March 21st, 2021 homily on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33 by Pastor Galen Zook
You Just have to Feel It
In college, I had a friend by the name of Kay – short for Kanyinsola. Kay was an international student from Nigeria who was an amazing drummer — in fact her dream was to play drums in a rock and roll band. (She ended up becoming a mechanical engineer instead, but I’m sure she still plays percussion in her spare time).
I had acquired an African drum when my family and I were travelling in North Africa the summer before I met Kay, and so when I found out she was a skilled percussionist, I asked her to teach me how to play some traditional Nigerian rhythms, which she did. Or at least she tried to. She would play a rhythm and then instruct me to repeat it after her, but it never sounded quite the same as the way she played it. I would play the right pattern, but it just didn’t sound as good as when Kay played it.
I tried really hard. I listened really intently. I tried to count the number of milliseconds between each beat. I tried to get it just right, but something just wasn’t working.
Eventually Kay said to me, “Galen, the problem is that you’re thinking too much about it! You just have to feel it. Just groove with it.”
The problem was that I was trying to use my brain to play music that had to be played from the heart.
Cooking Without a Recipe
It’s the same with cooking. I enjoy baking, but I mostly just follow the recipe. I carefully measure out the ingredients, going step by step through the process, with the hope that it will turn out exactly as it’s pictured on the box or the cookbook.
My wife, on the other hand, is a wonderfully creative cook. She makes these amazingly delicious dishes. But she doesn’t use ingredients that come prepackaged in a box — most of the time, she doesn’t even use a recipe! She just sort of goes with her gut — she knows what ingredients will create an interesting flavor combination, and she’s not afraid to experiment and try new combinations of flavors and ingredients. In fact she rarely cooks exactly the same dish twice. Every time she cooks she creates this unique and wonderful culinary experience for our family.
Written on Our Hearts
In the beginning when we’re learning a new sport or skill, we have to pay close attention to the rules, the recipe or the script. We have to practice something over and over again we get it right. But eventually we reach a point where, after hours and hours of practice, we have gained a certain level of proficiency.
And that’s where heart and soul come in. Because the difference between an amazing musician and an average musician, or an amazing cook or athlete, and an average one, is not just their level of technical proficiency. The amazing ones play, or cook, from the heart. They might play the same notes, they might use the same ingredients, they may make the same moves as everyone else, but the way they practice their craft transcends the rules, the recipe or the script. It comes from their heart and their soul.
In Jeremiah 31, the prophet Jeremiah spoke these words to the people. He said,
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: 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 (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
God was essentially saying through the prophet Jeremiah: Look. I know I’ve given you a lot of commandments. I’ve given you a lot of rules. But there’s coming a day when you’re not going to need the rulebook anymore, because its going to be in your hearts! You’re going to be my people, and I’m going to be your God. You’re not going to have to try so hard to get the right rhythm or the right beat. You’re not going to have to scientifically measure out each ingredient. You’re going to know it in your gut! You’re going to be able to live from your heart and your soul. You’re going to intrinsically know the right things to say and do — because the Spirit of the Living God will be within you.
Now this must have sounded other-worldly to the Jewish people who heard Jeremiah proclaiming these words, because for them, following God had always meant following the rules. There were 613 commandments in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and then there were all sorts of rules and customs that were added on by the various elders and rabbis in the Jewish tradition. Jewish boys in particular were expected to memorize large portions of the Torah — the first 5 books of the Bible. And of course following God meant not only memorizing, but even more importantly keeping the commandments.
But Jeremiah prophesied that there would be a time when God would make a new covenant with God’s people. But rather than a covenant where the rules were written on tablets of stone, this covenant would be written on the hearts and lives of God’s people.
Jeremiah went on to say, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:34)
Can you imagine for a minute what this would look like? Imagine a community of people who knew and experienced God’s love and grace and mercy so deeply, who were so in tune with God’s purposes and God’s will that they could move and groove with God. Imagine a group of God-fearers who knew God intimately. A community of believers who lived like Jesus lived, and loved like Jesus loved. That would be utopia, wouldn’t it? It would be heaven on earth.
