In the most straightforward sense, this snippet from Jeremiah 17 is all about trust. Bad Trust. Good Trust. If you trust in mere human beings in all of life, you are on a slippery slope to ruin. In fact such people can be considered cursed. Nothing good will come their way. But trust in God alone and a reverse portrait of blissful blessedness emerges. Everything will fall their way. In a clear echo of the main image of this week’s Psalm 1 reading in the Revised Common Lectionary, those who trust in God are that well-planted tree by the riverside, its leaves evergreen.
Trust, however, is an invisible thing in many ways. You cannot really see trust. Trust is an internal disposition. It is the bent of your heart and mind. But that is why the last couple verses in this selection are so curious. First we suddenly get a line about how deceitful the human heart is and how unfathomable—all things being equal—its internal machinations may be. In fact, no one can understand perhaps even their own heart.
But then we are told that God can and does search our hearts. God can understand our hearts. But then suddenly verse 10 shifts from this focus on the invisible things going on inside any given person’s core to external deeds. Now we are talking about something we can see like how a given person conducts himself, how a given person treats the other people around her. And God says that he will reward each person according to that conduct and those deeds.
If this seems odd to shift from invisible trust in our hearts to external things we do with our hands or say with our mouths, it is not that odd after all. As Jesus will later say, all of our behavior springs from our hearts. We speak from what is in our hearts. We behave because of what is on our hearts. For good or for ill, who we are bubbles out of our hearts.
Thus if we trust in people only and not at all in God, then we will do whatever we can to get ahead in this world no matter who we hurt along the way. We will be happy to make up the rules as we go along and find a way to smash through any moral barriers we may encounter that stand in the way of us and what we regard as our deserved happiness. You may not be able to see into another person’s heart the way God alone can but then again, you know a selfish heart when you encounter one. You know a greedy heart when you see it. You know a stingy and mean-spirited heart when you see it in action.
But the one who trusts in God cannot keep that trust a secret nor does that internal trust end up being any less visible than the one who trusts in himself alone. “Good character will out,” an old saying claims. A heart fixed on God yields a good character and that will inevitably show up in deeds of mercy and kindness. To riff on something UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used to say to his players: don’t worry about your reputation because that is only what other people think you are. Worry about your character because that is who you actually are. Or as thinkers as far back as Heraclitus said, “Character is destiny.”
But it all stems from a heart that is fixated on the proper object of trust.
But the half dozen verses of Jeremiah 17 that we have before us this week are part of the larger bad news section of Jeremiah. The wider context here is of the horrible ruin that is coming to the people of Israel because although they—far more than any other people on earth—had every opportunity to put their trust in God alone, they failed. They had God’s blueprint for living in the form of God’s Law but they kept finding ways around it. If it ever came down to a choice between doing something quick and easy to turn a profit or doing it God’s way that might involve a bit more attention to detail, then the quick and easy path was chosen. Convenience took precedence over covenant.
But that is why if we jump ahead a dozen or so chapters in Jeremiah we come to that lyric centerpiece of this prophecy when God through Jeremiah declares that the only solution for this problem is a radical heart transplant. Hearts of stone that turned away from God and relied on human wit and wisdom would get replaced with hearts of flesh that were soft and tender enough to receive what only God can give. Since trying to force the Law to seep into the people’s pore from the outside was not working, God would start on the inside and then work outward. Absorbing the Law by osmosis was not working so God would place living water inside people’s hearts and let it bubble up and out unto eternal life (to riff on Jesus’s words to the woman at the well in John 4).
A glance at this week’s four readings in the RCL reveals that blessings and curses, righteous living and wicked living, constitute this week’s theme. Psalm 1’s stark worldview that divides everyone in the righteous or the wicked; Jeremiah 17’s promises of blessings and curses depending on where one places one’s trust; Luke 6’s version of the Beatitudes paired also with corresponding statements of woe; and 1 Corinthians 15’s stark choice between preaching in vain and preaching the truth all lay out before us what appears to be a simple choice. A or B. Life or Death. Blessing or Curse.
In the hurly-burly nature of everyday life, our choices seldom seem that stark or that simple. We muddle around in the moral middle sometimes too. And we all of us are mixtures of the light and the dark and we are not always able to discern where our light leaves off and the darkness starts to creep back in (who can understand the heart, as Jeremiah 17:9 says). But at the end of the day the sum total of these passages and many more besides in Scripture tell us the truth: the universe has a loving Creator God who wants us to flourish. At the end of the day, we have either spent our lives trying to lean into the goodness of this God by trusting him with all our hearts or we have not. Yes, yes: it is all by grace alone. We cannot make the right choice on our own. But by grace we have the chance to get caught up in all the goodness of God.
If we are washed by grace, then we are blessed beyond measure. If we are not, well, the consequences of that could determine a whole lot.
In the (to date) four volumes of Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series, Lyndon Baines Johnson emerges as a man of massive ego and an insatiable lust for power. His heart was ever and only bent on getting whatever it was he wanted next in life and he would lie, cheat, and steal to get it if need be. What also emerges in these thousands of pages was that Johnson had a habit of lying incessantly. He was by most any definition a pathological liar. He told silly lies everyone could see through. He told perniciously clever lies few could detect. But at the end of the day the lies Johnson told all had one end goal: to advance the cause of Lyndon Johnson.
But then on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was killed. Vice-President Johnson was vaulted into the one position he had sought his whole life: the Presidency. But the nation was in shock. Healing seemed unreachable for many. Laudable things Kennedy had begun in civil rights and voting rights seemed destined to disappear. So for a few precious months somehow or another Lyndon Johnson managed to tame his inner demons and his worst instincts. And his leadership in those transition months from the death of Kennedy into early 1964 brought a nation back together.
Yet in the final line of the most recent volume of Robert Caro’s work, The Passage of Power, Caro sums it up this way:
“The story of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson will be different in tone from the story of the transition, in part because the elements of his personality absent during the transition were shortly to reappear. Yet for a period of time, a brief but crucial moment in history, he had held these elements in check had . . . in a way conquered himself . . . If he had held in check these forces within him, had conquered himself, for a while, he wasn’t going to be able to do it for very long” (Robert Caro, The Passage of Power. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012, p. 605).
Where we place the trust of our hearts shows up sooner or later. Character will out.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 13, 2022
Jeremiah 17:5-10 Commentary