinctive, intuitive. The estrangement between God and God’s people, the connective cord between them that sin severs, will be restored and refashioned. The people will know the Lord in a new way because they have been given a new covenant.
What is a covenant? A covenant is a promise rather than a contract. A contract specifies failure. If I fail to pay my car payment, the contract that I signed with the financing company, then I will be in breach of contract. A contract specifies failure. But a covenant does not specify failure, it specifies faithfulness. God promises again and again to be faithful to his people. God promises that in spite of our failure to be faithful, God will remain so. In these words of covenant, God promises to forgive our sins and forget them as well. We have our side of the covenant to uphold as well. We must return this promise with love. We are called to love God, to love neighbor, to give our whole lives to living out the love God has for us. We are called to trust that God is faithful and to be faithful to God in return.
While contracts have a time limit, covenants do not. The covenant God made with Abraham did not end with the covenant God made with David. The Davidic covenant did not end with the covenant we find in our passage from Jeremiah. The covenants of God flow one into another, finding their final fulfillment with the coming of Jesus -- God’s promise made flesh – into our midst.
Contracts remain fixed between certain people, but covenants expand to welcome others. It is unfair to the context and nature of these words in Jeremiah to make them merely an allegory of the Christian life to come. Still we, the descendants of Gentiles, are here because we were welcomed into the expanding promise of God. We too have received a new heart.
There are some of those beautiful words again – new heart – but what does that mean? Is it about seeing God’s world and God’s people with new eyes? Is it about living a life grounded in love – the love that works for peace and acts for justice? Is it just some sort of spiritual transplant?
I’m not sure that I can explain what this new heart is in words alone. But I think I have seen glimpses of what it looks like. This past week in Nashville, Brent and I visited the Civil Rights room at the Downtown Nashville Library. In a small, soundproof room, a documentary made by CBS in the early 1960’s was playing. It featured Reverend James Lawson leading a training exercise in nonviolent resistance at a lunch counter sit-in. The students who were going to be “sitting in” had to be trained in what they would encounter and what it meant to respond non-violently. They were yelled at and cursed. They were physically manhandled. One man was pulled out of his seat. In a pause in the training, Dr. Lawson answered questions that the trainees had about what this would require of them, physically and emotionally.
He told them a story about a friend of his who was targeted by the KKK. The man was dragged from his home, taken out to a desolated spot, tied to a tree, and was beaten. When the Klan members stopped beating him, they had a debate about whether they should let him live or die. It was agreed that they would kill him, but being “good Christians” they allowed him to pray before he died. This man, so physically abused, described the calm and peace he felt within. When he began to pray, he prayed for the men beating him. He prayed a prayer of forgiveness. He expressed no hatred, only love and compassion for these men who wanted nothing more than to see him dead. Some of the Klansmen were upset by this prayer. They told him to stop praying that way. But others recognized that he could pray any prayer that he wanted. Maybe the prayer touched some of these men in ways that we cannot know, because they let the man live.
I wonder if new hearts were transplanted that day. I wonder if this black man, this American, who only wanted the same right to live and pursue happiness just as his white counterparts did, had a new heart within him. That new heart allowed him to see these men, who should have been his enemies, as fellow children of God. I wonder if these Klansmen who were guided by hatred and malice also received a new heart that day. Maybe as they heard his prayer, they saw not only this man more fully, but God more fully. Perhaps they were given a new heart, and saw – even for a fleeting second – the way God sees.
Is this what it means to know God fully? When we know God fully, we see as God sees. We see with love. We know with love. We act with love. We see one another as God sees us. In these waning days of Lent, as we move closer and closer to the cross, may we feel this new heart beating within each of us. And may all of us, who are children of God’s promise, say, “Amen.”