The destruction of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon in the 6th century BC, led the prophet Jeremiah to envision a new kind of covenant between God and God’s people. Almost everyone believed that the ruinous events that befall the people of Judah were a direct consequence of breaking covenant with God; specifically the covenant with Moses that had been chiseled in stone. Jeremiah realized that the covenant relied too much on the exterior; that it was too much like public laws guiding behavior by dictating what people may not do. He dreamed of a new covenant that would come from the interior; a covenant that guides each person to do God’s will. He described this new way with the phrase “a covenant of the heart.”
This morning we hear the word of God as spoken to Jeremiah:
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.
The Jewish people understood the heart to be the center of a person’s essence. The heart may be noble or wicked or in transformation. The author Gail Godwin notes that although the Jews were the first people to arrive at an abstract notion of God and thus forbade images of God, from the very beginning they understood God to have a heart like theirs. They believed there was a central place in God that can be hurt and angered and softened and even changed.
The psalmists knew that the human heart could be exceedingly evil, but also understood it as a place from which God could speak to a person:
I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
my heart teaches me, night after night. (Ps. 16)
You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face”
Your face, Lord, will I seek. (Ps. 27)
We in the Christian tradition hold that God’s Spirit dwells within us through baptism and is strengthen through Confirmation. It is God’s Spirit that works in our hearts to guide and direct us. And this work does not come upon us by force – as if an outside influence was making us to do one thing when our desire is for another. The Spirit works to change our hearts to desire what God desires, to love what God loves, to act as God acts.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, placed great emphasis on the role of the heart in spiritual discernment. The Jesuit David Fleming writes this about Ignatian spirituality:
Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me... We come to know who Jesus is and strive to make him the center of our lives. We make our decisions within the context of this relationship of love. It is a relationship of the heart. Our heart will tell us which decisions will bring us closer to Jesus and which will take us away from him.
Listening to your heart. Listening because it will be from heart that God speaks to you. I like what Tao Te Ching says:
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
I hope that for you our Lenten journey with the ancient covenants has been a time of waiting, of letting the mud settle until the water is clear and the right action arises within you. Each Sunday in Lent I have given you time at the end of the sermon to ponder in silent contemplation how God is inviting you to live into the covenants in a deeper, more authentic way. My hope and prayer is that each of us has spent time listening to our hearts in order to hear God say one thing. And this morning I am going to give you time to commit those things to writing.
Let me tell you what God has put in my heart:
- In order to live more fully into God’s covenant with all creation through Noah, I am exploring with city officials ways that I can volunteer to pick up liter once a month along a section of our city streets.
- In order to live more fully into God’s covenant with the human family through Abraham, I have signed up to receive updates from the Anglican Church’s Network for Inter Faith Concerns (nifcon). This ministry provides news and insights that are different and deeper than what we hear from secular media outlets. They provide a more comprehensive perspective on events that affect and shape our human family.
- I order to live more fully into God’s call to be representatives and ambassadors through the covenant with Moses, I am committing myself to treat with dignity and respect every person who calls or comes to the office looking for financial assistance. It is not that I am rude to these folks, but perhaps short and dismissive. I can do better.
- And finally, I acknowledge that I am a covenant breaker, no different than the Hebrew people in the wilderness who were bitten by poisonous snakes and stood in need of healing. I have defined myself and allowed my self-image to be shaped by people close to me who have rejected me rather than by God’s love for me.
What about you? What is God speaking in your heart? There is a handout in your bulletin that gives you an opportunity to write out what your heart is saying. I will give you some time now to ponder your response. When finished, I invite you to come forward and put your sheet in the basket in front of the Cross on the table. It will be a tangible sign of the covenant we each make with God this Lenten season.
Covenant of the Heart
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2015 St. Paul’s Church, Suffolk, VA
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. - The Prophet Jeremiah
Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me... We come to know who Jesus is and strive to make him the center of our lives. We make our decisions within the context of this relationship of love. It is a relationship of the heart. Our heart will tell us which decisions will bring us closer to Jesus and which will take us away from him. - David L. Fleming, SJ on the Spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola
To more fully live into God’s covenant with Noah and all of creation, my heart is inviting me to…
To more fully live into God’s covenant with Abraham and all his descendants, my heart is inviting me to…
To more fully live into God’s covenant with Moses and all the people of Israel who are called to represent God in the world, my heart is inviting me to…
It is on my heart that I have broken covenant with God by…
I repent and look to the Cross for forgiveness and healing.