Connections: Jeremiah and the Heart’s Covenant

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Syndromes and Illnesses

I have mentioned before an interest in medicine and I still read medical articles occasionally, especially if they have something to do with psychiatry or psychology since pastoral counseling is a common occurrence in the pastoral calling. As I was preparing for this sermon, I ran across a short little diagnostic article from the Mayo Clinic. It reads,

Broken heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition that’s often brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one. The condition can also be triggered by a serious physical illness or surgery. People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack.

In broken heart syndrome, there’s a temporary disruption of your heart’s normal pumping function in one area of the heart. The remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. Broken heart syndrome may be caused by the heart’s reaction to a surge of stress hormones.

The condition may also be called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, apical ballooning syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy by doctors. The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are treatable, and the condition usually reverses itself in days or weeks.[1]

I found it interesting that the human body responds to our pain with pain of its own, that we as human beings are hardwired to experience our emotional life on such a deep level. I also find it fascinating that the Bible speaks to this kind of pain and broken heartedness, especially in the Psalms. The writer of Psalm 69 writes,

Save me, God, because the waters have reached my neck! I have sunk into deep mud. My feet can’t touch the bottom! I have entered deep water; the flood has swept me up. I am tired of crying. My throat is hoarse. My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God. More numerous than the hairs on my head are those who hate me for no reason.[2]

I see this pain, this brokenhearted-ness and brokenness is common to the human experience and can lead us to healing or continued hurting. God, however, is in the business of restoration, particularly where the heart and soul are concerned. The word salvation itself is a testimony to that in that the Greek word used in the New Testament for salvation, soteria, means literally to “make whole again.” So, in the words of the Rev. Al Green, “How do you mend a broken heart? How does a loser ever win?” I think some of the answers may be found in the Old Testament stories of restoration like the Exodus, the Passover, and from our text today, the Captivity of Israel and Judah.

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Photo by Alex Bruda from FreeImages at http://www.freeimages.com

Broken Hearts

It seems to me, much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament has its origins in the tumultuous times that it was written down. The events of the day – especially during the time before, during, and after the Assyrian and then Babylonian dynasties in the region – were destroying the very fabric of Jewish society and national identity. The prophetic books are witnesses to the upheaval that was felt in aspect of Jewish life as one powerful nation state then another overwhelmed the tiny sliver of land along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

From what I read, the writings of Jeremiah are from the first half of the sixth century BCE, when the people of Judah were being taken away to captivity in Babylon. In the face of a broken-hearted people, God calls a young man, little more than a child by today’s standards, to bear a message of hope to a people who are broken hearted. The reader of Jeremiah should have been encouraged in his day to look at the political, religious, and military disasters of the Jewish people as past events that should be left in the past. The point to be taken from the writings is there is hope: Hope in God, hope in a future.

In the part of this story we read this morning, we revisit this idea of covenant, something we have talked about recently in other sermons. According to Old Testament scholar Sandra Richter,

“[A covenant is] an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance” In other words, a covenant was much like a contract.”[3]

In the Jeremiah text, God looks to be reestablishing this idea of covenant but with some changes from before. First, I understand the covenant is restorative, in that it addresses the divided northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Since the time of Solomon’s sons, Rehoboam and Jeroboam, divided the kingdom after Rehoboam took the poor advice of his younger counselors and overworked the people to revolt. Rehoboam fled to Jerusalem to rule the southern cities and the northern cities crowned Jeroboam their king. The new covenant brings the people that were divided back together.

In the same way, God is still seeking to restore us to one another and to himself. Throughout the New Testament, its writers speak of restoration:

  • The story of the woman at the well when Jesus says, “…the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”[4]
  • The stories of healing and resurrection during Jesus ministry – the centurion’s servant, Lazarus, the demoniac of Gadara.
  • Finally, the entire Book of Revelation is a book written to the people of Asia Minor to remind them to worship and continue their faith in the face of persecution, as they wait for God to make them whole in the face of being brokenhearted.

Second, it strikes me that the covenant is universal, a covenant that reaches out to everyone, everywhere. God says, “I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah,” in verse thirty-one. Again, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are addressed as one, with God reaching out to both with the same directive, the same promise. What was once a divided people based on the political whims of an errant minded king, will now be one people united in heart by God. In time, some, not all the Israelites would return from Babylon as we find in the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah and at the end of Chronicles. Some stayed behind and were absorbed into the peoples of Babylon and then Persia. When those who left returned, however, they returned as one people: The Jews.

