Written in Permanent Ink
27 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28 And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29 In those days they shall no longer say:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
30 But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of the one who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
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. 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. 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. 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.
I learned to type in high school. At home we had one of those old manual typewriters with the round buttons for each letter. When you pushed one, an arm went up to the paper to print that letter. We used erasable paper so that mistakes were easier to correct.
Imagine my surprise on the first day of typing class when I saw an IBM Selectric typewriter on each desk. These were electric and you could correct three letters at a time using the backspace key! The days of hunt and peck on that old manual typewriter were over.
Now, in learning to type there was a particular phrase we typed over and over to learn the letters on the keyboard. This phrase includes every letter.
“the quick grey fox jumped over the lazy brown dog”
No matter how many times I typed the phrase, I never believed a quick grey fox would ever jump over a lazy brown dog. It just didn’t make sense. I could type it on paper, but I never believed it could actually happen. These were simply words with no substance in fact.
The story line of the Bible is the Law. This is the primary theme of both the Old and New Testaments. The Law is the basis for humankind’s relationship with God, not merely words on a page.
The Law was formally introduced to God’s people, the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness. They trusted (or hoped) in God’s promise that they would return to the land God gave to Abraham. During the course of their wilderness adventure, they received the Law of God, the Ten Commandments, through Moses who carried stone tablets down Mt. Sinai with the words of God written on them. These tablets were later put in the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence, that they carried with them. The tablets were the symbol of the covenant between God and the people. This covenant was later fulfilled, but not abolished, through Jesus.
The Law was intended to provide guidance for everyday life. In addition to the Law, God provided a set of rules and regulations to the Israelites to help them carry out the Law. These are recorded in Leviticus – good bedtime reading if counting sheep isn’t working! Neither the Law nor the rules and regulations were ingrained inside. The people had to ask the priests to interpret these in every situation.
The covenant was intended to be between God and the people, but the people failed to hold up their side of the bargain. Hence, as God had promised, they lost the land God had given them through Abraham and were sent into exile – the tribe of Israel in the north to Assyria and the tribe of Judah in the south to Babylon.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in Babylon during the exile times. Chapter 31 records the time when the exile of 70 years (the time God had promised it would be) was drawing to a close. Jeremiah addressed the fears of the people as they anticipated their return to their homeland. What will it look like and be like? Will we know we are there? Will we know when we are there? All we have are the stories told by our parents and grandparents of what the land is like. What about the Law? The Ark is lost so we don’t have the tablets. Can we trust God again?
We have the advantage of hindsight. We are able to look at the past through the lens of the present, so it is easy for us to see the description of the coming Christ in the words of Jeremiah. “The new covenant” represents the change in understanding of the relationship between God and the people, a relationship we often take for granted.
In seminary future pastors are taught the importance of looking at the meaning of the words in the Bible as these were spoken to the people who originally heard them. In Jeremiah’s time, approximately 600 BCE, God addresses the questions and fears of the people. In this passage, Jeremiah reviews the circumstances that brought the people into exile and prepares them for their return to the land by giving them reasons they can trust God. Most importantly, he teaches them how to live differently without the written Law to guide them.
We are also a people of the law. We like written standards to guide us such as honor codes, a driver’s handbook, and the Constitution. We have the most important Law, the Ten Commandments, written for us. There was a time when these were displayed in almost every courthouse and church, and many schools and public buildings. Did you know they are still displayed in the U.S. Capitol building?
Times have changed. Separation of church and state is the norm. Protests and controversies over what is right and wrong are rampant. Religious monuments, displays, and plaques have been removed. All actions of separating people rather than drawing them together.
We want God’s Law visible to remind us of what we should do. We need God’s Law to be visible because it is difficult to take it to heart. Just as the Israelites came to depend on the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, we have come to depend on the written Word of God to provide our standards for living life.
It's a good thing that we depend on the written Word of God. The Bible is an important part of our tradition and our lives. Many have family Bibles that record genealogy and notable events. These are often kept on a shelf where they can be seen and pulled out when needed. Children receive Bibles at baptism or in third grade or at confirmation with the intention that they will be read. Just as the Israelites put the stone tablets of the Law in the Ark of the Covenant for safekeeping, our Bibles sit on a shelf gathering dust or in a box with other mementos.
A Bible is more than a memory of notable events, a record of family histories, a reference book, or a source for Sunday school stories. 2 Timothy 3 tells us that scripture – God’s Word – instructs us for salvation through faith. It is important to learn the Bible and to know what it says so that one can begin to firmly believe the Word.
Firmly believe is more than just using the Bible as a reference or for cursory reading. Firmly believing goes further. Beyond intellectual knowledge, scholarly research, and hearing it taught and preached. Firmly believing means the Word of God becomes part of who you are and how you live. The words reside in your soul. And, as Jeremiah says, in your heart.
Jeremiah firmly believed that God had a future for his people greater than their fears. Greater than their questions. Greater than their lack of trust. Greater than they could imagine. Jeremiah, through God’s words, saw a future for the exiles where they would be responsible for their own actions rather than bearing the consequences of the actions of their ancestors. A future of returning to the land to build, plant, and populate.
The new covenant would be the backbone of this future and the foundation for their relationship with God. The law will be within them, written on their hearts. Everyone will know God from the inside rather than being completely dependent on what they were told by others. This covenant will be based on forgiveness – God will remember their sin no more.
I imagine they were skeptical upon hearing this new way of being God’s people, even afraid of what this would mean. They weren’t sure they could believe enough or trust enough. They would face a lot of change. The expectations were high. But they also wanted to rebuild their homes and their lives. And they wanted a Law they could hold in their hands.
We are also a people that finds comfort with a law we can see, read, and hold in our hands. It is easier, we think, to apply this law to our lives. We like to think that the law we read is the law we firmly believe. The one that is written on our hearts. That how we act on the outside truly reflects what is on the inside. Yet we know that isn’t always true.
The thing is, the law written on our hearts isn’t our law, it’s Gods! The heart God’s Word is written on belongs to God, the place God’s love for us resides. Knowing this provides security to trust what God has written on our hearts. We can believe that God offers forgiveness when we stray from the God’s law. The love God gives us is the same love that allowed God to send his Son, Jesus, to us.
Examine your heart to see what is written there. Remember that God’s exclamation point on God’s promise is Jesus Christ. Christ came to fulfill the promise and to initiate a forever covenant based on forgiveness and new life. Through Christ, the Law written on our hearts is an internal truth we can depend on that is derived from the unconditional love God has for us. A Law we can firmly believe in if we let ourselves do so.