Sermon transcript, 22 March 2015
God writes in our hearts by Fr. Dana
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:5-17, Hebrews 5:1-10, John 12:20-33
There seems to be a theme running through all the readings, and that is what I would like to speak about this morning.
In the Old Testament reading we heard about a Covenant that is different than and goes beyond the original one that God made with his people: Jeremiah 31:31. When God gave the first Covenant He wrote it down: we have the first five books of the Bible, the Law, the Ten Commandments. People read it, forgot about it and went their own ways, and He had to keep calling them back, and sometimes He had to get severe with them.
But He is talking about something different here: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). That’s one of the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Law, because He came and kept it – every bit of it, even the part that wasn’t written down – because His heart was God’s heart. And when He was crucified, dead, buried and rose again, when He went to heaven, He promised the disciples that He would ask the Father to send the Comforter, the Paraclete, the One who walks alongside, and He came at Pentecost. That was the beginning of God putting His law in our minds and writing it on our hearts; because no longer does it depend merely upon what I can memorise, because the Spirit of God is in me. The Spirit of God is in you, and He will bring to mind those things.
The key is, we have to be willing to listen. I can busy myself with activities; I can even busy myself with activities for God: I can spend all the time doing things that I think God likes so that I have no time to listen to what He’s telling me. Doing is not the answer. If we truly desire to know His will, He will show us; and He has many ways of doing that. We as human beings like things to be predictable, so when we find that there is one way that He has done it, we like to write a book about it and sell thousands of copies; and everyone wants God to work that way, because we’ve seen that He has worked that way once, so we know that He must work that way. The problem is that God defies being put in a box. “Well, if I pray nine Hail Marys…” That may have worked for someone, even for multiple people – but that’s not a guarantee. “If I spend an hour a day in prayer…” – that worked, but it’s not a guarantee. “If I meditate and open my mind…” – be careful what you open your mind to, because God’s not the only one talking.
God refuses to be put in a box, but He does say – and you can take this to the bank (In other words, it’s as good as a cheque from God: you can cash it to the bank, he does have funds and it will get transferred) – “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts”. If we want to know His will, He will show us. He may show us through godly counsel from someone else; He may show us directly through His Word; He may speak to us in the middle of the night or in the middle of traffic… He can speak any way He wants and any place He wants.
But because other voices speak as well, how do we know it’s Him? That’s one of the reasons God has given us the Bible. He will never, ever tell us something that violates who He is and how He works as revealed in His Word. His Word was His Word before it was ever written down. His Word became flesh. Jesus did not become the Bible; we don’t worship this book: it is not God. It is God’s Word: He inspired and wrote every word of it; but it is not God. We don’t bow down before the Bible; we bow down before God. But this for us is His primary revelation of who He is. That doesn’t mean we can pick out a verse and say, “This applies. I wish above all things that you will prosper. Yes!” That’s only half the verse anyway… But it is in here, and He will never tell us something that goes against His Word. “Well, God told me that I need to divorce my wife and go shack up with two twenty-year-olds…” You might have heard that voice, but that wasn’t God, because that violates about fifteen things that He has revealed to us in His Word.
A clean heart
If I write something on the wall with a black magic marker, if I did it on that wall you could see it; if I wrote it here, maybe you could, maybe you couldn’t. If He’s going to write it on our heart, what does our heart need to look like? Whatever colour He’s writing, imagine a contrasting colour. In the USA you can find walls covered in all kinds of writing in all kinds of colours and styles, and if I wrote something there and say “Go and read what I wrote”, you’d have no idea. What do we need for God to write His law on our hearts and for us to be able to distinguish it?
Clean! (Psalm 51:10-12) We need a clean heart for God to write on. That doesn’t mean He won’t write on a dirty heart, but how are you going to distinguish the dirt, the graffiti, sin, and Satan’s lies, from His Word? We need to have a clean heart, and we need to keep it clean, because even after God has written His Word on our heart, Satan would love to come along, scraping over it with his garbage – and he does. And the only way we can keep it clean is by confessing our sin, because every time we confess our sin He washes it clean again. And no, this is not a legalistic thing, that if you confess your sin and die twenty minutes later, anything that you did between when you last confessed and when you died you’re going to go to hell for. But you do continually cleanse yourself: you don’t take a bath or a shower once and say, “That does me good for the year” (I know there were periods in history when that was true, but that didn’t make them clean – they worse stuff to cover it up); and so we need to confess.
