That the gospel is countercultural is beyond debate. But texts like this one are so subtly against our way of thinking that we might not even realize the pull to deny this proclamation even as we preach it. Yet, how can we make such a claim about a magnificent vision of the kin-dom of God? It seems something that we all long for on a regular basis, particularly during a time of unrest and division. This is a utopia worth claiming, so why would we be reluctant?
If there is one thing this society seems to value, it is self-determinism. If this vision becomes real, am I an independent person anymore? If this law, however benevolent, is written on my heart, do I choose anything anymore? Am I able to decide? Am I even able to think for myself? Or am I lost to this eternal power so much greater than myself? Have I given my deepest self, my thinking self away?
Though in this space, maybe even in your space as you prepare to preach this text to a congregation hungry to hear God’s word, this line of argument sounds out of step. It sounds ridiculous, frankly. And yet, it is there in the back of all our minds—if not consciously, then certainly subconsciously. This word goes against some of our most deeply held self-conceptions. Remember, “You’re not the boss of me!”
Of course, the irony of our striving for independence is that we would say, “You’re not the boss of me” to the people who had the legal and moral responsibility to be the boss of us. We are always lashing out against those who are in authority over us. We value freedom above all other gifts of a civilized society. We have elevated freedom to such a state that the gospel can barely be heard in this day and age. If it doesn’t clang a sour note in your ears, believe that it does in the ears of many in our world today. The law written on the heart doesn’t sound like good news to many.
Yet there is a different way to read these words that reveals a world of difference. What is the law that Jeremiah tells us God is wanting to write on our hearts? Well, didn’t we cover this a couple of weeks ago? The Commandments, the Word that God gave the people? And then the hundreds or thousands of interpretive laws stemming from those ten? Right? That’s the law that God wants to tattoo upon the inner core of our being, isn’t it? Well, yes. But go back even further. Go back to the roots of the law. Jeremiah reminds us in this text of the roots of the law: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
It’s not a law as we understand law. It is a relationship. It is a law of love and of loving and of acting in loving ways toward all, stranger and neighbor and family. It is only when we hear this promise and this hope through the lens of loving that this makes any sense at all.
Commentator Woody Bartlett, in Feasting on the Word, writes that “having the law firmly engraved in one’s heart is an adventure in freedom.” He continues:
“It is the freedom to act spontaneously; knowing that one’s actions will reflect what fills one’s heart. It is the freedom to be who one truly is, knowing that one’s true character is what is most pleasing to God and therefore reflects the best of what the law requires” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p.125).
This is the paradox of the gospel. When we surrender to the will of God, we become more truly ourselves. It is the foolishness that Paul spoke about in I Corinthians. It is the puzzle that Jesus proclaimed to us. that somehow to find myself, I must lose myself; to be one who leads, I must learn how to serve. And this service is not an obligatory servile spirit, but a true desire that everyone we encounter know something of the love that motivates my every action and decision, my every thought and prayer.
At the root of this acting out of love is the knowledge of God. Jeremiah says that no longer will we have to say “know the Lord” because everyone will know. That means, of course, that knowing God is our first task. Knowing and telling about or knowing and sharing that knowledge every chance we get. While we share with urgency, we share in hope. The days are surely coming, we can count on it. We can believe in it. And we can begin right away living as though there were these words, this law of love already written on our hearts.
Of course, we will get it wrong from time to time. Of course, we will lose our grip on it when things get difficult. Of course, we will need to climb back up on that horse and keep riding. That’s why we need a season of Lent to reorient ourselves toward this law, toward this way of living in community. The truth is, we haven’t lived by this law; we haven’t acted out of love. So, we come and confess and invite the Spirit to get back to work writing on our hearts, so that going forward we can live and act more like the kin-dom we proclaim.
This passage is not an invitation to relax and wait for the day that is coming. It is a call to action. It is a call to move, to call out injustice, to tear down divisions, to lift up the oppressed. We don’t sit back saying that God is in control; therefore, all we have to do is take care of our own souls. That has never been the gospel proclamation. That is not what is written on our hearts.