God of Our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31–34; John 12:20–33, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on March 17, 2024

The prophet Jeremiah was not known as a fun, upbeat guy. His was a voice of lament and judgement, calling the nation and its leaders out for their complicity in injustice. The context of today’s passage is the exile in Babylon—a time when the people became refugees, traumatized by war, alienated from home, and apparently abandoned by God. They lost all outward markers of their religious identity—the holy city of Jerusalem, the temple, the sacred rhythms of festivals. This terrible time, in Jeremiah’s view, was a punishment for the ways in which the nation had broken their covenant with God.

And yet, in today’s reading, the prophet imagines God taking an entirely different tone towards those in exile, offering them words of comfort and hope, renewal and restoration. Today’s promise of the new covenant is the crux of a brief section that is sometimes called the book of consolation. The verb used to refer to the action of making a covenant, berit, literally means “to cut.” Sometimes in ancient times making covenants involved cutting animals, sometimes cutting stone. The prophet says that this time, God will engrave the covenant on the human heart itself. “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.” God is in our hearts. And God is the flow of love that holds creation together. In God, we are held in covenant—with each other, with the earth, with our ancestors and our descendants. The covenant, then, is not a set of rules. It is a relationship that shapes who we are and how we live. Living in covenant means living from the heart, from the center of ourselves. And living from the heart is an act of courage. (The word courage comes from the Latin root, cor, or heart.)

I want to take a moment to bring in today’s Gospel passage. The context is that Jesus had just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ reputation as a healer and visionary was spreading. People wanted to meet him, including some Greeks visiting Jerusalem for the Passover festival. As the attention around Jesus grew, the authorities perceived him as a threat to empire’s hold over the people. They decided that he needed to be eliminated. 

And so in today’s passage, the Gospel writer portrays Jesus looking ahead to his death on the cross, and offering this interpretation: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In other words, those who murdered Jesus thought they were burying him. But instead they were planting him. The cross was a Roman instrument of torture intended to shame and silence resistors. But Jesus, rather than being silenced, would be glorified; his voice would be amplified. Instead of ceasing to exist, his way of loving resistance to empire would sprout up again and again and grow in new places. His ministry would become more vigorous and more fruitful than ever before. Before his death, he was a single seed. After his death, fields and fields of disciples would arise, people living from the heart, people living with courage, people living in covenant with the God, the earth, and each other.

As we welcome new members to our congregation, it’s a good for us all to remember who we are together. We are a people who name Jesus as our ancestor—Jesus, who resisted empire; Jesus who was planted as a bare seed; Jesus who rises again in us and in each generation. We are part of a mighty cycle of planting and rebirth that is renewing this world. So let us live from our hearts; let us live with courage. Amen.