The good news is there is joy in His salvation (Psalm 51:12); however there are also trials, and that’s why the Psalm says, “Uphold me by your bountiful Spirit”. God is bountiful; if we come to Him and say, “Help me: I’m really having problems; I’m drowning, I’m slipping away”, He won’t say, “Well, here, take the string that’s coming out of My rope and grab onto it”. He’s not a stingy God – He’s a bountiful God. He will reach down with His mighty right hand – and who is His mighty right hand? Jesus! – and so there is joy in our salvation. He is not stingy when it comes to giving us what we need. I did not say “what I want”; what I want may not be what I need. There have been studies in America of people who win the lottery; the vast majority (not 51% but 80 or 90%) within a year are broke. They get something they don’t know how to handle; and there are too many people willing to give them advice. You have friends you never knew about when you come into money; and there’s a reason you never knew about them: because they never were your friends! But God is bountiful in what we need.
A broken and contrite heart
So what do we give Him? The Psalm tells us that as well (Psalm 51:16-17). God established sacrifices: He told them exactly how to cut the lamb, what to do with the parts, where to sprinkle the blood, which parts should go to the Priest, which parts should be burnt on the altar, and so on. But it wasn’t because He likes chicken or lamb – He was teaching. What He really wants – and even David knew it – is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.
He’s not talking about a twelve-year old girl who’s been raped – not that kind of broken spirit. He’s not talking about someone whose life has been demolished. He’s talking about someone who knows that they are broken, that they are not perfect; someone who knows they don’t have all the answers: a spirit that doesn’t come to God like the Pharisee and say, “Well, I pray seventeen times a day and I give half of everything I get to the poor (at least, have of everything I record in the books)…” Pride gets you nowhere. When you can stand as the tax collector did, and have nothing positive to proclaim about yourself, and just say, “Father, I’m a sinner. I don’t have anything worthwhile to give You; but everything I have and everything I am is Yours”, [see Luke 18:9-14] that’s the sacrifice God wants; and that’s the sacrifice He will use.
It’s the sacrifice of our will, to take the “I know what’s best for me; I know what I want”, give it to Him and say, “You know what’s best for me; I want what You want”. It’s giving Him our pride: “I’m smarter than everyone in my class” or, “I can draw a human figure, and you can’t”. When we give up our “I am” and “I have” and say, “It’s Yours: You gave it to me in the first place; anything I have that may be good, didn’t come from me – it came from You”, that’s a broken spirit.
A contrite heart is one that says “I blew it. I wanted to the right things, and sometimes maybe I thought I was doing the right thing, but I blew it. Maybe I even did a good thing, but I didn’t do the best thing, because I didn’t listen to You.” Contrition, not pride.
The sacrifice of obedience
Under the Old Covenant, God required the physical sacrifice of the first, the best, the firstborn, the best lamb of the flock: before you sold any of them, pick out the best. And that was completed in the sacrifice of His Son: God gave His firstborn, His only born, His only Son, his best. Under the New Covenant this writing of the law in our heart is still in essence a physical sacrifice but it starts in the will. It’s no less real than giving a lamb that was slain, but it starts here and is worked out in our body, in our lives. That too was completed in Jesus Christ.
Our New Testament reading talks about Jesus (Hebrews 5:7-8). You remember His tears in the garden; He sweated blood; He cried out to His Father, “If there is a way that You can take this cup away, please do!” His were not half-hearted cries; this was not an “Oh well…” kind of prayer: He was praying fervently, He was sweating blood. And yet the Father said no, and the Son learned obedience by the things which He suffered.
