Giving From the Inside Out

Jeremiah 31:27-34
© Stacey Steck

If the truth be told, I’d like the law of the Lord, that perfect, soul-reviving, sweet honey-tasting, life-giving law of the Lord, to be written not on my heart, but on the insides of my eyelids, thank you very much! Wouldn’t that be nice? I’d gaze on it ever so lovingly that way, far more frequently that I do even now. It would be with me when I lie down and when I get up, and truly, ever few seconds when I blink, I’d get a juicy morsel of wisdom that I am sure would be both very tasty and very useful. I mean, Jeremiah tells us that God says “I will put my law within them,” and hey, the insides of my eyelids are definitely within me, and a lot more accessible than my heart, in more ways than one. But I suppose God doesn’t always work the way we think God should work.

Instead we get the law written on our hearts, not exactly like a tattoo, although perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad image for us to use. After all, the original ten commandments were engraved on tablets of stone, a method that at the time was probably as permanent as was possible, and appropriate for the difficult journey ahead of the Israelites. Rugged stone for a rugged journey through the desert and into the promised land, the weight of the stone a reminder of the gravity of the covenant, a covenant that showed them how to live with one another, caring for the land, caring for one another, caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. That the Ten Commandments were written on stone seems somehow fitting given that they were the foundation of the future of God’s people. In a sense, they were the cornerstones of the Temple in Jerusalem, for all else rested and depended upon them, even though the Temple itself was built to house them.

But now, in Jeremiah’s time, the Temple is destroyed, a casualty of the siege that the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar laid upon the holy city of Jerusalem. No one knows for sure just when the Ark of the Covenant, the container for the tablets, disappeared, but many historians believe it was carried away or destroyed by the Babylonians, or that forward thinking Jewish leaders, taking heed of Jeremiah’s warnings, hid the ark to protect it, although if they did, they hid it so well that no one but Indiana Jones knows where to find it. In any case, the Ark, the manifestation of God’s physical presence on earth, and the tablets it contained, are barely a part of the conversation in Jeremiah. Indeed, now it is Jeremiah himself who represents God’s physical presence on earth, as he brings God’s message of both destruction and consolation, and in the absence of the ark and its contents, some other vessel will be needed to carry the sacred information they once bore. And guess what, or better yet, who, that vessel will be? Yes, it’s you!

In the story of the Israelites, there is a sort of unspoken, or unwritten link between the presence of the Ark, and the holiness and welfare of the people. When the ark and the tablets are in the picture, things go pretty well. The nation has its ups and downs, but overall God is pleased, life is good, and the enemy is kept at bay. Indeed, the glory years of Kings David and Solomon were dedicated to providing a “house” for the Lord, more specifically a permanent place for the Ark to reside, and during those years, although it plays a kind of backstage role, the Ark is very much part of the story. To give you an idea of how important the Ark was to the welfare of the nation, early Jewish writings report that upon the entrance of the Ark, the golden tree decorations that adorned the Temple walls blossomed with fruit that grew continuously until the Temple's destruction. But conspicuously, as the nation splits and falls into disarray, as generations of kings and priests worship other gods and sacrifice at foreign altars, neither the ark, nor its contents are mentioned in the story. It is as if the Ark of the Covenant had already disappeared long before the Babylonians invaded, and with it, the Israelites’ commitment to the covenant written on them that God had established with their ancestors. It was into this condition of sin and forgetfulness that God called Jeremiah to prophecy.

Chapters thirty to thirty-three of the book of Jeremiah form what scholars often refer to as the Little Book of Consolation, a few sweet morsels of good news in the midst of dozens of chapters of doom and destruction. These chapters bring God’s message of forgiveness and restoration to a people as broken as the stone tablets they had forgotten about. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.” The end of the exile is foretold and a new beginning is envisioned, and everything will be different. No more will the sins of the fathers be visited on the children for multiple generations; everyone will be responsible for their own sins. No more will everyone suffer for the wickedness of the few. No more will “The sin of Judah,” that Jeremiah declared in Chapter 17 was “written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts,” no more will it be held against them. Instead, says the Lord, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” And the crowning sign of all of this will be that a new covenant will be written on their hearts, a covenant so close, so intimate, so light, so portable, that no one will forget it again, and neither the nation, nor its citizens, will wander from it again. In fact, people will be drawn to it. What Jeremiah foretold back in chapter three, in the only place he mentions the Ark, will come to pass: “It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will.”

