Holy Communion 17th February 2019
Re-Writing the Heart
Jeremiah 17. 5 – 10
It is perhaps understandable to take something of an interest in people who share a name, a birthday or an anniversary with you. Being born on 31st July, from a young age I had some sense of kinship with Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, and have since been pleased to add Andrew Marr, Fatboy Slim and J K Rowling to my birthday club. You all knew Harry Potter’s birthday, didn’t you?.
Names can be equally fruitful. Some names date you: Jeremy puts you firmly between 1950 and 1970, and I’ve worked with a few, including the Dean of Emmanuel College Cambridge last week. I’m not sure what to make of the predictive text on my phone which only wants to follow ‘Jeremy’ with ‘Clarkson’ or ‘Hunt’ rather than ‘Fletcher’, but sadly Jeremy didn’t even make it into the top 100 in 2018.
Down the years I’ve probably needed the extra impetus of sharing a name to get on with Jeremiah the Prophet. In the Lectionary Jeremiah is Lent, not Eastertide. Open Isaiah at random and there’s likely to be something stirring and inspirational. Do the same with Jeremiah and you are likely to get at best a grumble, probably a scathing denunciation, and quite likely a lamentation. To be a ‘Jeremiah’, according to one definition, is to aspire to be someone who ‘complains continually’ or ‘foretells disaster’.
Our Old Testament reading this morning does little to change that view. Jeremiah’s background is not the busy and buzzing city, the corridors of power and the ways of court, but a village, Anathoth, outside Jerusalem. Set apart from the inner workings of the kingdom and with a deep immersion in the study of the law, Jeremiah gives a searching critique of the way Judah has lost its way, and put its trust in alliances and foreign powers which will ultimately fail. Wearily, and with great determination, he says that those who trust in ‘mere mortals’ will be ‘cursed’.
Jeremiah’s uncompromising and searching gaze enables him to speak clearly and prophetically. Only those who trust in the Lord will be blessed. They will be like those trees in the Judean wilderness which are obviously by a spring, a green jewel in the unrelenting khaki of the desert. Perhaps he had been up to the north of his country, where the snow melt waters from Mount Hermon creates rivers with trees flourishing on their banks. He will certainly have sung Psalm 1, as we have, and will have drunk in its imagery. Jeremiah is as clear as the bright light of the sun: there are two ways to live, and to be, and to trust, and only one of them ends well.
The problem is that he applies this not just to the nation, but to the individual. There is no escape from his gaze. The root of the matter is the human heart, which is ‘devious’ and ‘perverse’. It will be tested by God, who will give to all ‘according to the fruit of their doings’. If that’s the case, it seems there is little hope for anyone. Even if the heart were just the centre of emotion and passion, as we might understand it now, that would be damning enough for us. But in Hebrew thought the heart was the centre of everything: soul, mind, will. If our hearts are by nature ‘perverse’ then perhaps we should all be a Jeremiah. What hope can there be?
Thankfully this is not Jeremiah’s last word about the heart, and what God can do with perverse humanity. Two later verses shine out: ‘I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord’ (24.7), and ‘I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts’ (31.33). Perhaps hope and renewal shine out brighter when the bleakness of the nation’s, and the soul’s, situation is put so clearly by someone like Jeremiah. Grace here is God’s recognition that, if the human heart – if our ultimate concern and all that drives us – if our heart is to trust in God alone, then God will need to offer a heart transplant.
On Friday I put an automatic reply on my email system, to explain that way we do emails is changing this weekend. Behind the scenes we are moving from Gmail to Microsoft 365. Our addresses remain the same, but behind them the whole way we operate is being transformed. So far, so good, and this refreshing will allow us to be more secure, more connected and, we hope, more responsive as a result. Our machines and our messages will look familiar: the way they are produced is completely changed. So with a heart transplant given by God.
The difference here is that the change in operating system produces a change of motivation, content, output, lifestyle and action. Jeremiah looked to the day when our new heart would enable us to reveal and revel in God’s perfect law of love and grace. In Christ that promise is made real. We are saved by grace through faith. Our baptism marks this change of heart. Our life together enables that change to be made visible. Our eating together in this sacred meal is a sign that in Christ our old heart is put to death, our old ways are forgiven, our old mind is renewed.
What that looks like is seen in the Gospel Reading today. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – the ways we are “blessed”, so familiar from the Sermon on the Mount – Luke’s version contrasts the new heart and the old heart. The blessed ones rejoice in the values of the Kingdom, where poverty and hunger and weeping are turned to riches and abundance and laughter in the love of God. It is the ones who pursue riches and fullness and laughter for their own sake and in the wrong ways who will mourn and cry, because their hearts, their operating systems, are really defunct.
Jeremiah says that God promises a new covenant, a new promise, which as the great commentator Walter Bruegemann puts it, is given by God ‘without reason or explanation’. For those who wish to trust, God will rewrite the heart. Far from being devious and perverse, it will be our inclination and joy to live like the well rooted tree, nourished by living water. May we be those who, like Jeremiah, recognise our need for grace, and who, like Jeremiah, discover and proclaim the love of God who first loves us. May we be the blessed ones, who in our need find the overflowing grace of God. May we be those who respond to God’s first loving us in the gift of his Son, and find our hearts remade and rewritten through the love, challenge, forgiveness and wholeness brought to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.Print This Page