That doesn’t mean that before that He was disobedient: when He was in heaven with God, He and the Father and the Holy Spirit were in this dance of the Trinity, each one doing His part, working together just like the dancers we have, each one different and having a different thing to do but working together to make a beautiful whole. He didn’t need conscious obedience: it was His nature just to flow with God. But when He became human He left behind some of that, and He became a Man; and He chose obedience, and because He obeyed He suffered.
Do you remember the temptation? Satan came to Him in the desert and said “Do this and the kingdoms of the earth are Yours.” Satan didn’t have the authority to do that: he doesn’t own the kingdoms of the world – he has temporary custody of them but he doesn’t own them. Jesus could have said, “That’s much easier than going to the cross” and done what Satan said, or He could have said, “Better than that, I’m going to take them!” – He had the power. But He didn’t; He said, “I’m not doing it your way; I’m not even doing it My way; I’m doing it God’s way.”
In the garden, “He went a little farther, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. 36 And He said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.’” (Mark 14:35-37) And God the Father took Him at His word.
The seed must die
And Jesus tells them this is going to happen in our Gospel reading (John 12:24). If I go out into a wheat field and pluck one little grain off one stalk, I have a seed; it still has life in it. But if I don’t plant it, it won’t grow, and it will never be more than that one seed in my hand. But if I go to a field that has been ploughed and… [plant it]; it will grow, and there will be thirty, sixty or a hundred little grains on that head; and if they die and are planted in the ground, they too will grow.
Read John 12:25-26. In the daily readings when Jesus was telling the disciples that He would be killed and rise again, and Peter says, “Man, don’t say that! That’s not what the Messiah (the Christ) is supposed to do – You’re supposed to toss out the Romans; You’re supposed to redeem Israel; You’re supposed to make us great again; You’re supposed to save us!” And Jesus rebuked him: “You’ve got Satan’s word, not God’s Word. You’re not reading what God’s writing on your heart – you’re listening to something else.” (Mark 8:31-33) He’s already said “I’m going to be like a grain of wheat, I’m going to die and I’m going to rise from the dead”, and after Peter has told Him, “No, You’re not going to do that!”, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34) “It’s not just me that’s going to do this: I’m calling you to do exactly the same.” For some them it resulted in exactly the same thing: some of them were crucified; most of them died: all but John, and Judas, who killed himself, were killed for the faith. Jesus wasn’t lying: He said, “This is the way of the Father; this is what I’m going to do; this is what Messiah was born for!” [see John 12:27] “This is what I’m going to do, and if you’re going to let the Father write on your heart, this is what you need to be willing to do too.”
Dying produces a harvest. Keeping – if I keep that little seed and put it in a safe, hide it away, I’ll always have a seed. There are seeds that were buried with the Pharaohs, and when they opened up the tombs and took them out, they still grew. I could take that seed and seal it away, and in five thousand years I can take it out and plant it, and it will still die and produce a harvest. But as long as it’s hidden away, I ain’t got nothing but a seed – it’s worth nothing but a seed.
The Holy Spirit helps us
This dying to self may result in a physical death: a “red martyrdom”, shedding your blood; or it may result in a white martyrdom: living fifty, seventy, or eighty years serving God. God requires dying to self. God wants to write His Law in our minds and our hearts: He wants to show us clearly what His will is, and that’s one reason He sent His Holy Spirit to be with us and abide in us (Romans 8:26-27: this is from the lectionary this past Thursday).
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the strength to pray the way Jesus did in the garden: I’ve never prayed to the point of sweating blood, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that. But I do know that the Holy Spirit prays for me and for you, prays on your behalf just as fervently as Jesus did in the garden. He doesn’t just go halfway: we have an abundant God, and so the Holy Spirit prays fervently for us.
And He, the Father, will write His word in our minds and in our hearts for us to see and to read, to understand and to follow – because He’s helping us to all that as well: He’s helping us to read, He’s helping us to understand, He’s helping us to follow… if we let Him. All we have to do is make room for Him, make space. Stop the stuff coming in from outside, pray that God would stop the stuff – the flesh – that comes from the inside, and the Holy Spirit stops what’s coming directly from the devil; so that we can read and hear and understand and obey the will of the Father. May He accomplish that this Lent, to teach us, to discipline us, how to walk in his will in all that we do.