“I (Heart) Jesus” Means I (Heart) Everyone – February 13

A sermon based on Jeremiah 17:5-10 (The Inclusive Bible)

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 13, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

I chose the Lectionary selection that Bobbie just read from Jeremiah because it has the word “heart” in it.  Since Valentine’s Day is tomorrow I thought it a happy coincidence and it’d be interesting to explore a Biblical  heart on Valentine’s Day. In turns that to do that I need to start off with a very brief bit of history on Valentine’s Day and the meaning of hearts. Valentine’s Day is actually a very old holiday with even older roots.  It was first put on the Christian calendar in 496 AD to honor a martyr from the third century known as Saint Valentine of Rome. It was also used to replace a mid-February pagan holiday called Lupercalia that had been celebrated in Rome for hundreds of years. The Lupercalia holiday seems to have had some connection to coupling and fertility, but Valentine’s Day itself was not clearly connected to romantic love until the Fourteenth Century – by then Valentine’s Day was linked to romance and love and has remained so.

Long before Valentine’s Day existed hearts were associated with love in Western culture. The connection started way back in ancient Greece and continued through Ancient Rome and right up to today.  The heart’s connection to love is such a pervasive idea in the West that even though we now know the heart is a muscle that pumps blood–  not emotions– our minds continue to link the heart to love and feelings. When we see an “I heart Jesus” bumper sticker we do not think it means “I muscle Jesus.” Right? We know it means  “I love Jesus.” 1.

That’s a very brief history of Valentine’s Day and the connection of hearts to love. Because of that history we pretty much automatically think the word “heart” used  in non-physiological contexts connotes love and emotions and Valentine’s Day.  So, chances are that when Jeremiah refers to the heart being deceitful and sick and searched by God,  we probably strongly link it to emotions and feelings, or the lack thereof. But that’s actually too narrow an understanding of heart for a Bible reading. See Jeremiah was written in the Ancient Near East, not in the West. In Ancient Near East writings (like the Bible) hearts are linked to more than love and emotions. My big old multi-volume New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible notes the distinction and how it matters. Here’s what it says:

“ Unlike Western cultures, which primarily associated the heart with feelings and emotions, Near Eastern culture emphasized its role in thinking, reasoning and planning. The heart characterizes humans first and foremost as ‘rational beings’ that are susceptible to teaching and learning . . . THE HEART . . . PERTAINS TO HUMAN CONDUCT AND ACTION.”    2

Let’s apply that to our reading from Jeremiah. The reading starts with God, YHWH,  noting that when people trust in human ways and turn their hearts (meaning their conduct and action) away from God they curse themselves– ending up hopeless like stunted vegetation in a desert far from life sustaining water. In the Bible turning away from God is the opposite of repenting,  which means turning toward God.  Turning away from God is more than just missing the mark God aims us at, which is what sin can be understood to mean. Intentionally turning away from God is more than a sin it is evil; it is opposition to the will of God.

Which begs the question, what is the will of God? Simply put, in a summary of my Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, the will of God is always the highest good.  Trusting human ways– earthly power’s ways especially–  has a long history of creating conduct and action that’s not good, not Godly, –  nowhere near the highest good. As our lesson’s imagery indicates it’s a choice that can turn our lives, alone and together, away from the sustaining water of God and goodness, making our lives witheringly hopeless.

On the other hand,  trusting in God, trusting good, provides the sustaining water of God that gets us through the difficult times of life. Those who trust God are like a tree planted by a stream that “when the heat comes it feels no heat, its leaves  stay green. It is untroubled in the year of the drought and never ceases to bear fruit.”  It’s not that life does not deal out heat and droughts to those who trust in God, it’s that with God there’s hope we can get through them.

The selection from Jeremiah ends with God going back to observations about the human heart, our conduct and actions. First God notes,  “The human heart is more deceitful than anything else, and desperately sick– who can understand it.” Up to this point in the Book of Jeremiah God has expressed disappointment and condemnation about the godless state of things in Judah, with many deceits, false idols and immorality replacing God and God’s way–much of it done by political and religious leaders in power.  That is the “heart” of human conduct and action that caused God to declare the heart is deceitful and ill-willed.

As much as it pains us to consider this, the heart of human conduct and action today is often still deceitful and ill-willed, led by political and religious leaders in power. The daily news is full of proof. The top stories this past year have included political deceits at high levels about an election, an insurrection, the effectiveness of vaccines and masks, and our history toward People of Color, most especially Black Americans.  The false idol of power in each of those instances has reigned superior to God, to goodness.

And it’s not just politicians, religious leaders have gone along with such deceits, if not in word or by deed in silence and inaction and support for wrongdoers. Moreover, the top issues in Christianity ever since I’ve been a pastor have included deceits by religious leaders denying the goodly Godly way LGBTQ+ are made by God, their equality;  women’s equality;  the validity of science; the nature of manmade words in our Bible;  and even what matters most on Jesus’ Way.

In the final verse of our reading God sets out the consequences of deceitful and sick hearts, “I YHWH search into the heart, I probe the mind, to give each person what their conduct and actions deserve.”  Simply put, people reap what they sow.  Deceitful hearted people, and others who turn their conduct and action away from God, have a natural price to pay. They live without good, which is God. The famous influential 13th Century theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that they live without rest and real happiness because

“nothing can bring the will of [hu]man[s] to rest except universal good. This is not found in any created thing but only in God . . .  Therefore [our] happiness consists in God alone.”

Sadly, those living without good not only live lesser lives,  but also live on in history remembered through the ages for their lack of goodness. The life they leave vibrating in the pages of history is–  to be blunt– not good.

Jeremiah’s depiction of God associating human hearts to deceit and ill will in our lesson is more than a bit of a bummer.  But there is good news, later in Jeremiah God offers hope and a changing of the hearts of humans so that each person will know goodness in their heart. The law of God we are told will be written there and humans will listen to God and be forgiven by God who will remember their sins no more. 4.God famously says

“They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and one way of life that they may worship me at all times, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them. And I will never cease in my effort for their good.” 5.

Christians believe that this hope, the good news,  offered by God can be found through Jesus whom we put in our hearts to try and give us a singleness of heart and one way of life that allows humans to worship God at all times for our own good, the good of our children and the good all humankind. Jesus in our hearts is meant to cure us of deceit and ill-will, and create hearts of care and desire for the well-being of others. We are meant to have hearts that create loving conduct and action not just toward those we express love to on Valentine’s Day, but toward everyone every day. In other words, for Christians “I heart Jesus” ends up meaning “I heart everyone” in our words and our deeds, our conduct and our action.     AMEN.

ENDNOTES:

  1. I got this I muscle/heart Jesus idea from Collins, Lorence, in his on-line paper “Does the Bible Contradict Accepted Biological Concepts” at page 3. The paper can be found at this link:http://www.csun.edu/~vcgeo005/heart.html#:~:text=In%20the%20Bible%20the%20heart,entire%20emotional%20nature%20and%20understanding.&text=The%20heart%20is%20the%20organ,meditate%2C%20motivate%2C%20and%20think.
  2. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol 2, p. 764.
  3. Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 1, p. 338
  4. Jeremiah 31:33-34 (The Inclusive Bible)
  5. Ibid., 32: 38-40.

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