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The Law Written Upon the Heart

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 16th of Tenth Month, 2022

Speaker: Brian Young

27 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28 And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29 In those days they shall no longer say:

“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

30 But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of the one who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

31 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. 32 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. 33 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. 34 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.

Good morning, Friends!

It was once said that, were the Bible to be lost—all of its various manuscripts and translations somehow destroyed—that it could be recovered from the mouth of George Fox. Fox and his contemporaries had such a love of Scripture that it formed the basis of much of their speech to one another. If you’ve read any of the writings the first Friends left behind, you know that it can be like being thrown into a web of Scriptural allusions—they make all sorts of connections between various parts of the Bible. Fox will begin a sentence in Isaiah and end in Revelation, sometimes making several stops along the way... and if you have a middling acquaintance with the Bible (like me), you'll sometimes be able to identify something as from a particular passage right off, but with a lot of it, it’s that feeling of, “Oh, that phrase is familiar, I know I’ve heard this before; but where in the Bible is it from?” This is where search engines come in handy...

The first Friends, of course, didn’t have search engines. Some you will recall that they were only forty or so years removed from the publication of the King James Bible; George Fox and his fellows were probably just the second generation in Western history to have had the Bible so readily available. As a consequence, they absolutely imbibed the Scriptures. For most of them, it would have been the main book they would read during their lifetimes. Quite a difference from today, when the Bible is just one among a vast multitude of media options; for me, and perhaps for you, to read and re-read the Scriptures today necessarily requires a conscious choice—and for me, this is often not just a choice, but a struggle.

Part of the reason it is a struggle is that to approach something like what the first Friends had requires deeper engagement with the words of the Bible. It’s more than a matter of reading and re-reading. I had a f/Friend at Berkeley Friends Church who liked to talk about “internalizing Scripture”: she had become a Christian as a young adult, and somewhere in her decades-long journey, she had begun to practice the discipline of Scripture memorization. At the time that I knew her, she was able to bring forth entire chapters of the Gospel of John from memory. For this Friend, memorizing the words of the Bible helped her to draw closer to Source of those words.

This discipline has been important in my life, although I have to confess I have never been very systematic about it, and unlike my friend from Berkeley, I have never taken on an entire chapter of any part of the Bible. Some passages just come to mind because of repeated use—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Others are ones that I have committed to memory for use as prayers—“I believe, Lord; help me in my unbelief.” And when I took the training to become a member of what was then Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), in 2005, they included a unit on memorizing Scripture. For the members of CPT—peace activists working alongside marginalized communities under the threat of violence in various parts of the world—there were a number of reasons to work on this discipline. In the places that CPT works—often very remote, rural places—you may not always have access to a Bible (or these days, to that search engine on your smartphone). And because CPT often works in Latin America, we were encouraged to learn the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, so that we would have at least that in common with people we might worship with.

And another reason to work on taking the Scriptures into memory was one not so unique to CPT: the comfort and guidance that they can offer in difficult circumstances. In summer 2007, I was part of a small CPT delegation which traveled along the US/Mexico border for a month, learning about the experience of various border and migrant communities. Among other things, we spent time with people in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, who were organizing against the construction of a border wall—and yes, this was years before the cries of “Build the Wall” became a political slogan at presidential rallies held hundreds of miles away from the border.

Our trip ended up in Washington, DC, where our goal was to bring the stories of these border communities to legislators, and also to engage in civil disobedience. The group discerned together that I and another member of the group would risk arrest in front of the White House. Our action there was simple—we unrolled a banner that said, “No Border Wall,” that had been signed by many of the people we had met on our journey. And then we read out a letter from a young girl from Brownsville, TX, who wanted the President to know how a wall would harm her people and the land that they lived on.

At the White House, the US Park Service Police have jurisdiction, so they arrested us and took us to holding cells in a Park Service jail elsewhere in the city (actually pretty cushy, as jails go). In a circumstance like this, they take everything you have on you before they lock you up—wallet, jewelry, pocket change, belt, shoelaces. We knew this—me because it had been in my training, my team member because he was experienced in civil disobedience and had been arrested before. So we were prepared, and had brought very little with us; I remember our having written the phone numbers of our teammates on our arms so we could get in touch with them after our release.

So when I was put in a cell, I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I didn’t know how long I would be there. I had nothing to occupy me; there was no comfort or company outside of my own thoughts. But as all of this dawned on me, and the adrenaline of the previous hours drained away, I realized I did have something else: I had the words of the beginning of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was light, and that light was the light of all people. The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.

