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

Preached on Sunday, 16.10.16

By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair

How keen are you on law? Let me put that another way: are you a ‘letter of the law’ person, or are you a ‘spirit of the law’ person? Or: how often do you read the small print of a contract? Do you see regulations and rules as enabling or as debilitating? Do they smooth the way, or do they get in the way? Do you think of codes of conduct, or legal stipulations, as ‘necessary safeguards’ or as ‘unnecessary red tape’. Are you a stickler for the rules, or a bender of the boundaries? And how are you when it comes to the idea of the law requiring to be interpreted? Would you see that as a recognition that principles have to be applied, but that the application will be influenced by the context? Or would you take the view that if a law requires to be interpreted, it must be a badly drafted law?

In our readings this morning we find law – and how we react to it and interact with it – running as a thread through what we read; but it’s not the only thread. In some ways, what distinguishes Christianity from the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, is the idea that the codified law is, after all, not an absolute; it has to be woven into other considerations – and shot through, in particular, by love. Paul, you will remember, tells his readers that love is the enactment of the law; anyone who acts in love will find it impossible to break the law. But this morning our readings are threaded through with another concept, another contemplation of what human life requires in its relationship with the law of God – and that is perseverance.

Let’s start with this really peculiar tale told by Jesus about the law and about perseverance. It’s most peculiar because of the character of the judge – a judge who is in the story exactly because he is unjust. And so the law with which the main character is having to contend is in itself, or at least in its personification, unjust. The point being made is therefore a bit strange – that if justice can eventually be obtained from one who is unjust, how much more will justice be provided by God, the very being of justice.

But we will not be unfamiliar with the stories of the struggles of those in our own or recent times who have had to battle against unjust systems to try and give justice a chance to prevail. Think of the campaigns against injustice that have captured the public imagination. Think of the struggle against the system of apartheid – which was, for so many years, the law of the land. Think of the fight for civil rights in the United States, or for universal suffrage in our own and any other land. Think of how the rich and the powerful have throughout history done their very best ( and their best has usually been very good) to keep to systems of what they called ‘justice’ that favoured the ‘haves’ and kept down the ‘have-nots’. The elites of any time or place have tended to spend a lot of time, energy, and (if necessary) money on remaining elites. And, if you want to topple them, if you want to rebalance the scales of justice, you have to be willing to persevere.

Just this past week we have heard the latest chapter in a search for justice, a story that has had many chapters already. It is the story of a young army recruit found dead at his barracks having been shot five times in the chest. It is the story of an inquest that decided that this young man had managed to do all that to himself. And it’s the story of a family’s perseverance as they refused to accept a version of events that stretches credulity to the limit.

We here, again and again, watch the struggles, sometimes help with the struggles, of those seeking to escape the injustice and the persecution and the arbitrary legal systems of other lands, as our own systems (and sections of our own society) do their best to limit or eliminate their hope of justice here. Perseverance in dealings with the law, and with the vested interests it tends still to protect, remains a feature of human life.

The letter to Timothy also urges persistence – persistence when things are going well and when things are not. Timothy is urged to persist exactly because God is a god of justice – that there is a judgement of righteousness to come, to be expected, to be anticipated, to be fought for, striven for, spoken for. And he is to do this because it is his inheritance – the task is being passed from one generation to the next, from one perseverer to the next.

It is a realisation, a confirmation, that perseverance in the search for justice, for the earth and for its people, is something that is not for one generation – it is part of the inheritance of faith, part of our being, a task that is always there. And can we hear in there the question with which Jesus intriguingly finished his strange tale: ‘when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ It is the faith in perseverance – perseverance passed down from one to the other, part of the faith: faith in justice, faith that it will appear, faith that it is worth the effort and worth the wait.

Jeremiah is writing to, speaking to, those who are waiting. But they are, perhaps, waiting for a time when the leaders of the faith can again speak authoritatively, can teach the people what the Lord requires. They will, they hope, be able to ‘lay down the law’ and obedience will be the result. The people of Israel, currently in exile, currently being told what to do by foreigners, currently unable to make and enforce their own laws, are looking for a reversal of all that. But Jeremiah offers them an alternative future:

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.

Law as an external force will not last, says Jeremiah. Law as it is currently understood is a temporary, imperfect thing; it is, in a sense, the best we can do in our current circumstances. It is a human attempt at an approximation of what we understand as God’s law. It is a recognition that no law we can come up with, whether written by lawyers or politicians or indeed by priests, is actually the law of God. It is always provisional, always being tested against the realities of God’s world, always needing applied and interpreted – and always itself being judged by the justice it produces, or fails to produce.

Now, at this point, there could be some who might be beginning to be alarmed. Is the law as written in the pages of scripture not the law of God? Well, actually, not really, not exactly. It is the account of the ways in which the people of faith have done their best in their day to discern and to follow the law of God, the ways in which they understood themselves to be called to follow their Lord. And, when you think about it, we do not worry any more these days about clothing made from two kinds of cloth; we do not take rebellious teenagers and have them stoned to death by the elders; and neither do we care for the poor by not reaping crops right to the edges of the field, or put right the accumulated debts of the last years by means of a year of jubilee. Some of these things may seem like more important omissions than others – and maybe our attitude to what we no longer worry about tells us something about ourselves, something revealing.

We do, however, have the task of persevering in our turn with the same tasks that our forebears struggled with in their day. We have to deal with many of the same issues, and we have to take account of the ways in which they responded to them – but our day is our day, our response has to be our response, and our perseverance is our perseverance. It is guided by the call to justice, lived in the presence of the God of justice, engaged in the prayer for justice. Our efforts, like those of the people who preceded us, are also provisional, but they are our responsibility, our wrestling with the God whose future is still beckoning.

Which brings us to Jacob. Jacob wrestles with God – and it’s a long struggle. It is his dark night of the soul, and it’s a long night. But, if ever there was a story that talks about perseverance, this is it. It’s a story that tells us that this perseverance that we talk about is not a simple, straightforward, run-of-the-mill kind of thing. It is, in many ways, a life and death struggle – and it certainly needs to be thought of in that way. In this story of Jacob is dramatised the wrestling with God and God’s will and God’s way – and God’s law – that is the life of faith. Jacob does not walk away from his encounter; he limps, winded, wounded, weary. It has demanded from him everything he has – and it has changed everything he is, even his name.

And so it is with our own engagement with the law of God. This wrestling with God’s law is the faith for which Jesus looked, the faith that anticipates not a law that is imposed from without, not a law passed on with no reference to the context of its application, but a law that takes us over from within; a law that is not obeyed – or even revealed – but a law that is lived and breathed, that is the air in our lungs, the blood in our veins, the very beat of our heart. And we can no more give up on it than we can give up breathing and living. Like Jacob, we hang on for dear life; like him, we hang on for a blessing – the blessing of life in all its fullness, and of a justice that encompasses all of humanity, all of life, all of creation.

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.