Second Nature

“And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘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 I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:34

“Don’t worry,” Andy told me, “it will slow down. Just give it a little time.” I had answered the ad in the Duke Chronicle hoping to make a little spending money. “Intramural basketball referees needed,” it read, “$35 a game.” I thought to myself: “I played basketball in high school. I know how the rules work. I could use a little help getting into shape. Intramural ball — no pressure. How hard could it be?” They ran us through an hour-long orientation session in the student gym, gave us whistles and striped shirts and signed us up for two nights a week.

It turned out to be much harder than I had ever expected. To begin with, there are more rules in basketball than I had remembered. And a referee has to be on top of everything that’s happening at all times. He needs to position himself at just the right place to see all the movement, and once the whistle is blown, he must speak with authority and conviction. And it’s true that intramural basketball doesn’t really count for anything. But when the Duke Law School plays the Duke Business School — that was my third game, by the way — and when you’re a freshman referee, you don’t try telling those guys to take it easy and relax because you weren’t really sure whose elbow had touched the ball last before it went out of bounds.

Andy was my referee partner. He was a junior and had been doing this for three years, and he had everything about the game at his fingertips. He was patient with me, and he nodded when I made a good call and politely averted his eyes when he wasn’t so sure. He could tell that my mind was spinning through the pages of that rule book, desperately trying to stay on top of what was happening all around me. “It will slow down,” he promised me. “One day you will walk out on this court, and you’ll just know what you’re meant to do. You will have become a referee.”

I have to admit, it never did slow down for me, and I politely resigned my post at the end of the semester and found some other ways to earn my spending money. But I’m sure Andy was right, because it’s been that way with many of the other more complicated things I’ve learned to do over the course of my life. After two years of study, I could think in German and not have to laboriously parse every verb. Saying Mass became entirely natural after six months of practice, something Father Matt is now starting to see. Over time, we integrate all the steps in these complex processes, we learn how to anticipate where we should be and what we should do. We say that something becomes “second nature” for us, which is a telling phrase. No longer does that task become something outside us, which must be studied, integrated, and wrestled into place. Now we approach it from the inside. It becomes part of the way we see and understand everything else.

Our Old Testament lesson describes a process like what happened for Andy with basketball refereeing and for me with speaking German, but a much more important one. God speaks His promise through Jeremiah about an inner rehabilitation of Israel, a new covenant, in which he would place His law in their hearts and forgive them their sins. We’ve been talking about God’s covenants throughout this season of Lent, and two weeks ago, we read what is probably the most important covenant text from the Old Testament, when God gave his law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. It was a holy law, the gift of a holy God, and it marks out the way of life for a holy people.

But it never quite worked out that way. The smoke hadn’t really cleared off the mountain before the Israelites were dancing before a golden calf, and as last week’s lesson reminded us, there was continual ingratitude and rebellion among them.

The law was hard to integrate. It was hard enough to iron out all the connections and differences between those 613 precepts, and it wasn’t long before the commentaries on the laws vastly outpaced the laws themselves, like the difference between the Constitution and the US Civil Code. It was hard just to know what you were supposed to do when, and of course, even if you knew, it was hard to do it with the right sort of attitude, or to do it when the alternatives were so attractive and interesting. Obedience to the law was supposed to be second nature for the Israelites, the out flowing of their love and fidelity to the God who had given them everything. Theirs was meant to be an undivided heart, steadfast and fixed on what was right.

By Jeremiah’s time the whole project had pretty much come unglued. They had been divided into two warring kingdoms and they had gladly accepted the rule of kings who took delight in breaking every law in the books. They’d actually lost the book of the law for a few generations, and I don’t think because someone was extra zealous at the annual temple spring clean-up day.  A good king had brought it back, and, for several generations, prophets had been teaching it carefully.

Like Moses with the brazen serpent, they’d held up a mirror to Israel, showing them their sin, and warning of judgment to come. In the end, both kingdoms were conquered by their enemies, the cities ruined, the people scattered. The heart of Israel, Jeremiah testified, was “desperately wicked.” (Jer. 17:9). They didn’t understand the law. They didn’t have the strength to keep it. It was as if they didn’t know the Lord at all.

It all comes down to this in the prophecy, that God’s people don’t know him anymore, that they have become as ignorant as the many other nations that had never heard God’s Name. God has become a stranger to them. He’s a distant lawgiver, perhaps, or maybe he’s the judge that they know will eventually call them up short. But they’ve forgotten that he’s their rescuer, their protector, even, as he says to Jeremiah, their husband.

There needs to be a new covenant, based on some new act of salvation. God needs to reveal himself to his people so that they will never forget him again. In days of old, what he had really shown was his power, his majestic holiness: that’s what was on display in the walls of water held back by his hand, in the earthquake that shook the crowd in the wilderness. But this would need to be a new kind of saving act, one that would allow them to see the full extent of his love, and to welcome him into their hearts. He had given them tablets of stone and pointed them back to them time after time. Now the law needed to be written in their hearts, and their sins not just corrected for a time, but forgiven freely, so that they could know Him afresh and serve Him with joy.

“This is my blood,” Jesus says, “of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). In Christ, God has overcome the distance and poured out his love into this one life, given for us. Not 613 precepts, but a single life, not for one nation, but for the whole world. In offering himself for us, Christ became, as he says in our Gospel lesson, the grain of wheat that dies so it might bear much fruit. He is not just another teacher, but one who shares his life with us, filling us with a new power to know God and to do his will. We are baptized into him, and we are united to him in his death and resurrection, through feeding on his Body and Blood. We receive his Spirit, “the law of the Spirit of life,” as Saint Paul says, “that sets us free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). In the Spirit we know the will of God and are given the strength to do it. In the Spirit we are truly changed, made new, the law of life is written on our hearts.

Is it second nature for us yet, to know the Lord? Do we obey him completely, from the heart? Not yet, but he who began the good work will be faithful to complete it in us (Phil 1:6). I never will speak German like a native, and I’m sure that Andy at his best never became the perfect referee. But this is different. It doesn’t just depend on us.  The law will be fully written on our hearts, and we will know the Lord fully, even as we are fully known (I Cor. 13:12).

The Rev. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Word and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac. Maryland.

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