10/16/22 “Love Letters”

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Every day, I go to my mailbox, and I always have this little glimmer of hope that there will be something in there besides ads or bills or, in this election season, political flyers. But I am nearly always disappointed. Other than bills, my physical mailbox rarely has anything in it that couldn’t be delivered to my next-door neighbor without either of us noticing. Email is just as bad. I have a separate email address for online shopping and so on, and it gets lots more email than my personal account. Even my “Pastor Carol” address gets more advertising than anything else.

It’s kind of comforting, though, to know that I’m not alone in this. A study from a few years ago showed that the average office worker gets 122 emails a day, and that we open less than a third of the ones we get. As for snail mail, the U.S. Postal Service does a biannual study about what kind of mail we get, and they found that in 2020, each household—not each person, but each household—received an average of five personal letters a year. We might get up to ten greeting cards a year, and maybe they’ll include a personal note. But most of our mail is stuff that either goes right to our bill-paying pile or the waste basket.

And yet, personal notes are so special and welcome. Hand-written notes are so memorable that they’ve been written about in the “Harvard Business Review,” “Inc. Magazine,” Forbes Magazine, and “The New York Times,” just to name a few. Each of these articles explain why personal notes are so prized: Hand-written notes are unexpected. They are costly to send—both in time and money. Handwritten notes tell us that we are valued by the sender.

Most importantly, they have permanence. Hand-written notes can be savored and stored away to re-read, maybe again and again. They can be hung on the refrigerator or tacked up on a bulletin board. Each time we read them, we are reminded of the love and care the sender has for us. When Marc and I cleaned out our attic recently, I came across a stack of letters from my friend Mary Ellen. We met at summer music camp in high school, and Mary Ellen lived couple hours away. That was in the days when long distance phone calls were an expensive luxury, so we kept up a regular and fast-paced correspondence, answering each other’s letters as soon as we received one. We even bought special stationery and the chose the prettiest stamps for these letters. Rereading them all these years later has brought back wonderful memories of the beginning of our friendship, which continues to this day.

You know how meaningful hand-written letters are. I know you do, because so many of you take the time to write and send personal notes. Amy sends birthday and get-well cards on behalf of all of us. Louella sends hand-written thank you notes for donations to the Food Pantry. You may not have noticed it, but in my office there’s a box on a shelf where I keep cards and notes that I’ve received—notes of appreciation, care, and encouragement.  On days when I’m feeling tired or blue or discouraged, I open that box and it’s like opening a box full of sunshine. Words that are written down have a power that lasts.

God knows the power of the written word, too. While Moses was on the mountain with God, God gave him tablets of stone, where God had written the law and the commandment for the Hebrew people’s instruction. Moses broke those tablets in his rage over the golden calf. Still, God believed that the written word was powerful, so God tried again. God told Moses to make more tablets where God would write the words of the covenant: the ten commandments.

Fast forward to the time of the exile in Babylon, and we find God’s word written once again. God dictates letters to be written down by Jeremiah. One letter is to the exiles with words of advice, words of warning, and words of hope. In this letter, God advises the people to settle in for the long haul—to build homes, marry, have children, and become productive members of the communities they find themselves in. God warns them not to listen to the false prophet’s false hopes that the exile would be short-lived, and God announces that this false prophet will be punished for his “fake news.” Finally, the letter offers hope that when the time is right, God will restore them, not just in material ways but in their relationship with God. This is a letter written in God’s love for a people who have broken God’s heart with their unfaithfulness but whom God continues to cherish.

God then took on a new writing project. God instructed Jeremiah to write a book—a book containing God’s promises of restoration for both Judah and Israel. This book includes reminders of the sin that was at the root of people’s exile. It includes an acknowledgement of the terrible consequences of that sin. But most of all, it includes reassurance that the people of Judah and Israel will one day be restored both to their former home and to their relationship with God. The people will realize how they separated themselves from God through their faithlessness, and God will welcome them back in their repentance.

God says that the days that are coming will be a time of rejoicing and plenty. There will be music and food and dancing. Oil and grain and wine will be plentiful. Joy will take the place of mourning, and gladness will take the place of sorrow. Our passage comes near the end of this joyful book, and it continues in the same vein. Although God has watched the people suffer the consequences of their sinfulness, God will repopulate the desolate lands of Judah and Israel and the city of Jerusalem with people and with animals.

But, God knows that the words of this book, like the words that came before, written on tablets of stone and in messages on parchment, can be destroyed or, at least, ignored. So, God announces yet another writing project—the project of writing down a new covenant. But, this covenant won’t be written down by Jeremiah or any other ghost writer. It will be written by God’s own hand.

And, this time, God will write on something much more permanent than stone tablets, and parchment scrolls. God will write this covenant on people’s hearts. And in that day, God says, “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 promises that each person will receive a note of forgiveness and steadfast love, written on their hearts—a love letter written by God’s own hand.

For the Jewish exiles, this was a promise for the future. For us, it is a promise fulfilled. Where the exiles heard of days that were surely coming, for us that the day is already here. The day of God’s new covenant with Israel and Judah and with all of humanity began when the Word was made flesh and lived among us and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has been writing that covenant on human hearts ever since.

