Some years ago, I led a women’s retreat day, focused on how we see ourselves and others. It was attended mostly by older women, but there were a few younger women there, too. We were talking about first impressions, and one of the older women described her first impression when she saw women with tattoos. She said that she was really put off by tattoos; she saw them as show-offish—a way to draw attention to yourself. Others jumped in. “It just makes a woman look cheap!” “It’s unprofessional!” “They’ll be sorry when they get older and their bodies change!” Clearly the majority was anti-tattoo.
Among the group was a younger woman who was very involved in the church. She was well-liked, as were her husband and two little girls. She held down a part-time job that allowed her to be home when her children were home. She listened quietly until there was a lull in the conversation, and then she spoke up. She calmly said, “I have a tattoo.” Well. You could literally see the shift in perception on the tattoo-critics’ faces. There was embarrassment, that they had spoken so critically, not knowing that a target of their criticism was sitting right next to them—their sister in Christ. And, there was awareness of how judgmental they had been. And there was recognition, that someone they liked and respected had upset all their preconceived ideas.
These days, we are pretty likely to encounter someone with at least one tattoo. According to a study done last year, 42% of Americans have at least one tattoo, and another 19% are thinking about getting one. Among Millennials—people who are between the ages of 22 and 37—40% have a tattoo, and half of them have more than one. Many have six or more.
The reasons they give for getting a tattoo are largely linked to a desire for self-expression. At the Anthony Wayne clergy group meeting last week, I met the young man who is the new director of the Anthony Wayne YMCA. Bryan has many large and very visible tattoos. I told him I was working on this sermon, and I asked him to share with me what they mean and why he had chosen to wear them. The reasons he gave were in line with the reasons many people with tattoos give. He said that some were in memory of people he had loved. Most commemorated significant moments in his life. Others were a way of telling others—and reminding himself—of who he wants to be. Whether they are visible or not, they are a constant, indelible reminder of who he is and whose he is. He said that they often are an opening for witnessing to his faith.
There’s only one Bible verse that specifically mentions tattoos. Some people use it to claim that tattoos are sinful, but really the verse has to do with making sure the Israelites didn’t adopt certain worship practices of the Egyptian people they had lived among or the Canaanites whose land they were moving into. But, we can take from our passage today that there is one tattoo that God wants us to wear and that God wants to inscribe on us personally, but not on our skin. Through Jeremiah, God speaks of a new covenant, written on the heart.
Whether you have a tattoo on your skin or not, I would say that we all bear internal tattoos of one kind or another. Our life experiences mark us for good or ill, in ways that can feel pretty permanent. This was surely the case with the people God was speaking to through Jeremiah. We know they were living in a time of great uncertainty. There were natural disasters: droughts and famine. The world’s superpowers were vying for control. Their own leaders were using their positions to enrich themselves. They fought wars, and wars were being fought around them. Allies came and went. All this had to have left its mark on the Jewish people at all levels of society—tattoos of “fear” and “insecurity.”
Amidst all this, in spite of the earlier efforts of the good king Josiah to return Israel to a godly life, many of the Jewish people had once again forsaken God. God describes the people to Jeremiah: “Scoundrels are found among my people. . . They are indifferent to the plight of the orphan, reluctant to defend the rights of the poor. . . . From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain. . . . They say ‘Peace, peace’ where there is no peace.” They abandoned faithfulness in marriage. They worshipped idols.
The perpetrators of these acts were surely marked by them. Jeremiah bemoans the way that the unjust were experiencing great prosperity, in spite of all their deeds. We can imagine the internal tattoos that that unjust prosperity produced: “self-satisfied,” “self-centered,” “entitled,” “invincible.” But the ones who suffered under them were marked as well: “poor,” “powerless,” “vulnerable,” “hopeless.”
We are marked by what we experience in our lives. Growing up in a safe home with enough to eat and wear, with people who love and encourage us, tattoos us with “confidence,” “security,” and “acceptance.” Illness and disability—whether physical, mental, or emotional—leaves its marks: “weakness” or “strength,” “surrender” or “endurance,” “defeat” or “victory.” Think of the tattoos Stephen Hawking, who died this week, must have borne.
Striving for some cherished goal leaves a mark: “failure” or “success.” Our jobs and relationships mark us: “abandoned” or “cherished,” “expendable” or “valued,” as “nobody” or as “somebody.” We can almost guess what internal tattoos someone bears based on what eras they have lived through: the Depression, World War II, Viet Nam, and all the wars since; the Civil Rights era, 9/11 and its aftermath, right up until the present day. Everything in our lives tattoos our spirits if not our bodies, in ways large and small, in ways that may or may not be visible.
