God on our Hearts Message for March 21.21 Lent 5 Based on Jeremiah 31. 31-34  

I have enjoyed delving into the scriptures from the Old Testament during these weeks of Lent, including these four verses from the prophet Jeremiah.  Next week is Palm Sunday, Jeremiah’s words bring us a good message to take us into Lent’s final 2 weeks.  I thought I would do something I haven’t done for a while, present this scripture as a study, and look at it verse by verse. 

Let’s begin with some context. The Babylonians have destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, are in exile in Babylon. The people are facing a major crisis. They have lost their freedom, their way of life, their homes and their temple, which was the symbol of who and whose they were. They have lost their connection with their past, their present was oppressive and they hold little hope for their future. The big three prophets, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel, have a consistent theme. They state unequivocally that the collapse of their way of life grew out of their failure to live out the covenantal relationship with God. They failed at keeping the Torah relationship, which was about loving God and loving neighbour. Instead, they got caught up in unbridled … (materialism); they turned Jerusalem into a gated community where the elite lived in comfort off the hard labours of the rest; and they employed militarism to feed their greed. Rather than caring for the widows, the orphans and the aliens, they exploited them. After all his words of warning and rebuke, Jeremiah now offers words of hope that their suffering, exploitation and despair would soon come to an end and God would take them home to start again. New life and new freedom would come from a renewed Torah relationship between God and God’s people.[1]

So, with that as some background, let’s look at our first verse.

31 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. 

If this sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is!  Early Christians saw this new covenant as the prophecy of Jesus the Christ coming into their midst.  It’s quoted in the book of Hebrews, Paul uses it in Romans; Matthew, Mark and John refer to it. [2]  Yet it was written by Jeremiah for the people of his time, assuring them of God’s presence with them when they returned from exile.  In the midst of the misery and turbulence, God will provide them with a new way of being God’s people. The Lord has not abandoned them.  The time is coming Jeremiah tells them; a new covenant for both nations, Judah and Israel.  This is a message of hope, this difficult time is temporary, a new covenant, a better way, a God-filled way is coming!  And let’s remember what a covenant is. Covenants, by definition, are formal and bi-lateral agreements, a treaty or legal agreement usually between a superior and an inferior party, with the superior party establishing the bond with the inferior party.[3]    Covenants were in common use in the ancient world, often as a bond between two individuals or even between tribes of people.  And generally each party had contractual obligations they were bound to.  Clearly, God was the superior party, creating the terms.  Jeremiah was like the union official, presenting the new terms!  A new agreement meant new hope.  God had not abandoned them to the mess they’d created for themselves.  God was going to bring them a new way of binding the people of Israel and Judah to Godself.

32 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.  

So this covenant would be different from the covenant they made with God at the time of Moses, the one literally written in stone. As the people travelled through the desert, God had led them, provided for them, taken care of their needs, as a traditional husband would lovingly care for the needs of his family.   Yet the people failed at keeping the Laws, the Torah relationship, and they continued to worship other gods.  Nor did things change in the 600 or so years since the people arrived in the land the Lord their God had given them.  The ancestors of the desert travellers continue to break their end of the deal.  The old Mosiac covenant was contractual, and conditional.  God promised them protection and blessing if they obeyed the laws;  if they failed to keep the laws, and if they worshiped other gods, they broke their end of the covenant, and as a result, God’s protection and blessing would be removed.  This meant exile from the promised land, leaving the people at the mercy of other, stronger rulers.  In the viewpoint of Jeremiah and the other prophets, this was just punishment for disobedience and idolatry.[4]    This was how ancient peoples believed that God worked—all gods actually, not just The Lord God Almighty.   Disasters, illnesses, occupations by warring nation and the like were considered to be punishment as a sign of God’s anger at them for breaking their terms of the covenant.  And so the stories are written from this perspective.  The mess the people find themselves in is because they did stop living by the ways of God, no longer loving God and loving neighbour, caring only for their own desires, abandoning God and God’s ways.   And their collective way of life as a society was the causal factor, in essence, they brought it upon themselves.       

33 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.

Yet God still wanted the people God had called as God’s own.  Even after everything, God still wanted to be in relationship with them, even though they had abandoned God and God’s ways for them.  God loves God’s people, regardless!  God goes over and above the covenantal promise from God’s end of the Mosaic covenant, and forgives them, giving them yet another chance.  This time God will try another way.  Instead of having the laws written in stone, as an external authority issuing decrees of power and control, the Lord will put the laws within them, on their hearts.  Now-a-days when we use the word heart like this, we think of it as the center of our feelings.  For the ancients, the heart was more than the center of emotions, but the very essence of the person, their guiding inner being.  What might that feel like, do you think, to have the law of God within you, God’s love and teachings so close to you, like it was written within you, that they are a part of you?   It would be like the Holy Spirit of God infusing your very being, guiding your life, God’s teachings so close that you would know them instinctively, God’s love always with you.   It would be to live in the freedom of God’s love, instead of the dictates of our own self-centered desires and devices, or the dictates of what society keeps telling us what we should do.  It would be living in the joy, peace and love of God at all times.  It would be like praying unceasingly. 

 34 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.

It was the job of the priests and the scribes to interpret the Law, the Torah and to teach it to the people. But if God’s desire for us is within us, as a part of us, we would know God intrinsically, innately, instinctively.  As I was pondering this throughout the week, a verse from John’s gospel kept coming to me.  “I am the vine, you are the branches”(John 15.5) Jesus told his followers.  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15.9-11)  To abide means is to live, to be and to emain in Christ’s love. To live in and with Christ’s love means we can’t help but live according to the ways of Christ, the commandments of God.  The message for the people of Jeremiah’s time was the message of Jesus’ time and still stands for us today!  Jeremiah reminded the people of his time that everyone can know God, and God’s forgiveness is for everyone. 

So how do we come to know God better?  The same we get to know anyone better, by spending time with them!  And that’s what Lent is all about, taking the time to know God better, improving our relationship with Christ, opening ourselves up to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  How?  Try spending time each morning just sitting in the presence of God.  Use a piece of scripture or a short prayer or even a chorus of a hymn to repeat over and over again to focus your thinking.  This week I’ve been using’ I am the vine, you are the branches’ and ‘Come and fill my heart with your peace’.  Use whatever works for you, just do it!  It feels strange if you’ve never tried anything like this before, but with some practice, your discomfort will dissipate.  And you will feel the love of the Lord.  How do I know that? Because the Lord’s ways are written on your heart too! Amen

The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector. The Regional Ministry of Hope

1 Bishop Terry’s Bible Study for 2015, Lent 5.  

[2] Henry T.C. Sun in Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/ revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-jeremiah-3131-34-17 accessed March 17, 2021.  Specifically:  Hebrews 8:8-12; partially in Romans 11:27; Hebrews 10:16-17; by way of allusion in Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, and John 6:45)

[3] The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford University Press:  Oxford, NY. 2001) 22 Hebrew Bible

[4] ibid