Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 22, 2015
Jeremiah 31:31-34 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Everybody likes what follows the words “The days are coming” in verse 31 of this passage. A bit more dodgy and difficult to understand, however, is what follows that identical phrase in verse 27. Because there the last thing mentioned is that if ever it had been true that the children suffered for the sins of their fathers and mothers, from now on everyone would die for their own sin, thank you very much.
Well, I guess that’s kind of good news. Still, I’d just as soon find out that my sins will be forgiven and no longer debited to my account. True, I don’t want anyone else—especially my kids—to get punished or to suffer on account of what I do. But I’m still not overly wild about suffering on and on for my sins myself either! Sin is not a problem I can take care of on my own—a point that ought come as no surprise to anyone especially during the Season of Lent—and so if I cannot on my own get over my tendency to sin, then I need some better news than just the revelation that at least only I will, as verse 30 bluntly puts it, “die for my own sin.”
It’s a good thing Jeremiah wasn’t finished in detailing what the coming days would bring! Because what comes next is shot through with a whole lot more hope. Because if it’s true, as the Scriptures tells us, that “the heart is deceitful above all things” and that a good deal of what I do wrong in my life stems from what’s wrong with my inmost dispositions in my heart, then it’s good news to hear that God is going to give me something of a heart transplant. Somehow, Jeremiah predicts, a time will come when knowledge of God will be placed right within our inmost being, which is exactly where we need it most. But not only in my heart will I receive knowledge, but also in my mind. Heart and mind: both are going to get an infusion of God’s goodness in ways that will lead us to life (and not inevitably to the death for our sins that was mentioned in verse 30).
Former Calvin Seminary President Neal Plantinga once pointed out that in the New Testament when Jesus quotes the first and great commandment about loving the Lord our God, he changes it just a bit. Every pious Jew raised on the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 knew full well that proper wording: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” That’s the kind of sacred formula you just don’t mess with. And if you do, everyone would notice in a heartbeat.
But that’s what Jesus does. Jesus, when queried, said the first and great commandment is to love the Lord your God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Surely his listeners gasped.
As Plantinga said, it would be as arresting as tucking your child into bed one night only to hear him say in his bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my brain to keep.”
But maybe Jesus was thinking of Jeremiah 31 when he introduced his subtle riff on the great commandment and especially Jeremiah’s inclusion of not just heart (that much you already got in the Shema) but also the mind. Jeremiah says that a key benefit of God’s new way of relating to humanity will be that no longer will anyone need to teach his neighbor about God—everyone will already know. That is not the kind of emotional talk one would associate with the human heart. We’re not told that neighbors would no longer need to try to get each other to love God or to feel a certain way about God. No, we’re told that the issue would center on what people know, on what they understand.
True, that Hebrew verb for “to know” is yada, which carries with it something more than a merely academic or intellectual component. (“Adam knew Eve and she conceived . . .” As any eye-rolling middle schooler could tell you, Adam obviously knew her pretty well!) So we cannot deny that heart and mind co-mingle in the Hebrew understanding of knowledge in ways they do not so naturally go together in our more Western mindset (or heartset, as the case may be).
Still, there is no denying that when Jeremiah pointed forward to this new covenant and this new way of God’s interacting with us, knowledge loomed pretty large in it all. But since we’re not Gnostics (that’s been declared a bad idea for quite some while now . . .), we may wonder what to make of this, especially this late in the Season of Lent. If nothing else, Lent is surely a time to realize that salvation is not about what we do or what we accomplish and it most certainly is not about what we know or what we understand. In fact, Lent reminds us that salvation came through one of the most counterintuitive events ever: the death of God’s beloved Son.
The Gospel Lectionary reading for this same Sunday in Lent shows Jesus declaring all kinds of things that no one could grasp at the time (and even all these centuries later, we have to admit that being “exalted on a cross” is a strikingly odd thing to ponder. To quote Plantinga again, it’s like being “enthroned on an electric chair” or being “honored by a firing squad.”) Salvation came through something we frankly could not understand. It certainly is not about knowledge.
So why would Jeremiah say—and Jesus later riff on the great commandment—that our minds are so centrally involved after all? How might this work? More specifically, how might this work in a Lenten sermon?
