It was the final of the US open tennis championship last Saturday: Serena Williams versus Naomi Osaka. A winner of 23 grand slam titles versus a 20 year old yet to win a major title. Serena Williams was a set down when she was given a warning for illegal side-line ‘coaching’, then at 3-2 up in set 2, Williams was given a point penalty for smashing her racket in rage and at 3-4 down she initiated a tirade of abuse at the umpire . For this she was given a game penalty to go 3-5 down. Osaka won the next game to take the match 6-2, 6-4. Sadly afterwards Williams blamed sexism, racism and just about everyone but herself for her outburst(s). On Monday this week, Alistair Cook, former captain and opening batsman for the England cricket team retired. Michael Clark (former captain of Australia) called Cook ‘a gentleman and a great ambassador for the game of cricket.’  Why the difference?

1. The human heart

Jeremiah was given the task of preaching to a nation who had a wonderful heritage but who had turned from God to idols. They had stubbornly refused to do what was right. In this context, Jeremiah, speaking for God said this: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (verse 9).’ Most people today have either accepted the view that there is no God or that (at best) there is some sort of vague spirituality out there that is subject to our own experience and interpretation. Given these basic beliefs, people generally consider human nature to be fundamentally ‘good.’ They tell us that we must therefore express ourselves and explore who we are and whatever we discover of ourselves ought to be celebrated. This thinking is not only wrong but it leads to absurdity as well as disaster. Our education system teaches our children the lie that there is no God (or that there is no need for God but that ‘religion’ – any religion – is ‘meaningful’ and to be respected) and that they should foster their innate tendencies: they should celebrate who they are. This thinking is most prevalent with the LGBT lobbyists who preach that we should ‘be what we are’ or even blasphemously claim that we should ‘be what God made us.’ This is all done under the banner of tolerance of diversity because whoever we are and whatever we are is fundamentally ‘good.’ See for example Stonewall’s Primary Best Practice Guide, section on ‘How primary schools are celebrating difference and tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia’: One of the easiest ways to create a culture free from homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is to actively celebrate difference. …You’ll create a learning environment where young people feel able to be themselves.

What does the bible say? It simply says that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9)’. Jesus said that ‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander (Matthew 15:19).’ This is not only true but it squares with our experience of people and ourselves. Since the bible is God’s book it gives us the truth about how we are to live; what is right and what is wrong. This brings light to our human condition.

If this is the condition of the human heart then why are some people extra bad and some not so bad? Once again the atheists have an answer  – although they actually re-frame the question as they don’t really believe that there is such a thing as good and bad – morality is just a social construct they say. Atheists tend to say that the behaviour of people is completely governed by nature and nurture: e.g. morality is a process of genetics and deterministic chemicals operating within the brain and making our choices for us (Scott Gold, Richard Dawkins Foundation) and If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy (‘There’s no such thing as free will’: Stephen Cave, Richard Dawkins Foundation).  What we do, they say, is written in our genes and conditioned by our circumstances. Serena Williams’ outburst at the US open? She’s by nature a fiery person (genes) and she’s a woman who has been treated badly by men and she’s black and has been treated badly by white people (nurture). Contrast Alistair Cook – he’s got a placid nature (genes) and has been brought up into a life of privilege and wealth (nurture). Serena Williams is not to be criticised and Alistair Cook is not to be lauded! There is neither responsibility nor accountability for what they do.

What does the bible say? It certainly speaks of the condition of the human heart but it also speaks of moral responsibility. In Romans 2 we read ‘the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.’ It seems that we have not only wicked hearts but we have to some extent the means to make moral judgments. It is however possible to damage the conscience such that its voice is suppressed and weakened: this we know from experience.

2. Israel’s choice

Israel did not just have a conscience to work with, it had a God-given legal code to govern national and personal life. They had more light, but as a consequence more would be expected of them. Despite of their position of privilege, Israel became as bad as (if not worse than) those nations around them. In verse 1, the Lord states that ‘Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point, on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of their altars.’ Iron was the big technological advance of the day, it was scarce in Egypt until the rise of the Assyrian empire (just a few decades before Jeremiah was born). Perhaps for Israel, iron was associated with the Northern kingdoms – the very people who would be used by God to bring judgment. Israel’s sin was etched with the hardest known materials of the day onto the hearts of the people: it was deep seated and ingrained. Because of their sin, Judah would suffer the consequences described in the Mosaic covenant: they would lose their wealth (verse 3), their inheritance (verse 4), their freedom (verse 4b) and their homeland (verse 4b). Was this fair? Did this situation arise because of the effect of nature and nurture, or indeed because God had decreed it? The Lord says in verse 4, ‘through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you.’ That’s perfectly clear – they were accountable, no one else.