In the same way that God called the two kingdoms back together, God calls us as his children to be one people. In the pastoral prayer Jesus prays before going into the Garden of Gethsemane, he says, “Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.” Jesus prayer reiterates that the heart of being a disciple is oneness with God and oneness with each other, as in the Great Commandment, love God and love neighbor. Paul makes this point even clearer in Galatians 3:28,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Finally, I believe the covenant is personal, it is a covenant with a God we know. Again, the text says, “this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.[5] God is telling those who have been bound up and carried off into captivity that they will not be lost and without direction. God will speak directly to them and they will have the words of God, the Law of God within, made a permanent part of their fabric and being.

When I look at these promises made to Israel in the Old Testament, I think we can consider that as followers of Rabbi Jesus, disciples of a Jewish teacher, we too can embrace these promises as our own especially when such things are reiterated in the New Testament writings. In talking to the disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus is speaking about the coming of the Companion, the Spirit of Truth and he tells them, “Because I live, you will live too. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you.[6] In the Holy Spirit, we have the same guidance, the same Law written on our hearts, to help us understand how Jesus would live if he were in our shoes. It is the means by which we order our daily lives understanding that all of us, regardless of where we came from or where we are, can live into a life of discipleship.

A little recap, the covenant of the broken heart is restorative (it puts things back together as they should be), it is universal (anyone, anywhere can take part in the covenant), and it is personal (it is something that you engage in on a deep, meaningful level with God and with others).

Mending a broken heart

So, back to the words of the Rev. Al Green, “How do you mend a broken heart?” The good news is that both the bible and the medical community agree on this one, albeit from different angles. The medical world says, “Emotional support…is recommended… Healing a broken heart may be complicated, but… [it] is entirely reversible.”[7]

I see the bible as a book about restoration, our restoration to God. The Psalmist writes,

“The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, gathering up Israel’s exiles. God heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. God counts the stars by number, giving each one a name. Our Lord is great and so strong! God’s knowledge can’t be grasped! The Lord helps the poor…”[8]

And throughout his ministry, we have already mentioned that Jesus was about the business of healing those who needed restoration. The gospel of Matthew records that,

29 Jesus moved on from there along the shore of the Galilee Sea. He went up a mountain and sat down. 30 Large crowds came to him, including those who were paralyzed, blind, injured, and unable to speak, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. 31 So the crowd was amazed when they saw those who had been unable to speak talking, and the paralyzed cured, and the injured walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.[9]

Remember the description from the Mayo Clinic of broken heart syndrome? “The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are treatable, and the condition usually reverses itself in days or weeks.” I think it’s like the common cold, you can take something to dull the pain, you can alleviate some of the symptoms, but you must let yourself, heal yourself. It comes from allowing restoration to happen in the presence of God as we make the focus of our life God rather than the pain. Will we forget about the pain? No. Whatever the pain is it will still be there, like a common cold it must work itself out of the system. But we can focus on being disciples as a means of refocusing the energy of the pain. At a funeral, recently, someone spoke of how much it hurt to lose their loved one. The pain of losing someone never goes away. In time, it will dull but it will always be there. But the memory of what you shared with the person will eventually overtake the grief of what you feel now.

Regardless of the hurt, the covenant of the broken heart puts things back together as they should be, is there for anyone to receive, and it is something that you engage in on a deep, meaningful level with God and with others. The covenant of the broken heart is the covenant that God makes with us to walk with us, not around the pain, not to take it from us, but with us as we walk through it, knowing the Spirit of Truth is within us to help us withstand the pain until we reach the other side of the trial. In the words of a simple prayer,

Lord, I come before you today in need of your healing hand. In you all things are possible. Hold my heart within yours, and renew my mind, body, and soul. I am lost, but I am singing. You gave us life, and you also give us the gift of infinite joy. Give me the strength to move forward on the path you’ve laid out for me. Guide me towards better health, and give me the wisdom to identify those you’ve placed around me to help me get better.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/broken-heart-syndrome/home/ovc-20264165

[2] Psalm 69:1-4

[3] Richter, Sandra. The Epic of Eden (p.70) InterVarsity Press. 2008

[4] John 4:23-24

[5] Jeremiah 31:33

[6] John 14:19-20

[7] http://digitalcommons.otterbein.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1135&context=stu_msn

[8] Psalm 147:2-6

[9] Matthew 15:29-31

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