MESSAGE: “Heart as Sacrament”
Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12
Liturgist Text: John 12:20-33
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to celebrate the engraving of God’s love on the human heart through a new covenant of grace through Jesus Christ.
There are times when we wish to mark significant moments, relationships or experiences in the trajectory of our lives. If we climb a mountain trail to the summit, we may build a cairn of stones to signal we were there. If we enjoy our first kiss under a Maple, we might carve the initials of our beloved, along with our own, into the bark. Before officiating at the memorial service of a young woman who died tragically, her intended pulled me aside to show me the memorial image of his fiancee which he had tattooed on his back. Apparently, he felt the need to have a permanent, outward physical sign of the love which would never find consummation in marriage.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, marriage is a sacrament just as baptism and communion are for the Methodist. Simply put, we might call a moment ‘sacramental’ when the human heart is touched by God. In our culture, marriage is hopefully an outward expression of an inner love which has captured the hearts of those being united. Additionally, in Christian marriage, we often speak of the union as a cord of three strands, where God is represented by the third which binds the first two together in a lasting braid of commitment. In this light, the ceremony is certainly sacramental.
In the sacraments of baptism and communion, the ordinary water, bread and wine become extraordinary. They are set apart from common use for sacred purpose. The mystical touch of God is present in the way the elements are offered, and their imprint upon us is meant to be significant, transforming, and permanent. We no longer belong just to ourselves; we are God’s children, and are called to live by the ethic of God’s design.
This Eucharistic preamble anticipates the trinity of Bible readings we will link in today’s worship encounter with God. To begin, the prophet Jeremiah announces a seismic shift in God’s marital covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. (Read: Jeremiah 31:31-34) When God gave Moses the stone tablets in which the words of the first covenant were cut (including the ten commandments), the stipulations for which each party were responsible were spelled out.
The stipulations were so important, in fact, that God instructed Moses to tell the people to, “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home, and when you are away, when you lie down and when you arise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorframes of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). In essence, Moses impresses on the assembly, “This is important, sisters and brothers. Don’t mess it up!” Yet in their humanity, they did exactly that. Jeremiah acknowledges this as he speaks the words of God, “They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband…”
But God doesn’t leave it there. Through Jeremiah, God announces a sacramental hope, “This is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of this promise. God is not speaking of outward symbols used for sacred purpose—water, bread, wine, altars, churches, or even Bibles; God is talking about the human heart–soul, mind and spirit—the actual DNA of our physical and spiritual make-up. God is saying the temple Holy of Holies, which none could approach (except the high priest once each year to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people), will be transplanted in the human heart!
This is no tattoo which reaches several layers deep. This is the marrow of who and whose we are! In this promise, God will no longer be inaccessible, lost in the fog of a trembling mountain, hidden in the depths of the deepest ocean, smoldering beyond the star of a distant galaxy, trapped in the refracted dimension of a twilight zone. God will be found within, in the breath of a whispering hope, in the imagination of a Jesus-size dream, or in the prayer of a heartbeat.
We hear the cry in Psalm 51, King David’s prayer for forgiveness. We know from the psalm’s inscription that it represents David’s repentance following his adultery with Bethsheba and murder of her husband. In the words of Bascom family vernacular, David was in deep sneakers! He had broken multiple covenants and like the snake of Eden, had no leg on which to stand. Still, he humbles himself before God, asking, no, begging for forgiveness.
Read Psalm 51:1-12.
Do you hear the desperation of David’s prayer? He isn’t asking God to turn back the clock by restoring things to their former state. He is asking God to forgive his sin, yes, but more importantly to change his heart. He wants his sinful self to die, so that his godly self might live. He wants his selfish motives to drown, so that his life will have integrity. He seeks nothing less than a spiritual, sacramental baptism: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, put a new, and faithful spirit within me! Please don’t throw me away, or take your holy spirit from me. Restore the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.”
Both David and Jeremiah anticipate a new covenant, a new intimacy with God, one that is not based on human striving to be righteous, but on God’s capacity for amazing grace. Paul will eventually describe it like this, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8, NRSV).
The fulcrum of human destiny finds expression in the gospel reading from John. The new covenant which David longs for, and Jeremiah prophesies, germinates in the pivot which Jesus does in John 12:20-33. (Read the passage)
Up to this point, Jesus has proclaimed the presence of God’s kingdom. Jesus has healed the sick, set captives free, delivered the possessed, fed the hungry, taught the crowds, ignited discipleship, challenged the selfish, even raised the dead to life. But now, he realizes that the ripple of his influence with Israel, has reached the shores of the rest of the world. The Greeks who seek him also yearn for grace, a new covenant that will include Gentile as well as Jew.
“I assure you,” Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He knows that love–genuine, authentic, mature love, costs; and that if it is to be more than a tattoo of devotion upon the human back, it must confront the faithlessness of this, and every generation. It must overcome the racial prejudice which tries to exclude the Gentile, whether she or he be Latino, Asian, African, Islamic or American.
“Now the world’s ruler will be thrown out,” Jesus insists. “When I am lifted from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” With these words, he sets his face toward Jerusalem and the devastating, amazing things that will happen there. Torah will be lifted from the ancient scroll, bittersweet to taste, as the Word made flesh dies, to be planted in the soil of faith in the human heart. There it will germinate, grow, and learn the cost of unfailing love. There it will be sacrament, God’s living sanctuary.
“They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “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 wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.” Do you not know? Have you not heard? The ground upon which you stand is holy ground, because the Jesus in me loves the Jesus in you, because you have been Holy Spirit-baptized, and because God has engraved upon your heart, “I love you to the moon and back.”