As we work our way through Lent to Holy Week, we have a series of texts taken from the lectionary for the Lenten season. Last week our text came from John 3, verses that we associate with the experience of conversion.
This morning one of the texts in the lectionary, which we did not read together, is found in Psalm 51: 1 to 12. Hear these words:
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Conversion includes the basic steps of confession and repentance. We admit our sin and turn to God for healing and forgiveness. Let’s talk briefly about this idea of “conversion”.
Calling ourselves sinners does not resonate with us in Canada today. We have worked hard as a society to convince each other that (in the title of a book from 1969) “I’m okay; you’re okay.” We have become better at seeing ourselves as victims than seeing ourselves as sinners. Besides, the idea of giving up control of our lives repels us. We have worked hard for our independence. So instead of beginning with the idea of sin, let’s use a different word. Our world is broken. We—and people around us—are full of bitterness and hostility.
Social media has done us the great favour of revealing our broken condition. When a news story comes out, we resend it to our friends, with an amazing array of angry and hurtful comments. I could choose almost any story at random from CBC online and read the comments. The anger and hostility within our society are strong, even if it comes from a minority of people. I wish I could say that this is an American disease, and that Canadians are really just nice people who apologize for any possible offence, but I can’t. This is us. We are a broken and hurting people.
The first step in dealing with a physical wound or disease is to clean it out. You cannot heal something by leaving the infection inside. The first step in dealing with an emotional or mental wound is to clean it out. You cannot heal emotionally or mentally if you will not look clearly at yourself and acknowledge what you see. The first step in dealing with our bitterness and anger and brokenness as a society is to admit that society is made up of individuals—of you and me, and that it is the individuals who are broken and hurting and bitter. We must look clearly at ourselves and admit who we are. We can call this “confession and repentance.”
A Deeper Covenant
Conversion is just the start. To see what conversion begins, we look at the idea of covenant. God reached out to Adam and to Noah and to Abraham and to Moses with the covenants of the OT, and then Jesus brought the new covenant that Jeremiah describes in the verses we read earlier. This idea of covenant is consistent from first to last. God wants to make us over in God’s image.
Jeremiah 31 pictures the restoration of Israel from their exile. God promises Israel and Judah that they will live again in their own land. They will plant their fields and reap a good harvest. They will know joy greater than the sorrow and pain of their Exile from the land. The promises reach a climax in verses 31 to 34. Hear again the way that Jeremiah describes it:
31 ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.
33 ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’
These verses form the longest OT quotation in the New Testament (Hebrews 8: 8-12). Jeremiah is speaking to the people of Israel, to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah taken into exile by Assyria and Babylon. The writer of Hebrews suggests that the fulfillment of this prophecy—the days of restoration that are coming—is found in the person of Jesus, and therefore also in the church as God writes the new covenant on our hearts.
Written on the Heart
The covenants are consistent in their goal, but different in form. The Old Covenant was written on tablets of stone (for example, Deut 9, where Moses repeatedly refers to the stone tablets of the covenant). Now God chooses to write the covenant on people’s hearts. Writing at about the same point in time, Ezekiel makes a similar point, for example, Ezek. 36:36, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
This contrast does not mean that the old covenant was a formality doomed to failure. God’s desire was always that this covenant would be internal and alive. Just before the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses spoke to them (Deut 31: 11-14),
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.
Yet, for whatever reason, the Law remained an external word. People did not internalize it or follow it, but they rebelled against God. So God promised to write the Law and the Covenant on the hearts and minds of the Chosen People. Hebrews 8 makes it clear that the way God wrote this covenant was through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. That is why we celebrate communion with the words, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22: 20). Jesus writes the new covenant on our hearts with his death on the cross for us.
Pursue the Image
Look now more closely at this image of writing God’s Law on our hearts. We think of the heart as the seat of the emotions. When a soccer player scores a goal and runs towards the stands, he sometimes makes a heart shape with his hands to the fans, “I love you!” But in the OT the heart is the seat of much more than just your feelings. Several weeks ago we read Daniel 2. Verse 30 (NIV) states, “As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.” The NIV gives the meaning accurately, but the New King James Version gets closer to the original: “…that you may know the thoughts of your heart.”
