St. George’s United Church, October 16, 2016
Sermon: “The Divine Imprint”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:27-34
How does real change happen? Like, what does it take to experience a changed life? What does it look like to see real lasting change in our world? How do we get from being one way, to being another way?
Our reading from the Old Testament’s Book of Jeremiah offers us a beautiful, poetic vision of the future. A future where the kind of change we’ve always longed for has taken place. It’s upbeat and inspiring. But behind the poetry of these words, there’s pain. Trauma. Hopelessness and uncertainty. Jeremiah’s people had experienced one of histories’ worst calamities. Babylon, the world’s largest superpower had invaded. They burned down cities, and pillaged the countryside. They hauled countless people from their families and their homes in to exile, and killed countless more. And they knocked down the Jerusalem Temple. The very heart of their society, and the place where they believed that the divine and ordinary worlds met was destroyed. Speaking of change…
This hopeful word was spoken to people without any hope. They were traumatized. And the land was desolated. But what’s worse, they believed that they were responsible for this devastating change. Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice says that this new relationship “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.” When he says this, the covenant he’s talking about is the Ten Commandments. The laws given to Moses on the mountain early in the Old Testament, after the Hebrew people were released from slavery. They’d lived for hundreds of years as slaves. They learned to think like slaves, and act like slaves. They thought punishment, oppression, and disregard for the humanity of others was normal. This law was supposed to transform them in to new people. To bring them into full communion with the divine. And to guide them into treating one another with the full dignity of their humanity. They were rules meant change them for the better.
But the people couldn’t pull it off. You can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take the Egypt out of the people. Our passage is set hundreds of years later. Jeremiah’s people believed that God had brought about this destruction because they were unable to fulfill the commandments, they constantly failed the expectations given to Moses on the mountain. They couldn’t keep up their part of the bargain. They weren’t able to follow the rules, but they continually broke them. In the Ten Commandments, many believed that they had been given all the right rules to live a good life. They had all the right rules. They had all the right techniques, and methods. Even with all the right rules, they seemed to be the same old people. Faltering, failing, hurting and betraying others. As human beings tend to. Try as they might, they were unable to change.
And the ancients weren’t the only ones who thought this way. But it’s something that is as much part of our culture as it was theirs, if only in a different form. The popularity of self-help books are a good indicator. Someone I know recently posted an article online titled “12 Steps to Raise Your Self-Esteem and Be a Better Person.” Or “Twenty-Three Body Language Tricks to Make You Instantly Likeable” (I clicked that one). Maybe it’s wearing the right thing. Maybe it’s eating the right foods (more kale!), going on the right cleanse and exercising more. Sometimes we think that if we create the right system, or buy the right thing, and then things for us will finally fall in to place. We’ll finally be on track to better lives. Then we’re disappointed when we tried all the right things. And nothing fundamental seems to change.
Christians are notorious for this kind of thinking too, but it usually has to do with the Bible. A writer named Tex Sample tells this story about being a little boy growing up in Texas. And seeing this real southern preacher stand up in the pulpit one Sunday. Bible clenched in one hand, the other pointing out at the congregation. “I swear to y’all,” he said. “If it weren’t for what’s in this book… I’d be out havin’ me a real good time.” The Bible, and the Christian tradition are often seen as a list of do’s or don’ts. If you do what you’re supposed to do, and avoid doing the bad stuff, then your life will turn out. And simple experience seems to tell us otherwise.
To become the people we want to be, or supposed to be, we think that there is always a trick, regulation, or formula. Always a shortcut, always a technique or fix. Always a rule we can follow, that if we get it right it’ll change our lives for the better. Don’t get me wrong. Techniques, methods, rules, and all those things are useful. They can be helpful, and they can be good. But, like the people who Jeremiah addresses in today’s passage, they can only go so far. We inevitably fall short. We may not experience the same kind of desolation. But it can leave us feeling empty. It can leave us feeling dissatisfied, and can give us a sense of hopelessness. They just don’t lead to real change in our lives.
Which leads us all the way back to the same question. How does real change happen, then? If all of these different formulas and techniques fall short of their promises, then maybe we’re just fated as individuals and a species. It’s a completely reasonable question for us. Especially looking inward at our lives, and outward at our world. With its many problems and obvious shortcomings. Whether the issues are personal ones, like addiction, depression, poverty and meaninglessness. Or global anxieties, like climate change, terrorism, and rising inequality. “There must be some way out of here,” said once the latest Nobel Prize winner for literature. Can true change, lasting change happen at all?
Despite the fact that Jeremiah woke up one day to a world in ruins. He tells us that change is possible. But it’s not going to come in the way we always though it would. Through the right rule, procedure or technique that changes us from the outside.
Jeremiah offers us a divine vision of change. One that begins with the image of human beings and animals as seeds… seeds planted in a deserted landscape. The desolate landscape that was once left barren by war and destruction begins to blossom again with life. Then there’s the image of the Creator making a renewed relationship with people, repairing the one that had been broken. God doesn’t seem to give up. But then here’s the key image. God speaks. God makes a promise: “This is the covenant,” God says. “This is the relationship that I will make with the house of Israel after those days. 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.” Where the Ten Commandments were chiseled into stone tablets. As rules to be read and followed. Here God says that this time I am going to etch my love and my way for them on their hearts. The heart. The decision-making center, where every decision begins. I am going to tattoo this new sacred identity into the fabric of their very being. And this is how the real change, the true transformation of all things… this is how it’ll take place. For good.[i]
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” We obviously aren’t there yet. But this the direction we’re headed, and the journey we’re on in this community of faith. It’s actually our reason for being. We are not here to establish or enforce rules to be followed. We’re not here to give formulas to fix people’s lives. We aren’t here to hock strategies for salvation. We’re here follow Jesus, the pioneer who has already tread that path to that future. To be and live as a people who are able to lower our defenses. Able to put away our pretending, our self-righteousness, and our judgment. People who, like the holy promises delivered by Jeremiah, have their hearts opened by the Spirit, imprinted, and etched on by the divine author of the universe. Where our hearts are healed, made new, And we are empowered to be and do more than we ever though possible. With love flowing from the beating heart of God, mending our own, and overflowing to our world. Change from the inside-out.
This gets to the heart of it, you could say. About how real change happens. Real change doesn’t come to us from the outside in—as rules, fixes, or techniques to change us from the outside in. Whereas laws written in stone can be broken and put aside, the divine relationship etched into our hearts, the Spirit that is at work inside of us is more enduring. This is what God is up to at St. George’s. This is what God is up to in our fragile, hurting world.
Is real change possible? How does it happen? It is possible. And it all starts with the Spirit at work writing a new story on our hearts. Right here. Right now.
And for this, thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Thanks to my friend and colleague Rev. Michelle Slater for her insights on God’s work in shaping our hearts.