“Itching ears or new hearts”
One of the dangers of attempting to speak a word from the Lord - you know, that bit about “proclaiming the message ... convincing, rebuking, encouraging, with persistence and patience” - one of the inherent hazards of striving to do this is the subtly developed attitude that God works only from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, in the lives of people.
Communicating a word from God, wherever and however it is done, runs the risk of being just another byte of information “out there” in an age of information overload. By its very definition, “information” is a package that originates and is received from outside of oneself. It is data arranged “in” a “form” (in-form-ation).
We are daily bombarded with all sorts of data, so much so that, out of necessity, we put up filters and hear only what we want to hear. It’s human nature. We can absorb only so much of all the information coming at us every moment of the day. Those who consciously give “form” to the data know this, and seek out ever-new ways of sneaking it past our filters, of “tickling the ear” so to speak, so that we itch for more, for good or for ill.
For instance, the Ravens stadium downtown was built with blank spaces purposely placed within view of television cameras covering the event. In the past such spaces would be plastered with advertisements which would remain the same throughout the game. Now, through the wonder of technology, that data can change from quarter to quarter as electronically it is given a different “form” on the screen. The people attending the game only see a blank wall, but the people watching at home see in the same space an ad for Coca-Cola at the first kick off and one for Chrysler in the final seconds, with a multitude of others in between.
Not only advertisers do this, the same is true of the evening news, and how it is packaged (that is what “form” it is put “in”), as well as a class in school. Believe it or not, teachers are (in part) marketers of information, seeking to place data and how to interpret it “in” a “form” which might capture the attention of students, an increasingly difficult task. Oh, and by the way, preachers are also very aware of the “form” “in” which we place what we are called to share.
However, there is a difference between sharing information that seeks to tickle the ear and real communication which touches the heart. One of the inherent risks of seeking to speak a word for God is the attitude that God works only from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, in the lives of people. To understand this “proclaiming the message” - whether it’s done from a pulpit by someone called to preach, or happens in daily conversation on the part of each one of us - when we see this only as information addressed from the outside needing just the right “form” to sneak inside, then we have (I believe) missed what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about, and why it is good news.
In this morning’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah offers up a good word to the children of Israel. That is most welcome, for most of what he has to say in the rest of this work we’ve attributed to him is pretty bleak. God’s people have blown it in the eyes of the Lord. They’ve lost track of the covenant. The commandments have become little more than information on the evening news, placed between reports of war on the north, south, and eastern fronts.
Instead of themselves taking on the form of the tablets, of living out the commandments - not as some external order from a foreign dictator, but as an internal voice from a living relationship with the great “I am who I am” - instead of taking on the form of the tablets, being sons and daughters of the law, they have allowed the Torah to become just another word. Human nature being what it is, they have put on their filters and hear only what they want to hear. Only that which makes the ears itch gets through.
Jeremiah speaks a word which doesn’t tickle. It hurts. Much of this work we call “the book of Jeremiah” is about plucking up, breaking down, overthrowing, and destroying the nations of Israel and Judah. It is a prelude to exile, a time when God’s people are re-formed. That is, exile is not so much a time when data from God is arranged in the best form possible, though that indeed did happen in Babylon. More importantly, exile is a time and place when and where those whom God loves passionately take on a new form themselves. They are trans-formed, not merely in-formed.
Amid the harsh words Jeremiah spoke, over which he himself grieved rather than gloated, are found words of comfort and promise from God. Listen, again:
A covenant is based not on a written contract, full of words that can be manipulated, but on a living relationship that is not to be manipulated. When God’s people, here conceived as like a bride, played fast and loose with the words of their relationship with God, seeing it as merely one contract among many contracts, the very heart of God was broken. However, even as this “husband,” so to speak, sent his beloved bride into exile, God did not cut the tie. The time of exile in Babylon was to be a time for renewing the covenant. This was not a pre-nuptial agreement being rewritten - tinkering with, or re-forming the words of the contract while in exile. No, it was a time for trans-forming God’s people. Listen again:
Those words are vital to the ongoing story of these people, whether they be Jews or (later) Christians. We are both people of this promised covenant, you know. Judaism was born in that time of exile Jeremiah prophesied, a fertile period when God worked at etching the covenant not just into the stone of a tablet, but upon the heart of a people. A belief that divides us from our Jewish brothers and sisters is that this reforming of God’s people, the writing of the Torah upon the heart awaited the coming of the Messiah. It is to Jesus Christ that these scriptures point, so our “New Testament” proclaims.
By the way, when Paul wrote to his young co-worker Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he was referring to the Hebrew scriptures, such as this word from Jeremiah. There was no “New Testament” as yet. Amend that, there was a “New Testament,” a new covenant, but it was written upon the hearts of those who believed. And thus it should always be.
As I said earlier, one of the dangers of attempting to speak a word from the Lord, “proclaiming the message,” as Paul wrote to Timothy, the act of “convincing, rebuking, encouraging, with persistence and patience” - one of the inherent hazards of striving to do this is the subtly developed attitude that God works only from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, in the lives of people. The truth is, the promise is that God writes this Word upon the human heart.
Do you recall the story Luke tells of those two followers of Jesus, heading to Emmaus after his death? A stranger began walking with them, and conversation between the three turned to the events of the past week. It was all pretty confusing at that point to those disciples - what with the trial and execution, and then reports of a missing body and an empty tomb. In the middle of their conversation, the stranger spoke up, and slowly things started fitting into place as he touched upon things these two disciples already knew, the law of Moses, the words of the prophets. That evening, the three sat down to eat, and the stranger took some bread, prayed over it, broke it and gave it to his traveling companions. In that instance, they recognized this man. He was Jesus. And then he was gone.
What’s interesting is that as they talked afterward, these two followers of Jesus said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)... This wasn’t new information to those two disciples, data from the outside working its way in, sneaking past the filters, tickling their ears such that they itched for more. Amend that, they did itch, but it was an inner burning, something already at work within... “I will put my law within them,” Jeremiah prophesied for God, “and I will write it on their hearts.”
That’s how it works, how real change takes place in our lives, isn’t it? No one can be convinced of anything they don’t already have some inner burning about, can they? A person, likewise, won’t receive a rebuke in a way that will lead to change unless there isn’t already some inner burning in that direction to start with. Am I right? Real courage is not something bestowed from the outside, rather it grows from the inside out. That’s just as true of nations as of persons. South Africa, for instance, didn’t step away from Apartheid due to force from the outside (as helpful as that might have been). It was an inner transformation still in progress.
What makes this message we proclaim about Jesus good news is that it’s not something imposed from the outside. Yes, our God is a transcendent God, who will not be manipulated, and is ever beyond our controlling reach. Even so, this very same God is at work within us, etching upon our hearts a new covenant.