We will see later in Jeremiah that God would do something to change the hearts of the people: ‘33 ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people (Jeremiah 31). And in Ezekiel 36 something similar: ‘26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’ This is the new covenant and it speaks of a work of God to transform deceitful hearts to hearts that are aligned with what is right, hearts infused with the Spirit of God to prompt righteousness. We will cover this remarkable covenant in later chapters of Jeremiah (and its relevance for us today) but for now the prospect of the new covenant raises an important question: could Israel be blamed for their failure if the hearts they had been born with were deceitful and desperately wicked (as the King James Version has it)?

It seems to me that Israel had all of the capability to choose to do what was right. They could choose to trust in man or in the Lord (more of this below) – in fact the instructions God gave to the nation were stated as follows (Deuteronomy 31): ‘ 11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.’ They could choose to follow or to turn away. Part of the problem seems to have been that even if they chose the right course of action they would always be battling against the sin nature that was within them, a sin nature that is within us all. Even under these less than ideal circumstances, God would be with Israel to support and nourish. What is clear is that Israel had a real choice; to follow the Lord or to follow the ways of men.

The choice that Israel faced was thus to turn away from the Lord (and trust in man, verse 5) or to trust the Lord and place confidence in him. The person who takes the former path is described in verse 6 as being like a bush in the wastelands and like one who lives in ‘the parched places of the desert.’ In contrast, those who place their trust in the Lord and who place their confidence in him are like well-watered trees: when the heat and drought comes they have a plentiful supply of water. As a result they are consistently fruitful.

Having stated this, Jeremiah speaks and affirms his personal trust in the Lord: ‘Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved, for you are the one I praise (verse 14).’ But the people failed to put their trust in the Lord saying ‘Where is the word of the Lord?’ Jeremiah made his choice, and people made their choice too.

3. A simple test

We rather like the idea of an authority that is firm but fair. What I find rather notable is that the Lord seems to go beyond fairness to maximise the opportunity to do what is right. Judah had reached the end of the road in terms of God’s patience, but in the last verses of this chapter we have yet another opportunity being offered.

A normally functioning set of kidneys filters about 90 ml of blood every minute, that’s about 5 litres of blood in an hour! Kidneys don’t just filter blood but by a complex mechanism they recover good stuff that goes through the filter and add to the filtered blood other waste products that don’t get filtered. They are a remarkable product of creation with many, many functions and complex mechanisms. In spite of this complexity a simple blood test that measures a waste product from our muscles (creatinine) offers a useful test of overall kidney health. If creatinine is high it indicates that the overall function of the kidneys is poor.

God set Judah a simple test of their overall spiritual health. Jeremiah was told to ‘stand at the Gate of the People (verse 19).’ He was to place himself at a point where he would come into contact with all the people leaving and entering the city of Jerusalem. He was to tell the people ‘Hear the word of the Lord, you kings of Judah and all people of Judah and everyone living in Jerusalem who come through these gates. 21 This is what the Lord says: be careful not to carry a load on the Sabbath day or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem.’ This was about as simple a task as one could imagine! There could be no doubt that this was within the capability of everyone who passed through the ‘Gate of the People.’ It seems that God in his mercy was lowering the bar as far as it could go – he seemed to be saying, ‘just simply do this as an expression of your trust in me.’ The impact of obedience would be far reaching: ‘ 24 “And it shall be, if you heed Me carefully,” …25 then shall enter the gates of this city kings and princes sitting on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, accompanied by the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall remain forever.’ This shows the magnitude of what was at stake. Since Israel is God’s choice people to bring light to this world and to be the centre of worship for the nations, Israel must be in a right relationship with God for this to happen. The benefits to the world of Israel’s obedience are immense! Obedience in this simple act would be an indicator of the people’s heart and of their attitude to God – it would be a simple public statement and declaration of the people’s attitude to the Lord. Interestingly Jesus often called on people to make simple gestures of faith – he never asked them to do what was beyond them. The crippled man just had to reach out his hand, the woman at the well had just to ask and she would be given living water. This seems to be a general principle in God’s dealings with all of us.

If the people failed to do this simple thing it would reveal the condition of their hearts as unrepentant and wayward. Sadly the people responded negatively: ‘23 But they did not obey nor incline their ear, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear nor receive instruction.’ Notice that they had a choice, they chose not to ‘incline their ear’ they ‘made their neck stiff.’

We have a choice too – what will you do with Jesus?