We Want to See Jesus
In John chapter 12 verse 20 and following, a group of Greek-speaking Gentiles came to Jesus’s disciples saying, “We want to see Jesus.” The fact that they came to Jesus together as a group, rather than as individuals, suggests that this was a group of people who were wanting to find enlightenment, or meaning or purpose not just individually, but collectively as a group. Perhaps they were wanting to build the type of community that I just described. Perhaps they had heard about Jesus and the type of community he was forming with his followers, and perhaps they wanted to find out what they were missing. Perhaps they thought if they could just sprinkle a little bit of Jesus’s teachings in with their own religious beliefs, then they could achieve this utopian dream.
But Jesus tells them a parable about a seed, and in doing so he teaches us another important lesson about what it means to be the people of God.
Jesus says, “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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).
In other words, just as a seed has to be buried in the ground before it can spring forth and become a plant that bears much fruit, in the same way, we cannot truly live for God until we’ve died to ourselves, and to our fleshly desires. One when we’ve put to death those things in our lives that are contradictory to God’s purposes and God’s plans can God write God’s laws on our hearts. Only then can we become God’s people.
Jesus wanted these Greek-speaking Gentiles to know that they couldn’t just add him to the mix of gods and goddesses they were already worshipping. They couldn’t just mix his teachings in along with the rules they were already following, as some sort of addendum. Following Jesus would involve a complete transformation, a radical change in direction, a death to their old ways of doing things. Only then could they become God’s people.
Putting these lessons from Jeremiah and the Gospel of John together, then, we see that becoming the people of God involves letting go of our selfish ambitions, our desire to control our own lives. It isn’t just about trying harder. It’s recognizing that we cannot achieve perfection or enlightenment on our own strength. It’s about confessing that we’ve failed. It’s about dying to our old ways of doing things and allowing God to make us anew. Allowing God’s Word to be planted deep within our being, allowing God to transform us from the inside out.
Only then can we live like we’re supposed to live, and love like we’re supposed to love.
A Word about the Shooting in Atlanta
Earlier this week there was a shooting in Atlanta. A young man, 21 years of age, shot and killed 8 people — 6 of whom were Asian women, ranging in age from 33 to 74. This shooting has rocked the country, and the Asian-American community in particular — a community that has been experiencing increased levels of violence and hate crimes directed towards them over the past year, as many people have been wrongly blaming them for the Coronavirus.
Now it’s easy in situations like this to see the guilt of the young man who committed the violence. He confessed to the crime. We know he did it, and he even confessed to why he did it.
It can be harder in situations like this, however, to see how in so many ways our society is also complicit in what happened. This young man (who was a member of a Christian church by the way!) didn’t arrive at his ideas on his own. Somehow his hatred and animosity towards himself and others was allowed to fester and grow unnoticed. Somehow he was able to buy a gun without any trouble at all, and he was able to carry out these horrific acts of violence unchecked and unhindered.
There’s so much that could be said about what happened in Atlanta and why. But even as we decry this act of violence, and even as we lament the individual acts of violence that take place every day in our own city, we must also acknowledge the ways that we as a society, and we as the church so often fall short of the vision and dream that God has for us. As we say in our prayer of confession every time we take communion, “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.”
“They Shall Be My People”
I realize that we as the people of God will not reach perfection this side of Heaven. But with God’s help, we can experience transformation. It involves dying to ourselves, yielding our lives completely to Christ. It involves continually acknowledging the ways we’ve messed up, and continually receiving the grace and forgiveness God extends to us through Christ’s shed blood on the cross. It involves continually asking God to make us anew.
When we yield our lives to God’s control, when we let go of our selfish ambitions, that’s when we can truly live. That when God’s law will be written on our hearts. That’s when we can truly be God’s people.