Until Jesus came, God’s law was an external thing. It could be read on stone tablets or revealed on parchment scrolls. You could hear it preached and explained. But as sacred as it was, it could also easily be ignored. And the people who had been chosen by God, who had been included in the original covenant, did ignore it. They turned away from the one true God and worshipped other gods. 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 evil will.”

The law of the covenant had been set before them, but not in them, and they turned away. How many times have you been given a book that sat unread for days, months, or even years on your nightstand or coffee table? That’s what the people had done—ignored the law of God’s covenant that had been written in stone and scroll. God decided that they needed something more—something that could not easily be set aside. When the time came, God would write a new covenant, and the new covenant would be written on the people’s hearts.

Many, many years later, God fulfilled that promise. In Jeremiah Chapter 30, God promises a prince who “shall be one of their own, a ruler who shall come from their midst… ‘I will bring him near, and he shall approach me . . . and you shall be my people, and I will be your God,’” God says. In fulfillment of that promise, Jesus came, born a human being just like us, to show us what it means to live in that perfect relationship with God. Jesus showed us what life looks like when we follow the law of God’s covenant—to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.

And, God did even more than write the covenant on our hearts. God also gives us the power to live into it. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, an amazing thing happens. The Holy Spirit moves into our lives, and gives us the power we need to truly be God’s people—not just in name but in all that we do and say and think.

The covenant becomes something that we carry with us every place we go. It’s not just something we read on special days or at special events. It’s not like a book that gathers dust on a bookshelf, or a poster that grows more faded the longer it hangs on the wall. It’s in us. It’s part of us. It’s with us when we go to the grocery store or the playground. It’s with us at school and work and home. It’s with us when we are awake and even when we’re asleep. With every beat of our hearts, it pulses with life. This covenant is delivered in a letter written to us and in us with love—a love so great that Jesus went to the cross in order to complete God’s writing project: to write the new covenant on every heart, so that whoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish but have eternal life.

When that happens, everything changes. What we once did out of habit or guilt, we do in response to the love that has been inscribed on our hearts. Where once we served because it made us feel good, or because we just felt it was the right thing to do, now we do it as a response to God’s covenant within us. Where once we came to church because our parents taught us to or because we looked forward to being with our friends, we come because what is written on our hearts makes us want to be closer to the one who has done the writing. When we make our offering, it becomes an act of gratitude rather than just keeping the lights on. When we treat others in loving, compassionate ways, it’s because the author wrote on our hearts with love and compassion for us. It’s no wonder that John Wesley called our religion a “religion of the heart.”

Things that are written on stone or paper can be lost or ignored. I heard a story once about a pastor who was invited to dinner at a parishioner’s home. When she arrived, she was invited into the kitchen as her host finished up some last-minute preparations. The pastor asked if there was anything she could do to help, and her hostess asked her to take the salad out of the refrigerator. As she opened the door, she couldn’t help seeing the note that was prominently stuck there with a magnet. It read: “Pastor’s Visit To-Do list: Plan menu. Iron tablecloth. Dust Bibles.”

Something written on our hearts is not so easy to ignore, but it’s possible. We can refuse to read the words that are written there, just as we can toss aside a note that comes in the mail. We can ignore that twinge we feel when we speak unkindly, or when we let other activities take priority over worshiping the God who loves us. We can ignore the words of God’s covenant as we throw our leftover cash into the offering plate rather than thinking carefully about how greatly we’ve been blessed. We can ignore the fact that those words written on our hearts are ones that demand a response from us—that just as God will be our God, we are to be—to live as—God’s people.

Sometimes, more sadly, we may try to erase God’s words or cover them up with our own. We may try to erase them out of anger or hurt, when we feel God hasn’t cared for us—when a loved one has died or illness lingers or life seems unbearable. We may feel like God has written those words on our hearts in error, like mail delivered to the wrong address—a letter intended for someone better than us who deserves it more. We may try to write over God’s words with words of guilt, shame, inadequacy, fear.

But God has written God’s covenant indelibly on each our hearts so that we can know God and live in God’s promise. God did not inscribe our hearts with words of judgment, punishment, shame, or guilt, but with words of love and forgiveness and wholeness. God wrote in us God’s law—a law which has at its base love of God and love of neighbor. God promised, “I will forgive your iniquity, and I will remember your sin no more.” We can choose whether or not to read and live out what God has written on our hearts, but we cannot erase or deface what God has inscribed. Even when we close our eyes to what is written in us, the writing remains, and through God’s grace we can return to it again and again.

“The days are surely coming,” God assured the exiles, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. This is the covenant that I will make: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” That day came when Jesus announced that God’s kingdom had drawn near. The promise was fulfilled when the Spirit took pen in hand and began writing a new covenant on human hearts.

God knows the power of the written word, and God chose to send each of us a love letter, writing it directly on our hearts. Like the hand-written letters we get so few of in the mail, this letter was costly to send. It tells us that we are beloved by the sender. Most importantly, it has permanence. Once written there, it can never be lost or destroyed. It can be savored and stored away to re-read, again and again, and each time we do, we are reminded of the love and care the sender has for us. God has given each of us a hand-written love letter, written on our hearts in the indelible ink of Jesus’ blood. We have only to read it, embrace it, and live it. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young