Maybe this way: Jeremiah says that previously the Israelites broke God’s covenant (and presumably also his divine heart) despite all that God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt, etc. God had done great things for them and yet . . . something went wrong. What was it? Jeremiah hints—actually, he pretty well declares—that it was finally a lack of internalizing the true nature of God. Somehow God and the Israelites remained oddly separated from each other. Maybe that’s part of the reason why they sent Moses up the mountain at Sinai even as they kept a very safe distance (a distance that proved to be the opposite of safe in the end as that same distance soon enough led them to swap out Yahweh for a Golden Calf). And then there were all those laws that kept everyone well away from the inner sanctum of the Temple where God was said to sit on the Ark—these laws were necessary perhaps but they did have a tendency to eclipse certain other features about God that the people were supposed to pick up on and mediate on.
What other features? The lovingkindness of God, the chesed of Yahweh that the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament make clear was God’s #1 attribute. They were supposed to internalize the idea that God is love, that God is grace, that God has great enthusiasm for human life and is powerfully intent on seeing that life flourish.
But that is what they seemed never to understand. They kept thinking God was a monarch in a distant throne room. God kept telling them he loved them as though they were his very bride (see the “husband” reference in also Jeremiah 31:32), that he had raised them and taught them to walk as though they were his precious children, the apple of his eye (cf. Hosea 11). Somehow God had to get this knowledge across to them in ways that would be so intellectually startling as to be also emotionally overwhelming. Only then could knowledge in that Hebrew sense of yada penetrate and engulf both hearts and minds. Because when you know how much this gracious God loves you, then you will love this God right back.
“When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus said in John 12. He meant being lifted up on a spit of wood, of course, and that is ordinarily a mighty repulsive spectacle, not one that draws most people in. And indeed, all by itself a bloodied scarecrow of a figure atop a place called “Skull Hill” is that from which people hide their faces.
But when you know, when you understand, what is behind that hideous death—when the grace of it all starts to shine through—then not only do you uncover your face, you find tears streaming down that same face. God had to go to considerable lengths to make clear his love for us. But once he did so in Jesus the Christ, the knowledge of what that meant soon started to spread like wildfire in a way the knowledge of God had never before done. Because not only did that display teach us a lot about God that we never really knew before, it also told us about the last thing Jeremiah mentions in this passage: our sins have been forgiven, too. Nothing stands between God and us now. We have no old business to attend to, no outstanding debts to make us keep our distance from the holy mountain.
It doesn’t matter whether you are one of the greatest people around or one of the least of all peoples, once you know and understand that gospel message, you won’t need anyone to come up and say to you, “Know the Lord!”
You already will.
In his book, Engaging God’s World, Neal Plantinga approaches the entire matter of education from the starting point of our fondest wishes and deepest longings. More than we know, the things we want to know touch (and even stem from) also our hearts. Most of the time we maybe are too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted to be in touch with such ponderous matters. In the rush of the everyday on our way to work, fighting traffic on the highway, fielding the umpteenth phone call in a row that has kept us from our work, perhaps in the midst of all that we focus only on the momentary.
Whether by accident or by design, most days are hectic enough that we can keep ourselves from listening to our deepest yearnings. But every once in a while something may call us up short. A piece of music stabs at our hearts and reminds us of such a profound beauty that suddenly the mundane nature of our work-a-day world seems tawdry by comparison. It reminds us that beyond this particular moment, we pine for something else.
In the novel and movie The Shawshank Redemption, a lifelong convict nicknamed Red, keeps telling his fellow prisoner, Andy, to stop talking about hope since in prison, hope is a dangerous thing. It’s better to live without hope than to have a hope that will torment you by virtue of it’s not being fulfilled. But then at one point in the story Andy barricades himself in the warden’s office, flips on the Shawshank prison P.A. system, and plays a portion of a Mozart opera, bringing the entire prison to a standstill as each prisoner listens to the aria. And even Red, the one who resisted all talk of hopes or dreams, could not resist this spot of beauty. And so Red muses, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singin’ about. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. For the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank was free.”
Whether we know it or not at any given moment, what we all most want to know about life is that we are loved, that there is meaning. The things we most dearly want to know have a whole lot to do with the things we most intently feel and long for. Maybe that’s why the knowledge of God that Jeremiah talked about and that Jesus talked about in places like Matthew 22 always go beyond just what we know to what we also need to feel and to understand—to understand not in the cerebral pathways of our brains but in the deepest fibers of our very being.
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