I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts.
Here on the 5th Sunday in Lent, just a few days before the dramatic events of Holy Week, we are treated to a glimmer of hope from a section of Jeremiah called the Book of Consolation. In the face of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and subsequent exile in Babylon, Jeremiah was called to rail against the people for their lack of trust in God. They had relied on their own strength, they had even turned to idols instead of listening to God. Their unfaithfulness to the Sinai covenant was the reason for the disaster, not God’s. The old covenant had been dropped too many times, and now God’s heart itself was broken. After multiple failures on the part of the people to uphold their end of the covenant, the situation finally reached flat-line. Today’s passage announces the means of survival. Emergency heart surgery of an experimental nature is called for, and Jeremiah is here to break the news to the family: God will put the Torah within them and write it on their hearts.
The heart is mentioned over a thousand times in the Bible. In Jeremiah alone, it appears 50 times. In ancient times, the heart, not the head, was considered the seat of emotion, wisdom, personality, and understanding. The heart may be merry or exult or rejoice; it may faint, groan, melt, burn, or be crushed; it may devise evil, harbor deceit or become as hard as stone. We actually “feel” these things here: we say we are light-hearted or heavy-hearted; our hearts may be full, empty, warm, cold.
The heart is the inmost being of a person, now concealing, now revealing one’s most secret and perhaps truest self.
So when Jeremiah speaks of God’s desire and plan to put her law within the people, to write it on their hearts, this is an act of radical intimacy, a stealth maneuver to implant Torah almost like a virus of healing. It is also an act of radical grace. In Jeremiah chapter 17 we learn that “the sin of Judah” – their obstinate reliance on themselves – was “written with an iron pen, with a diamond point engraved on the tablet of their hearts.” It would seem that here in chapter 31, God plans complete laser removal of this diamond-etched sin – “I will remember their sin no more” – and instead will put within them the means of health and wholeness and life – his own “law” will be the indelible and irrevocable tattoo, the seal set upon their hearts. From now on God’s word will not be “out there” but “right. here.”
As a physician, it is hard for me to think of the heart without considering its anatomy as an organ of the human body as well. The heart is elegant in its design and perfect in its function under circumstances of health. Put most simply, its role is to pump blood, bearing oxygen and nutrients, to the tissues. But it does not work alone. Although cardiology and pulmonology are different specialties, in fact the heart, lungs, and blood vessels are fully connected and function as an integrated whole.
Here’s a quick anatomy lesson: your heart has four chambers – right and left atria, right and left ventricles. The right atrium, like a lobby, receives oxygen-depleted blood from the body – it sends it to the right ventricle that pumps it through the lungs. Here your breathing of air provides the means of exchange – out with CO2, in with O2. Back from the lungs comes the oxygen-rich blood to the left side of the heart – left atrium pools it, sends it to the left ventricle that does the big job of pumping it to the body. These heart muscle cells, by the way, have inherent rhythmic contraction ability. You put them in a dish by themselves, with proper electrolytes, and off they go, contracting. What’s even cooler is that when they touch one another, they begin to beat in synch, their rhythms match up, and on a macro scale their pumping action becomes coordinated. So, back to the blood vessels: these vessels branch and become smaller and smaller until they are capillaries – (Latin capillus, hair i.e. very fine) where only one blood cell can pass through at a time! (If all these vessels were laid end-to-end, they would extend for about 60,000 miles--far enough to encircle the earth more than twice!). It is through the thin capillary membrane that the exchange of oxygen and CO2 occurs at the tissue level.
Now, here’s a Trinitarian slant: let’s say the heart is like the work of the Father, the Creator, faithfully acting night and day to bring life to all people. Let’s say the blood is like the redeeming work of the Son – carrying nutrients through his Word and Sacrament, and bearing away the waste of sin. And let’s say breathing air into the lungs is like the sustaining action of the Holy Spirit (Heb ruach; Greek pneuma; breath) providing the life force that connects and animates all of us. They all work together as One.
OK – here’s another twist. We tend to think of our hearts whether anatomically or spiritually, on an individual level. Now let’s think of the corporate dimension – the church as heart. We gather and disperse, there is a filling and emptying of the narthex and the nave, a drawing and sending, like a heartbeat. We are Jesus’ body, so we are like the blood bringing life-giving good news to the world, and bringing back the things that harm the world for transformation in prayer, for redemption. Notice, just as the blood cells go single file through the capillaries, we often bring the gospel one-by-one and one-to-one as we exchange news with our particular part of the world. We take healing out from here even as we are healed; we bring in sorrows – our own and the world’s – to lay on the altar as part of our offering, to lay at the foot of the Cross, to bring to Jesus for him to breathe again his Holy Spirit on us, as he did on his disciples after his resurrection. We all work together as One, or rather, the Trinity works through us as One.
Perhaps then, Lent is the great exhalation of the Church, the forty day sigh before the new breath of Easter. Where do you sense Spirit blowing in this day and this time? What is the heart of your mission now? To what will you, St. Paul’s Memorial Church, devote your lifeblood, your riches, your breath, your selves? It might be the individual act of writing a letter for Bread for the World or knitting a prayer shawl. It might be corporate acts, like the local interfaith movement called IMPACT assembling to promote social justice, or UVA students and others sharing table fellowship on Sunday nights.
These are outward expressions of that inward and spiritual grace described in Jeremiah as God’s writing his Torah on the human heart. For Christians, that grace is found in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, written on every human heart for all time to instruct and empower us to love God and one another with all our heart.
Let us pray again the collect for this day:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command (your Torah) and desire what you promise (your Love); that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Last Updated on Monday, 26 March 2012 08:57