Listen to that again: “The ark of the covenant of the Lord shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made.” What an amazing statement given the history of the ark and the covenant it represented. The ark won’t be made again because it won’t be needed. And it won’t be needed because the new covenant can’t be destroyed or forgotten. You see, the new covenant will be written on imperishable material, and placed in an indestructible vault. It will not be the private property of kings and priests, but become the public domain of fishermen and farmers, seamstresses and song-writers. The law of the Lord, that perfect, soul-reviving, sweet honey-tasting, life-giving law of the Lord, will not be sequestered away in a chamber visited only once a year, or need to be kept at a distance of a thousand cubits as it was when it went before the army of Israel. It will go anywhere God’s people go. It will shed light anywhere God’s people turn their eyes. It will bring justice anywhere God’s people raise their voices. It will show compassion anywhere God’s people bind the wounds of the brokenhearted. It will be a sign and seal of God’s grace everywhere, and anywhere, that God’s people remember and share the gift they have been given. Praise be to God.

As wonderful as that may be, a covenant is still a covenant and there is a flipside to the kind of familiarity with God that Jeremiah is revealing. It’s the risk of taking the gift for granted. If it’s written on our hearts, it’s not in front of our eyes, and we run the risk of becoming satisfied with what we’ve got, of going in autopilot. Have you ever had that experience of driving somewhere and getting so lost in thought so that when you get there you can’t remember the trip? Well, that doesn’t happen when you are going somewhere you don’t know. On those trips, you are on alert, you are paying attention, it’s unfamiliar terrain. But when you’ve driven the same route every day for years, it’s easy to miss the flowers by the side of the road or the buzzards circling a carcass, or the house that is slowly falling in on itself. And maybe you’re having a great conversation there in your head, but you’re not really aware of what’s going on.

Believe it or not, that same phenomenon can take place with regards to our faith, to church, to the fruits of the spirit. We get into our routines about divine things and we don’t look very often for novelty or for change. We don’t often stop to smell the roses, as the old saying goes. We know intimately that we are God’s children, and that’s a good and wonderful thing, but that familiarity leads us to carry on without giving it a second thought. It’s written on our hearts, thanks be to God. But maybe it also needs to be written out somewhere for us to see.

It probably won’t surprise you that I’ll turn next toward your gratitude and generosity. Our giving is one of those things that is easy to go unexamined, whether that’s words of praise for someone or how much to put in the offering plate. Just because we know those are the right things to do doesn’t mean we do them readily or in ways which help us grow in faith and make the biggest difference we could in this world. This is precisely why churches do annual stewardship campaigns, to help the faithful pause and reflect on the holy trinity of giving: the blessings we’ve received, the needs around us, and our capacity to give. Last week I talked about that tenth leper who turned back, and about being mindful about gratitude, and the blessings that accrue when we are grateful. Next week, I’ll share a little bit more about the needs around us, but today I want to conclude by saying something about our capacity to give. You’ve probably heard a lot about this over your years here, about giving ten percent, about giving the first fruits rather than the leftover, about how the Lord loves a cheerful giver. All of that is true. For this year, however, I’m going to give you a break and not tell you that you should tithe. Yes, you are off the hook this year, even though I know that’s written on your hearts. For this year, I don’t care if you give ten percent of your income. But I do care that you are thoughtful about the percentage that you do give, that you are mindful of your giving, and that familiarity does not lead you to contempt of God. That’s why I want to make to you the following suggestion.

Instead of worrying about giving ten percent, or feeling guilty about not doing it, I simply want you to do this: give what you gave last year – plus ten percent more than you gave last year. So, if you gave $500 to Christ’s ministry through Thyatira, you’d give $550 a year, which is another $4.16 a month, or 96.1 cents a week. Think about that for a second. At that level, you can increase your giving by ten percent by giving another four dollars a month, by giving less than a dollar more a week. Now, that might not seem like much. But imagine if the person to your left, and the person to your right, and the person in front of you and the person behind you also did the same thing and increased their giving by ten percent over what they gave last year. No, it won’t be the same increase for everyone, but it will be the same percentage for everyone. And you know what you get next year if everyone gives just ten percent more? You get approximately $17,336.21 more than this year, which is just about what we need to do what we are being called to do. The average Presbyterian gives approximately 3% of their income to their church. Now, I’m not very good at math, which is why I ended up a pastor instead of an architect, but I do know enough math to know that if you are giving 3% now, and you give ten percent more, you’ll be giving a mere 3.3%, which may be nowhere near a tithe, but is exactly what we need at Thyatira.

This is the kind of thoughtful gratitude the tenth leper displayed, and that having the law of the Lord written on our hearts should lead us to consider. Will we take for granted the blessings we have received, or will we be mindful of them? Will we give on autopilot, or give thoughtfully to the divine pilot who led Israel, and who leads us, into the future? Thanks be to God for inviting us into covenant relationship. Let us respond in kind. Amen.