You see, in the OT the heart was the seat of what we would call the mind and will. So God’s covenant written on our hearts does not mean that we enjoy it and feel good about it all the time; it means rather that God’s will and character are at the centre of our will and the choices that we make about life.
The image of writing on the hearts is a painful one. The idea that God is willing to cut into our bodies and write God’s character and will on our hearts sounds like it could hurt! You remember Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. Shylock the moneylender agrees to lend Antonio the merchant the money he needs to survive, providing that Antonio agrees to pay a pound of his flesh, cut from the heart, if he can’t pay the loan back. Shylock’s purpose is clear. He wants to kill Antonio. God has the opposite goal in writing on our hearts, to give us life; but the operation sounds painful. Cutting into our flesh and inscribing God’s New Covenant on our heart? That hurts!
Of course it is a metaphor, a figure of speech. But the pain it suggests is real—the pain of giving up control of our lives and giving up our addiction to our own selfish desires. God will do whatever it takes to fill us with the character and will of God. Like a surgeon who will not stop until he has cut every bit of the cancer out, like a counsellor who keeps probing our secrets in spite of our fears and tears, God cuts into our lives—both cutting out the infection of our rebellion and brokenness, and transplanting a new heart and mind and will.
My Own Experience
I look back over my own life walking as a child of God. I grew up in a family who loved God. My parents were godly people, and from the beginning I knew I wanted to follow Jesus. Even so I followed my own will and rebelled against God, as we all do.
There were several critical moments in my early life, one when I was 12 years old, another when I was 15, and a third when I was 18, in which I looked clearly at myself and asked God to forgive me and make me his child. An encounter with God’s Holy Spirit when I was 24 sealed my commitment, and I committed myself to follow God all of my life. But of course I also kept drifting back to my own interests and desires. I had given my “heart” (in the sense of my will and mind and commitment) to Christ, but my own “heart of stone” was resilient. I think of a critical period in my life (among many others) when God “cut his covenant into my life”.
It was in 1993 when I finished my doctoral studies and started looking for a position teaching missions. I found nothing. I found only three positions of any description that I could apply for. None of them went anywhere. I took a position as a half-time interim pastor at a Brethren in Christ Church in Garrett, Indiana. Now if I had been seeking more pastoral ministry (I had been a pastor already for eight years with the BICs), that would have been fine, but I was looking for a teaching position. I enjoyed bi-vocational ministry, but I had been expecting to move into teaching missions, not returning to pastoral ministry.
As a half-time pastor I did whatever else needed to provide for my family. I taught occasional missions courses at AMBS, which I enjoyed. I also delivered pizzas for the pizza shop in our small town, which made me wonder if I had been wrong to think that God was leading me into teaching in the area of missions studies. It was a difficult time.
Then in June 1996 Jon Bonk, the missions professor at Providence, told me that he was leaving Providence and encouraged me to apply for his position. I did. It took 11 months more, but eventually I interviewed for the position—in May 1997 as the crest of “the flood of the century” went through Winnipeg. A week later, as I was at the pizza shop delivering pizzas, Lois called me and said, “Your pizza delivery days are over!”
I do not understand why God had us wait for four years in Indiana, but perhaps part of the experience was God writing on my heart his promise of care and direction, and teaching me to trust him and follow him whatever happens. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.” The key is how we respond to these times—by turning to God in increased trust and reliance (“I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts”), or with bitterness and frustration. Do we allow God to work in us as God wills?
I see the same pattern of God writing on my heart at other times in my life. The actual experience is hard. God’s surgery sometimes hurts. But the result has been that I can rest in God’s care and faithfulness.
A final thought
Last night I received an email that an old high school friend had died of ALS. Jeff (class of 1967 at A-C High School) had walked the path from full health to his grave, spending two years confined to his bed. I visited him whenever I went back to Pennsylvania—the last time was this past Christmas Day.
Was God writing on Jeff’s heart through this journey? I think so. I do not minimize the pain and struggle he felt, or that his family shared with him. But this morning I believe that God was with him, and I think that Jeff understands the words from an old hymn, “Oh for a thousand tongues to sing”, better than I do.
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ.
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy!
God is writing on our hearts because God wants us to live forever with him in greater joy and wonder and delight than we can possibly know. Now and forever.
Steinbach Mennonite Church22 March 2015
Lent Week 5