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Jeremiah 31:31-34

At some point, you’ve had to learn a new and complex operation of some kind, like algebra’s Quadradic formula or the declensions for the definite article in Greek. The process of learning complex systems like math or languages generally begins with written instructions or reference tables to help you memorize the pertinent facts. These things are external, and while extremely helpful, they are slow, cumbersome, and can easily become a crutch upon which you will be unduly dependent. Competence cannot be achieved until the order of operations or charts of verbs are memorized, internalized. 

The internalization of knowledge often requires a tremendous amount of time and effort. Sure, there are those rare individuals who have an uncanny ability to memorize everything they see without much trouble. For the rest of us mere mortals, flash cards are in order.

I hate to compare the commandments that God gives Israel to the quadratic formula, but maybe there’s some similarity between learning math and becoming the people God would have us become. Of course, we all know the story of the Exodus and the giving of the Law. Even though those commandments were written on tablets of stone, God intended them to be written on Israel’s heart, too. One doesn’t have to read much of the Old Testament story to know that Israel is not one of those gifted students who does not have to work to get a good grade. No, Israel is stubborn and recalcitrant.

Let’s press the school imagery a bit more: while at times displaying flashes of brilliance, Israel perpetually underachieves, constantly chumming around with the troublemakers who often find themselves suspended. God has paid so much attention to Israel, given Israel so much grace, allowed Israel extra time to study the material and take the test, but Israel constantly falls short. Even with the order of operations written down, Israel fails to solve the equation, and so, exile awaits.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 belongs with what precedes it—God promising to bring Israel home from exile so that a fresh start might ensue. While Israel won’t be allowed to forget the former covenants that God has made with Israel, the days are coming when a new covenant will be made. This new covenant will be better. It will not be external. It will not be written on stone tablets like the old one; it will be written on the people’s heart.

This new covenant will be able to do what the old one was unable to do, or maybe what Israel refused to allow the old one to do. This new covenant will help God’s people walk more faithfully in the ways of God because God will make Godself intimately known in the hearts of the people.

For Jeremiah and Israel, this new covenant is something promised but not yet delivered. For us, however, this new covenant is here and now. God makes a new covenant through the birth of Jesus. It has been made through the life of Jesus. It has been made through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it lives on forever with Jesus’ ascension. This new covenant is here now and ready for us to enter and have God’s law written on our hearts—to have our lives defined and shaped by the one with whom we are in covenant, to have God be our God and for us to be God’s people.

But this is Lent, and we can’t be too jubilant just yet. We must still journey through Holy Week and all that it demands of us. Through the last few weeks, we’ve remembered all of God’s past faithfulness. We’ve repented too, not just being sorry for being an underachieving student like Israel, but we have sought to truly turn and walk in a new and right direction. While we can’t get too jubilant yet, we can begin to reimagine what the future looks like. If Jeremiah is to be trusted, our future is bright.

Lent reminds us that while God is writing his law of love onto our hearts, we often still haven’t internalized it the way that we should. To go back to the school image, we still need a cheat sheet. We’re still muddling through the drudgery of looking up what we should have already memorized. Why do we find it so difficult to internalize the rhythm and flow of God’s Kingdom?

Perhaps we’re still too much like Israel? Perhaps we’ve taken to erasing what God constantly writes on our heart? Perhaps we’ve come to believe with this new covenant that God has brought through Jesus we need not do our fair share of the work? Or is it that we simply don’t care? We seem to have done ok this far.

While God’s new covenant is here and now, we recognize that we are still students, and learning takes work. While God in Christ has done so much for us, while the Holy Spirit perpetually breaths life into us, we still have to cooperate with the writing that is being done in our hearts.

It’s only as we begin to cooperate with God’s work in our lives that we can reimagine our future as a time when we fail less, where we spend less time searching for the answers and more time loving our neighbor.