A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
The Fifth Sunday in Lent—April 6, 2003
Text: Jeremiah 31.31-34
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. 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.
What do you do when you want to remember something important?
I suppose the answer to that question depends largely on how organized you are. When I was growing up, my mom’s kitchen calendar always had everyone’s birthday and anniversary on it…I made sure to copy those to my own calendar before I moved away to college! Sometimes Mom’s calendar would have appointments—dentist, doctor, vet—but it was mostly for the big occasions of life.
My dad, on the other hand, always had his DayTimer daily planner on hand. As a lawyer, he had court dates and other important events to keep track of each day, and he needed not only to have a minute-by-minute plan for his day, but also to have it in a small, portable format, so he could add the changes that inevitably come up.
Many folks I know remember things mainly through the miracle of Post-Its. If you took a peek into their work area, you would find dozens of Post-It notes stuck to just about every possible flat surface. As things come up that need remembering, a note gets made and it’s stuck someplace visible. Some Post-It people even go so far as to have different sizes, shapes or colors for different types of reminders, just to help them find what it was they were trying to remember!
I mostly let the computer do my remembering for me. I’ve got a calendar set up that pops up reminders for all my important dates, so that I can’t miss them.
But since becoming a pastor, I find myself reverting over and over to my favorite high school way of taking notes to remind myself of important things—writing on my hands.
It’s crude and looks silly, I admit. But when push comes to shove, it gets the job done. When people come up to me to remind me about something after church, I usually don’t have a scrap of paper on me, and it’s a sure thing that my computer is nowhere convenient. So I write on my hand. The space is limited, but it’s good real estate for reminding me…every time I look down, I get a little prod to not forget that important note.
The Jews do something like this to remind them of God’s law, and its importance in their lives. When praying, many Jews wrap themselves in long straps of leather called tefillin. Contained inside two little pouches on the strap are passages of scripture—Torah, God’s law. Wearing the tefillin is a literal way of practicing God’s commandment in Exodus 13:16—“It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” It is also a way to make God’s word almost an extension of your own body, so close you can’t possibly forget it.
It’s not a bad idea, really. God’s word is a great gift to us. His law is the very highest kind of thing, the very essence of God’s goodness. It’s a sign of how generous God is that he even trusts his perfect law to human beings. The writers of scripture understood this; the psalms are filled with delirious praise for God’s law and its perfect teachings.
As Lutherans, we’re often suspicious of the law. We’ve been taught that the law is dangerous; it condemns us and kills us. We know that we are saved by grace apart from works of the law, and that the blessed gospel is the good news that this grace is given to us free and clear through Jesus Christ. Why should we bother with the law of God when we have the gospel?
It would be wrong to dismiss the law this way, though. Martin Luther himself called the law “the most salutary doctrine of life;” in other words, it is the very highest and best teaching we can ever receive. If the law is so good, how come it causes us so much trouble?
We find the answer in today’s Old Testament reading: The law of God is not in our hearts; it is outside of us. If God’s law were within us, written on our hearts, then we would follow it naturally, just as easily as breathing or walking. If God’s law were within us, we’d never have to stop to wonder “what would Jesus do?” because the answer would be plain as day. If God’s law were within us, we would truly be united with God, and constantly in his presence.
But we are sinful, and God’s law comes to us from outside ourselves. A law that is outside us rather than in our hearts is sure to condemn and convict us. No matter how good wor walking. If God’s law were within us, we’d never have to stop to wonder “what would Jesus do?” because the answer would be plain as day. If God’s law were within us, we would truly be united with God, and constantly in his presence.
But we are sinful, and God’s law comes to us from outside ourselves. A law that is outside us rather than in our hearts is sure to condemn and convict us. Try as we might to remember it, to write it on our hands, or to bind it to our very bodies, we can’t help but hear it as frightening and alien. It is against us, and we are against it. In the end, if God’s law is not in our hearts, it is our death sentence.
That’s why we Lutherans talk about being dead to the law but alive through grace. By showing us how stuck in sin we are, the law drives us to despair. The law forces us to see that no matter how good we think we are, we still fall short in a thousand different ways. And so it drives us, inch by inch, to Jesus.
In Jesus we finally find grace and forgiveness, not because we’ve earned them under the law, but because he is gracious and generous towards us. He frees us from the death sentence of the law by his own death and resurrection. The law, in the end, points us right to the cross, and it is on the cross that we find our salvation.
Does that mean that the law is bad and the gospel is good? Not at all! God gave us the law, and God does not give his children anything that is not good. If we were to take that law into our hearts as God intended, we would see what a good thing it is. But even when we live with the law outside ourselves, it is still God’s good and precious gift, because it is the thing that drives us back to him, seeking his grace.
And he has promised that one day he will write that law in our hearts for good. What a joyous day that will be, when we will join Jesus in keeping God’s law perfectly, knowing it and loving it for the great gift it is. Amen.