God knew what had been tattooed on the spirits of the Jewish people, but God was not ready to let those words be the last word on who they were or who they would be. God promised that something new would be written on their hearts: a new covenant. This is the covenant God promised to write on each person’s heart: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will all know me personally, no matter how small or great they are, and I will forgive them all their sin.” God’s writing would mark them with words like “beloved,” “forgiven,” “mine.”
The Hebrew word used in our passage tells us that the kind of writing God will do is the same kind of writing God has done before, words etched into the stone of the tablets Moses carried to the Hebrew people. As with the original tablets, this writing will be done by God’s own hand. But it won’t be written on stone tablets, which can be broken or stowed away behind locked doors, or on parchment scrolls which, as we can read a few chapters later, can be burned up by an angry king. It is not even like the tattoos we can get on our skin which, with enough time and money, and a high enough tolerance for discomfort, can often be removed. God will etch this new covenant permanently and directly on people’s hearts—an indelible sign of the covenant between God and humanity.
Twice before, God had written down the law of the covenant: on the original tablets of stone—and the replacements after Moses broke the first set in his anger over the Israelites’ unfaithfulness. Now, God speaks to the Jewish people of writing again at a time in the future. But where, through the prophet, God spoke of a time that was coming, for us that time is already here. For the Israelites, it was a promise for the future. For us, it is an offer for today. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God fulfilled God’s promise, made to the people of Israel and Judah.
Until Jesus came, God’s law was known through external things. It could be read on stone tablets or on parchment scrolls. It could be preached and explained. But through Jesus, God has given us the new covenant, and it is no longer an external thing but an internal thing. God is eager to write it directly on each of our hearts. Remember that when Scripture speaks of the heart, it doesn’t just mean the organ in our chests. It means that place in us that is the home of our thoughts and our feelings, our knowledge and our memory, our conscience and our actions. So, when God writes the covenant on our hearts, it is indelibly engraved onto our minds, souls, will, and understanding.
We are given the opportunity to have God’s covenant written on our hearts. But, much like people who decide whether or not to allow someone to tattoo words and images on their skin, we decide whether or not to allow God to do that writing on our hearts. We can reject the covenant God offers, saying “no” out of stubbornness, out of fear, or out of uncertainty. The Israelites did. Jeremiah recorded their response to God’s earlier words to them: “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our own will.” But when we turn to Jesus and place our hearts in his hands, God begins etching the covenant of love and forgiveness on us and in us.
People who get tattoos often get them where no one can see them. They are private reminders of someone they love or an event they want to remember, of a dream or a goal, or words of inspiration to help them be who they want to be. Like those covered tattoos, God’s writing is etched deep within us, where others can’t see it. We can cherish God’s words in private, knowing they are always with us, and drawing strength from the hope and assurance that God’s promises, fulfilled in Jesus, bring us.
But, this tattoo of the heart is meant to be seen. It is not intended to be hidden away, where only we can see it. As John Wesley said, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” In other words, what God has written deep within us is meant to be shown to others. It is meant to be a sign about what it means to live in covenant with God, through our faith in Jesus.
When Bryan from the YMCA explained his tattoos to me, he showed me one on the underside of his forearm, where he can’t ordinarily see it but others can. People often ask him about it, and he told me that that is his chance to explain something about his faith to them. We show our tattooed hearts by how we live.
When we take seriously the words of Jesus, and of the prophets before him and the apostles after him, and when we live them out, people see. And they may wonder why we live in a way that is so often at odds with the world around us. They may wonder why we spend so much time and energy serving others. They may wonder why we choose to give our money to the church instead of having that extra latte or the newest IPhone. They may wonder why, on a cold winter morning or a beautiful summer Sunday, we get up and go to church so that we can worship with our brothers and sisters. They may wonder why we pray and spend time studying the Bible together and on our own. They may wonder how we can meet success with humility, failure with dignity, hurt with forgiveness, and blessing with gratitude. They may wonder how we face adversity with assurance, and death with serenity.
When people remark on what they can see in our lives, it is our opportunity to share with them that these are the signs of our tattooed hearts. That is when we have an opportunity to explain to them what it means to have a heart that has been written on by God, a heart that has glorious promises etched onto it.
During these week of Lent and beyond, as we examine our hearts, may this be our challenge: to allow God to write God’s covenant on our hearts, and to let our lives be outward signs of inward grace, grace that has been written on our hearts by God. And then, when others ask us about what they see, let us be courageous enough to tell them that they can have the same tattoo on their hearts, and that the Master Artist is eager to get started. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young