Meditating on those words in that jail cell helped me to come back to my center; to focus on the Light that enlightens everyone; that Light which had led me to that place, and would yet lead me onward. I tell this story not to seek glory for myself, but, I hope, to illustrate one way in which taking the words of the Bible into memory—what my friend from Berkeley called “internalizing Scripture”—can be of help to us.

And when I think of that phrase, “internalizing Scripture,” I think of what the prophet Jeremiah calls “the law written on the heart” in today’s passage.

Now, our friend Ben Richmond once said, “there’s a lot of bad news in Jeremiah,” and if you’ve ever read it, you know that’s true. But this passage is part of a stretch in the middle of the book that speaks of comfort and restoration and hope. Jeremiah wrote to exiles, or people soon to be exiled, as Judah came under the sway of the Babylonian Empire in the early sixth century BCE. Jeremiah's great words of hope to these exiled people are a promise of return from their scattered places, of renewed fellowship with God, and more than that, of a transformed inner life. That divided and beleaguered and forlorn people would be given a new intimacy with God, so much so that no longer would they need to consult the Torah, the Jewish law, to know God's will.

And, Jeremiah says, God will do this by means of a new covenant, not like the one made before at Sinai, in the time of Moses; a covenant which the people could not live up to. As a Quaker, I read this new covenant as a covenant within the hearts of the people, rather than without, in an external law. The promise of this new covenant is the law written on the heart. But how, exactly, do we understand that? Just what is the law written on the heart?

I don't think it's simply a matter of Scripture memorization. I am not trying to gainsay what I said just a few minutes ago—it is a worthwhile spiritual discipline, absolutely. But being able to memorize and recall vast amounts of the words of the Bible does not necessarily guarantee that a person truly has fellowship with the living God.

It's perhaps easier for me to say how the law is written on the heart. As a Christian Quaker, my experience of an inward law comes by the Light of Christ, by God’s action in my conscience. This experience of direction by the Inward Christ is available to any person who will stand still in their own willing and wait for the Light. In that waiting, we come to know God’s will for us, written on our hearts as if it were law.

Now, in truth, each of us has quite a few other laws written on our hearts. The world has legislated countless deceptive and destructive laws for us, and we have absorbed plenty of those and made them our own. in fact, Jeremiah is talking about one of these other laws in the first part of the passage: when he mentions a saying, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Essentially, what we have here is the idea that the sins of the fathers and mothers would be visited upon their children; that future generations would be punished for the wrongdoing of their ancestors. This idea of course goes back at least to Moses, for we see it in Exodus, when God is described as “forgiving... yet...visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex 34:7). And in the Gospel of John, when Jesus encounters a man born blind, his disciples ask him, ““Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). So this idea had staying power in the minds of the Jewish people, enough that it might seem a law unto itself.

However, Jeremiah here, as well as the prophet Ezekiel (18:1–4), and Jesus in John 9, all declaim against this supposed law. Jeremiah and Ezekiel say, it’s not about what your parents did; everyone is responsible for their own stuff. Jesus says, it’s not about anyone’s sin that the man is blind—it’s about the mercy of God, that the man might see again. In the new covenant proclaimed by Jeremiah and inaugurated in Jesus, all such harmful notions are to be cast out and overruled by the mercy and grace of God.

What are the inward laws that come from the world, that ensnare us today? How about, “The one who dies with the most stuff, wins;” “Look out for number one;” “If someone strikes you, hit them back harder;” “If someone is different from you, they are your enemy...”

And we do our own legislation, in the dark and fearful corners of our own hearts: “I will never be good enough;” “I am worthless unless I can constantly prove my usefulness to others and myself;” “I am unloveable;” Some of us have been legislated to in even more harmful ways, by those who have abused or abandoned us.

Friends, God’s mercy and grace give the lie to each and every one of these. These are not the laws that God writes on our hearts. They are false narratives. God stands ready to write a new law—more than that, a new story—for each of us. That new story may come by internalizing Scripture; or it may come through prayer; or it may come by some other spiritual discipline, or by any one of a number of them. That new story will overwrite the harmful notions we have taken in as if they were law. But in order for the new covenant to be established within us, we must stand still in our own willing and wait for the Inward Christ. In that waiting, we will come to know God’s will for us, God’s story for us, written on our hearts as if it were law.

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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