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Third Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Stephen's Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, January 25, 2015

Remember, Repent, Return

Text: Jeremiah 3:21-4:2

Our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah today is one of the many, many places in the Bible where we hear God speaking directly. I urge you to notice how often you will see the words, “Thus says the Lord,” or “God appeared to so-and-so and said...” We truly do have a treasure in our hands—the revealed truth from the God who created everything. Here in Jeremiah, God is giving us a word of hope. And it is also a word of warning. For God is making a conditional promise. The message is that if God’s people will repent and return to Him, God will restore their blessing. Of course, the warning is that repentance is mandatory. This message of hope and of warning are something we need desperately to heed today. For the world around us is on the same path to destruction that the world was when Jeremiah passed along these words to us.

Let’s have a close look at this passage.

“A voice on the bare heights is heard, the weeping and pleading of Israel’s sons because they have perverted their way; they have forgotten the Lord their God.” [Jeremiah 3:21]

What had happened was that Israel had been invaded, and many of her people taken into exile. This was God’s punishment for the fact that they had forgotten God, they had fallen into evil living, and they were worshipping false gods. The reference to the “barren heights” is pointing to idol worship. They worshipped these idols on the hilltops. And not only did that violate God’s first commandment; but idol worship involved detestable things, including prostitution, sexual orgies and even child sacrifice. Now that God’s punishment had befallen Israel, people began to see their sin with clarity. Jeremiah portrays them standing in those places of idol worship and saying, “What have we done? We have forgotten the Lord our God and perverted our way.”

God had told them this would happen. Listen to what God said in Deuteronomy 6:10-15:

10 When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you... 12 take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14 Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, 15 because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

That is a sober word to us today. The people of our beloved nation have forgotten God. He is not to be mentioned in polite public discourse, or prayed to in school. To challenge a law by saying it is contrary to God’s will is shouted down as bigotry. And all sorts of idols are being worshipped:

• money

• beauty

• luxury

• technology

• science

• celebrity

• freedom of choice

And people are doing all kinds of detestable things. The orgies on the hilltops of ancient Israel are being repeated in the shameless obsession with sex in the culture around us. I doubt that ancient Israel would have shocked us at all.

In Jeremiah’s time, the people of Israel had begun to wake up and see why God’s wrath had descended upon them. And so Jeremiah shows them on the barren heights crying out to God. Verse 22 is God’s response: “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness.” It is an invitation. God has opened a door. As you read God’s Word from cover to cover, you see that He is always faithful to His promises. His mercy is great and His steadfast love endures forever. And His promise is that if God’s people would live by His commands and would worship only Him, He would fill their lives with His abundant grace. And so, He does not turn away from them forever. He invites His wayward people to return to Him and He will heal them.

The best known statement by God about this is found in 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God said to King Solomon,

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin, and I will heal their land.”

This promise appears over and over in scripture. And here in Jeremiah, God says, “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness.” This encouraged the people to confess and repent. In verses 23-25, we hear them turning toward God in humility.

• Truly the hills are a delusion: in other words, these gods we have been worshipping are false.

• Truly God and God alone is our salvation.

• But we have done shameful things.

• And disaster has befallen us. All the blessings we once enjoyed from God have been taken away.

• We are ashamed. We have sinned.

And then, in verse 1 of chapter 4, God speaks again. “If you return, O Israel,” declares the Lord, “to me you should return.” He is saying, I know you are longing for the good old days. But it isn’t the good old days you should long for, it is me. So when you “return,” return to me. Worship only me. Keep my commandments.

We often look back in nostalgia for earlier times that we think were so good. Our nation was prosperous. We were the world’s superpower. The economy was strong. The streets were peaceful. And often, that is what we long for. But what God is saying we should be longing for is that He would reign supreme in the hearts of everyone. We should long for Him to be our main focus, our top priority, our greatest joy. He’s the one we should return to.

He goes on in Jeremiah 4:1-2:

If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear, “as the Lord lives,” in truth, in justice and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.

Our longing for things to be better, even our longing for God, should be manifested in changed lives. God is telling us to put away the detestable things. And He is telling us to be His witnesses. The expression, “if you swear, ‘as the Lord lives,’ is a little obscure to us. What God is saying is that we should be certain that He is the Lord our God, creator of heaven and earth. We should be willing to swear that He is the ultimate reality.

And here, He is telling us to live in truth, justice and righteousness. And here’s the payoff, which isn’t what you expect. He is not saying, then I will make you rich and happy and successful in all your endeavors. He is saying that—

• if we put away the detestable things

• and live out our knowledge of God

• and live in truth,

• justice

• and righteousness,

then what?

“Nations shall bless themselves in God, and in him shall they glory.”

