Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
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,[a] 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.
I wanted to begin this morning with a brief reminder of how frustrating it can be if we want to communicate, but for whatever reason or reasons, we find it impossible to do so. In the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus” which was released about 20 years ago, there is a scene where this frustration comes to the surface. Mr. Holland, played by Richard Dreyfuss and his wife had a son who was born deaf; for a music teacher, this seems particularly ironic. The son is now at an age where they are thinking about sending him to a special school to learn how to sign. The school is a little expensive and on a teacher’s salary, money is always an issue. Cole, the son, is being a little demanding; he wants something and his mother doesn’t know what he wants, and he can’t tell her. Between the argument about money and the frustration of not being able to communicate the mother begins to sort of lose it.
By the end of this clip, Iris is just about to explode; “ I don’t care what it costs or what we have to do, I just want to talk to my son!” Can you imagine how difficult it can be for parents who cannot communicate with their children, to know what they want or what they need, to be able to tell them they are loved or to keep them out of harm’s way. To not be able to communicate effectively would be very difficult indeed.
I think this is the gist of the text I read a few minutes ago. God wants to communicate with God’s children, and God’s children want to communicate with God. But all attempts seem to always end badly. Over and over again in the Old Testament we have stories of the children of Israel not quite hearing and not quite understanding all there is to know about God. Time after time the attempts at communication seem to fail.
Now it seems God has a new idea! No longer will it be necessary to teach or instruct, no longer will it be necessary to learn all the proper techniques for talking or communicating with God. The ability to communicate, the knowledge of God will be written on their hearts, and all will know me, says the Lord. From the least to the greatest, all shall know me and they will instinctively know what to do and how to communicate. That will be the new covenant; the law will be written on their hearts.
Even though this is an Old Testament scripture and even though we are supposed to have had this new covenant around for the last 2000 years, I still think it is difficult for some of us to feel like we effectively communicate with God. We still struggle; at times our prayers may feel forced or empty and then after we pray we are not certain we have been heard. The entire process still seems a little “iffy” in a sense, like if it works at all, it just barely works.
What can we do to communicate more effectively with God? What can we do to have God more effectively communicate with us? This whole communication thing seems to be a little problematic at best and perhaps impossible altogether in the worst case scenario. Have you ever felt like Iris in our movie clip and you want to stomp your feet and scream and say “I just want to be able to talk to my God!”
Well, I think all of us have times in our lives that are like that. I know the apostle Paul had those same kinds of feelings. But Paul also had some insight into the matter as well. Consider what Paul wrote in Romans-chapter 8, verses 26 and 27.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes[a] with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God,[b] who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit[c] intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
In these two sentences Paul admits that we don’t always know what to say or how to pray; it is a condition that I think is almost universal. He says we do not know how to pray as we ought. But then he goes on to say something more, something I find very interesting-he says that the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. We no longer need to try to think of the right words, we don’t have to use words; we don’t even have to use sign language; if we just sigh to ourselves, Paul says that God will understand; we will effectively communicate with just sighs or some translations even say groaning.
Now I want you to think about our text in Jeremiah where God said he would write the new covenant upon our hearts. Isn’t that a little like just giving a big old sigh and not knowing what to say? Isn’t the message already in our hearts when we don’t know what to say, but can only muster a sigh instead of words? I see these two verses of scripture that are perhaps 1,000 years apart from each other as remarkably similar.
I don’t know if you are beginning to see this or not, so I really need for you to pay attention here and really get this. So often we try to use words and it leaves us empty. I have experienced situations where a person’s language will actually change when they think they have begun to pray; not just the language but sometimes the voice itself is different. Is it just me or have you seen this as well. Someone begins to pray and everything changes, the body language, the voice inflection, the word choice-it is all so unnatural, no wonder it leaves us feeling empty! I want you to re-read what Paul said in Romans-he didn’t say that sometimes we lack the right words, he said we do not know how to pray as we ought-period, as in ever. We don’t ever know how to pray. Paul didn’t say it happens to us every once in awhile, he said we do not know how. He seems to be advocating that we use sighs instead.
Could that be right? Maybe. I think it works for me; at least that is what I do a large percentage of the time.
Obviously there are times when words are required. Like when you are praying on behalf of a group; the words are necessary for everyone else to follow along, but God doesn’t need them. Let me say that again; the words allow everyone else to follow along, but God doesn’t need them. God already knows what is in your heart and on your mind. A sigh is a way of acknowledging God’s presence. I need to say that again as well; make sure you get this-a sigh is a way of acknowledging God’s presence, and the more you sigh, the more present God becomes. It’s seems too simple, but it is true.
Now I will let you in on a little secret. If you pay attention to creation, you can utter little mini sighs all the time. Everywhere you go, everything little thing you see is an absolute miracle of creation. You see a cloud; give a sigh and God moves closer. You see a flowering bush, give a sigh, and God moves closer still, you see a bird in flight, and give a sigh and God moves closer still…you get the idea. If praying with words is difficult for you, if you have ever felt like God is deaf, if you have ever needed to feel more connected to God-know this; what you need has already been written on your heart and all you need do is to move closer and connect with God and communication will happen.
Here is another secret. When you notice God, or when you notice creation, you feel good. If you can do this throughout the day, you will feel good most of the time. When you feel good, you become an instrument through which God can work and communicate, when you feel good, you function at a higher level, when you feel good-things just go better. Actually when it gets right down to it, that is the main reason most people come to church; they want to feel good. I’m telling you how to feel good almost all the time and how to connect with God and how to pray like you are supposed to all in one little practice. Find something to appreciate and sigh. It is that simple. Everything else will take care of itself. Really.
I know some of you think I am a little crazy, so I’m not going to ask you to believe me. I’m going to prove it to you. In the front yard of the parsonage there is a magnolia tree-it is spring and it is in bloom. The other morning it was particularly stunning, so I went outside and took a few pictures of this tree. Keep in mind that I’m not 50 feet from my front door, I didn’t have to attend a special seminar or travel thousands of miles to find God.
I’m going to ask you right now to pay attention to your feelings. Are there things in your mind right now that are creating anxiety? Is there a list of tasks that are still left to do? Are there situations which bring you worry? Are you as blissfully happy right now as you could be? Probably not. Pay attention to how you feel, right at this moment.
Everybody in touch with their feelings? Good. I’m going to show you a few of the pictures of that magnolia tree-I want you to empty your mind of all words and simply sigh and look at the photo. I don’t care if you groan or sigh or go mmmm or ooh or ahh, just don’t use any words; and try your best to keep the words out of your head as well, but don’t stay silent-breathe loudly if that is all you can do, but utter a noise of some kind. Everyone ready? Here we go.
We probably just spent less than 60 seconds in prayer; Less than a minute. Let me ask you a question-how do you feel? Could you notice a difference? Do you feel like you connected with God? Do you feel like communication took place? Was this difficult?
You can do this all day long every day and speak with God in ways you didn’t know existed and pray for all the things you should stress and worry free. Have you ever finished your prayer time and then realized you had forgotten to pray for someone or something? Isn’t that a little silly? It is because we want to use words, and words are clumsy. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, Paul said it, Jeremiah said it-and what we need to pray is already written on our hearts.
So go in peace, go pray in new and wonderful ways, and go with God.