A Change of Heart

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Jeremiah 31:27-34

A new day is coming, says Jeremiah, and if you ask me, it cannot come too soon.

The old way was not yielding good results…. God had wanted to develop a close relationship with his people… God had chosen them to be his own people of all the peoples in the earth! God was clear about his expectations for them as he gave them the law. He told them how to live with each other in peace and to care for those who were hurt. God could not have been clearer… But they failed and forgot God like a spoiled and self centered child. They ignored God’s ways and did as they pleased without concern for God.

By the time of Jeremiah it was clear- the old way of doing things was not working.

How do you define insanity? You do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Well, God was not crazy. God was going to do something new.

A new day is coming… according to Jeremiah– and if you ask me, it cannot come too soon!

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord… “  – a day when children will not pay the price for their parents sin as had been the case… punishment will be limited…

That’s good, but the best promise to me is this:
“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. It will not be like the covenant 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: 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.

No longer shall they teach one another or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord’,(it is unnecessary when the law is within you) for all will 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”

A new day is coming, when God will change us from the inside out… and we will know God  (not ABOUT God—but know God)  The word “know” in the Bible—is a very interesting and intimate term… this is not “know” like an intellectual assent… like something you learn in Bible study or by going to seminary… This kind of “know” in the Bible is relational… You “know” your spouse.. you “know” your children— relationally.

A new day is coming when we will know God and then we will WANT to obey God because we love God. Our hearts will be different. Our relationship with God will be different.

My question to you is this; how will God do this? How will God do the heart surgery required to put the law within us?

I’ve been thinking about that and I think I know. I have been thinking about what God did for us in coming among us in Jesus… I think about the people whose hearts were not changed and those who had their lives transformed. Like Paul on his road to Damascus and the years that followed.

And there is one common denominator: grace. Those whose hearts have been transformed—who have given up an old life- have this in common: grace.

 Or as that old slave trader John Newton wrote: “twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

Christians are those whose hearts and lives over time have been transformed by grace. We may have begun as children learning to obey God just because God said so… but as we grow up and mature and learn more about God’s grace and love… we begin to obey not because God said so… but because we love God. 

There is a change within us that looks like this according to Frederick  Buechner: “the loved person becomes a loving person, the forgiven person a forgiving person”…

When that happens, you know God has done some heart surgery on you. We become graceful people.

Sadly, you know and I know-  that this is not how the world often experiences Christians.  So often Christians are perceived and portrayed in our society as smug, self-righteous, unable to love, unable to feel. Some people think that what the Christian faith produces are people with cold hearts, plastic masks, sad faces, inauthentic lives, joyless and shriveled souls…[1]

How could that be?  How different from the God we meet in Jesus! The God we meet in Jesus loves sinners… forgives sinners… and through grace transforms sinners. The God we meet in Jesus cares far more about relationships than rules… rules are meant to help relationships… they are not ends in themselves.

William Sloan Coffin said that “rules at best are signposts, never hitching posts…The Christian asks, “What does love require? (Not what does the law require?) “

I wonder if you can think of- I know I cannot think of – can you think of – a single story in the life of Jesus where someone was changed by a law? In fact, the people Jesus calls hypocrites are those who self righteously try to follow the law… for whom the law, not love is the goal. And people get hurt. Without grace, people get hurt.

That’s really one of the main lessons of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable’s, isn’t it? I hope you read the book or saw the movie or musical. It is a moving story.  It is the story of the triumph of God’s gracious love over our human sin. It is a story of transformation… someone whose heart was changed and another for whom the law was their God.

You remember… the escaped convict Jean Valjean, imprisoned for twenty years because he stole a loaf of bread is shown hospitality by a bishop. But the temptation is too much; he takes some of the bishop’s silver and steals away into the night. Stopped by a constable he tries to lie his way out of trouble. The silver was a gift, he says.

The constable takes him back to the bishop and Jean Valjean waits to hear the words that will return him to prison until he dies. Nothing in his life prepared him for what he is about to hear.

“You are mistaken,” the bishop says to Valjean. “Of course this silver was my gift. But only part. You forgot the most valuable part. You forgot to take the silver candlesticks.”

Jean Valjean waits for the condemnation he deserves. Instead he is blindsided by grace.

One moment he faces poverty and prison, the next freedom and abundance.

Before Valjean leaves, the bishop says to him, “You must never forget this moment. Your soul and your life have been bought back. You are not your own. From now on, you belong to God.”

And because of grace, Jean Valjean’s life becomes an act of love (that fulfills the law of love Jesus spoke of). He honors the promise given to a dying prostitute: he devotes himself to raising her child, Cosette. Later he faces peril to save the man who loves Cosette, even though he knows it may mean living life along.

Contrast him with constable Jauvert. Jauvert is a man committed to the law…he is convinced of his own righteousness. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. He is a champion of morality and justice. He spends his life seeking to recapture Jean Valjean.

Let us give Jauvert his day in court. He believes many good things. He is committed to truth. He wants wrongdoing stamped out. He desires a society without stealing or deceit or corruption. He makes personal sacrifices to pursue such a society. He sincerely believes himself to be an agent of good. In his world, though, there is no room for grace. And because he is blind to his own need for grace, his capacity to love others withers and dies. He cannot offer mercy. The crisis of his existence occurs when Jean Valjean risks his own life to save that of Jauvert, his relentless pursuer. But Jauvert cannot bring himself to receive grace. He despairs. He kills himself, rather than admit the truth: his own failures have been as great as that of the criminals he devoted his life to punishing.

In the end it is Valjean, the convict who is transformed and able to love.
He comes to see what is expressed so beautifully in the musical  Les Miz: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”[2]

Grace is the one thing that can change a human heart. Grace is the one thing that brings us closer to God and one another. That’s why grace was at the center of the message and ministry of Jesus… That’s why the New Testament is so full of grace.

Grace. That’s what will change a heart.

Jeremiah saw this day coming for people who had failed God or to understand what God really wanted from them. To them, God makes a promise: In the days to come there will be a new grace- based covenant… a relationship based on love, not the law.

Audrey Sherk shared a book with me called Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. The author says, “I get nervous when I think of how we’ve missed who we are supposed to be, and sad when I think about how we’re missing out on all that God wants for the people he loved enough to die for. I haven’t always felt this way. I grew up believing in God without having a clue what He is like.

I called myself a Christian, was pretty involved in church, and tried to stay away from all of the things that ’good Christians’ avoid drinking, drugs, sex, swearing.

Christianity was simple: Fight your desires in order to please God. Whenever I failed (which was often), I’d walk around feeling guilty and distant from God.  

In hindsight, I don’t think my church’s teachings were incorrect, just incomplete. My view of God was narrow and small.”

Perhaps you resonate with those thoughts. I do.  I began my journey with God that way as well.  So did Israel. So do many Christians today.  The relationship with God was based more on rules than relationships… more than law, than love.

But, as they say today, “No worries.” God is not done with us.

Jeremiah says,
“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… 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. No longer shall they teach one another or say to one another, ‘Know the for all will 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”

And can I share some good news for you?  In Jesus Christ, that day is here. Wait no more! Amen.

 


[1] Adapted from John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason, 135, 136

[2] Story retold by John Ortberg, same book.

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