Whole nations will be healed and blessed by God. Our nation will be blessed by God. And it will be your testimony that told them to look to God for their blessing. And they will give glory to God because of you. Doesn’t that sound just like Jesus’ words to us?

• Go and baptize all nations and teach them to obey my commands.

• You shall be my witnesses.

• Preach the good news to all nations.

Oh, this God who created this marvelous universe, and who made us in His image: He is consistent. From the first words of Genesis to the last words of Revelation, He is consistent. He is trustworthy. He is merciful. He is good. He is just. And He is the ultimate reality.

This has been an important week in the life of our nation. Monday was the celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. And Thursday was the annual March for Life. Both of these represent deep moral issues in our national life. Both of them bring out the conflict among us that results from our sin. And both of them point us to the wrath of God at work in our nation.

We are still suffering the punishment for the sin of slavery in this nation. Fifty years after Martin Luther King, we have passed many laws to right the wrongs of segregation and inequality. But still, in many ways, we are a divided nation.

• We are divided in our opinions about police shootings of unarmed black men.

• We are divided over racial profiling.

• We are divided about affirmative action,

• and our perceptions on crime, and prison populations.

• and welfare.

• We are divided over whose fault it is that black and white children don’t get the same education.

As the Prophet Hosea put it, we sowed the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind. (Hosea 8:7)

And we have allowed the devil to twist the whole concept of individual rights. So now it is said that people who don’t believe in God have a right not to be offended by constant references to God.

And it is said that everyone has rights to do things that God’s law forbids. As a result,

• We have seen a tidal wave of legislation and court decisions allowing same-sex marriage in 36 states. And it is called “marriage equality.”

• We have seen oppressive laws and ordinances against those of us who refuse to go along with that. And they call it “anti-hate” legislation.

• We have seen children killed in the womb by the millions because women are said to have a right to decide what they do with their body. And it is called “a woman’s right to choose.”

• It seems we are always waiting for the next shoe to drop—the next issue, the next outrageous court decision, the next piece of bizarre legislation, the next misleading slogan.

We are reaping the whirlwind.

Is all lost? Is it an inevitable downhill slide to destruction from here? God says, “No!” That is the hope in what we have read this morning from the Prophet Jeremiah. God invites us to remember that He is God, and repent of our wicked ways, and to return to Him. And if we do, He will heal our unfaithfulness. And if we live in truth and justice and righteousness, and if we witness for Him, Nations will find their blessing in Him and give Him glory.

On Thursday, nine of us from St. Stephen’s took part in the March for Life in Washington, DC. We met up with other churches from our Diocese, and our Bishop, and eleven other Anglican Bishops, including Archbishop Beach. We were the merest drop in the bucket. Estimates of the size of the demonstration went as high as 400,000. It was a powerful experience. The parade went down Constitution Avenue, up past the capital to the Supreme Court. All those roads were closed for the duration of the march.

In that huge mass of people, I saw nothing but good will. I never saw an argument. I never heard a voice raised in anger. There was no violence. There was prayer and singing and celebration, despite the seriousness of our message.

I couldn’t help contrast this with the violent demonstrations around the globe recently, where Muslims expressed their outrage over depictions of Muhammad. In those demonstrations, rocks were thrown, cars were overturned, people were killed, churches were burned. But in our demonstration, there was the sense of us saying, “As the Lord lives.” And I felt truth, justice and righteousness rolling down the streets and into the halls of power in Washington.

I was overwhelmed by the realization that our march was principally a young people’s event. There were hundreds of thousands of high school kids there making a statement that they are the pro-life generation. Leading the parade was an entire high school from Fargo, North Dakota. They had traveled in buses, 24 hours from home. The message to our nation and to everyone who would listen is that every life is precious to God. And there was a sense of hope that abortion might be ended in this country in this generation.

It was the same way on Monday over at Galilee United Methodist Church on Martin Luther King Day. Over a hundred people gathered, black and white Christians hugging and worshipping and celebrating together. There was that same sense of hope as we sang the closing song, that we shall overcome, we’ll walk hand in hand, we shall live in peace someday.

We are the ones, my friends; we are the ones who are going to have to lead the way. We have to repent and show forth truth, justice and righteousness. As 2 Chronicles 7:14 says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will pray and seek my face and repent and turn from their wicked ways...” My people: That is us. We are the ones to whom God has made the promise—we and anyone else who is prepared to believe in Him and surrender to Him.

We are the ones who can hear the hope in Jeremiah’s message from God. And we are the ones who can hear the warning as well. We are the ones who can say with all our hearts, “As the Lord lives.” And we are the ones through whom God has promised that all the nations would be blessed. May it be so. And may it be in God that the nations will glory, in this generation and forever more.

© Jeffrey O. Cerar 2015

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