‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord.

My wife Heather and I met in Russia.  Well, not really but it makes a much better beginning to a story than the reality.  We were in the North Park Choir together for years, but being a choir of nearly 100 singers, we knew OF each other but didn’t KNOW each other.  Until 1993 when the choir toured Sweden, Estonia, and Russia.  Our friends were hanging out together, and we were hanging out with them, so we were, by the transitive property (look it up!), hanging out together.

Heather noticed the attraction first.  For me, it wasn’t until we got home and she sent me a postcard from Alaska where she was living at the time that I noticed it.  When she returned to school for her Junior year, I was beginning my first year of seminary and we began to hang out for the first time outside of Russia.  For the next year we talked and walked and our friendship grew.  By the following summer, we were walking for hours together and continued to grow closer.  Eventually we were engaged, just before I left for a year’s internship in Mankato, MN while she taught in the Chicago inner city.  We were married the next year.

Being human, we love each other because we find the other lovable.  We were attracted to each other for various reasons, and that attraction led us to determine that the other was worthy of the commitment of marriage.

I am eternally grateful that this is not how God loves, not how God’s faithfulness to us works.  You see, if God loved us only because He deemed us lovable, then He wouldn’t love any of us at all.  We are a deeply unlovable species, inherently selfish, drawn to darkness, and greedy.  The very best of us is utterly unlovable when compared to the perfection that is God.  But God, being God, doesn’t love us because we are worthy of love.  He isn’t faithful because we have earned His faithfulness.  God loves us because He is love; He is faithful to us because of His faithfulness, not our worth.  This means that there is nothing we can do to lose God’s love or cause Him to be unfaithful, because we can never change who God is.  Ponder that!

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, He had to be thinking of this passage from Jeremiah.  Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the source of “springs of living water”, a direct quote from this passage.  And so we have to look at the implications of this verse, because we know that John’s readers would.

There are in fact no less than four implications in this simple sentence given to Jeremiah.  The first is that God’s people have forsaken Him.  This is the primary message of this entire chapter, book, and Jeremiah’s life work.  By following false Gods, Jeremiah’s contemporaries have turned away from God.

The second is that God is the spring of living water.  Springs are never-ending, eternal supplies of water, one of the most valuable and necessary things in all human life.  But more than water, this spring brings “living water”, which is the water of cleansing and healing.  Water that is “living” is water that is flowing and moving.  Washing dirt or sickness in still water, a pool or well, keeps the dirt or sickness in the water – it does not take it away but instead dirties the water.  Washing instead in Living Water, in moving, running water, takes the dirt or sickness away.  This is why the Law required people to be washed or cleansed in living water.  And God is the source of a spring of it.

The third is that God’s people have turned away from this free gift of living water and have attempted to dig wells of their own.  They are seeking the healing, cleansing power in sources other than God.

And finally, the idols and false deities to which God’s people turn for salvation and healing can never heal since they aren’t alive.  They are “broken cisterns” offering nothing at all.

Jeremiah proclaimed these truths, and Jesus proclaimed them again when He referenced it.  I believe we could proclaim it yet again today.  We are turning from God to our human leaders, whether political or intellectual or social, and to our own accumulation.  We are seeking salvation, safety, and healing from these “broken cisterns”, empty wells that cannot give us what we truly seek.  Like Jeremiah’s audience, and Jesus’, we need to heed this warning and turn back to God, to our only source of the living water we truly need.

A few years ago we studied the book of Revelation in our adult bible study class.  And as we read through and studied that book chapter by chapter, verse by verse, one of the recurring themes that we kept noticing was just how little in that book was original to John.  Much if not most of the book was taken directly or indirectly from previous writings, and a lot of it from the book of Isaiah.  Today we find just such a passage; one that was taken by John and incorporated in his Revelation.

Here we find the first promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth.  It’s been hard for many to reconcile their views of the afterlife with the scriptures.  Their idea was that there would  be a rapture and we would all be taken to heaven to live forever with Jesus in the sky.  This Escapist view of the afterlife leads to some pretty terrifying beliefs and behaviors by its proponents.  Among them is the belief that if the world is going to be destroyed anyway, why conserve it, care for it, or protect it?  Another is the idea that the things of this world are temporary and therefore meaningless in the long run so we should devote 100% of our time to spiritual things instead of tangible ones.  And the list goes on and on.

Scripture again and again tells us that this earth is not going to be recycled but reconciled.  This very world on which we live is to be redeemed, restored as a New Heaven and a New Earth.  Jesus will return, meaning come back to this earth, and reign as king forever.  And this New, redeemed earth will never see war, or pain, or tears, or sorrow, or injustice, or sin again.  This is the promise of scripture and so must dictate our behavior in the here and now.

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”

I know me better than anyone short of God Himself, so I know better than anyone else the sins that try me.  I know my temptations, my weaknesses, and more to the point, I know when I give in to them.  I don’t know your sins, temptations, weaknesses, or fallings.  I just know me and mine.  I believe this goes for every person on earth.

This being the case, I also know better than anyone else just how much grace has been given to me.  I know how God has not punished me for the sins I have committed, and I know how He has helped me grow through and out of some of the sins I’ve faced.  Nobody can know the amount of grace God has given to me except me.  And I cannot know the level of grace offered to you as well as you can.

If we could recognize the truth of this, I think we could change the world.  First, if we could recognize that we do not know the sins of others, we would be significantly more effective at sharing the good news with others.   As it stands, we are so busy dissecting and gossiping about the sins of others that we have no time, nor any voice in their lives, to share the gospel with them.   Second, if we could remember the grace we ourselves have received, we would be so much more able to offer that grace to others.

Jesus didn’t come to scrutinize our sin, or to condemn us for it, or to remind us of just how awful we are.  He came to save us, we sinners, and to offer more grace than we know what to do with.  Paul got this, and was the most effective evangelist ever.  Let’s remember this ourselves and join Paul as he joined Christ in his mission to save sinners.

In his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Johnathan Edwards preached of hell’s reality, of God’s grace, and of our deep indebtedness to God for our salvation.  It was typical preaching from the Great Awakening and used the now-famous image of God holding humankind over the fires of hell as a man might hold a spider by its web dangling over a candle flame.  This is not the feel-good, kindly old God we are used to hearing about these days.

Isaiah seems to have a different view of God and his relation to our sin.  Rather than ominously dangling us over a flame, it seems that God’s punishment for our sin is to let it have its way with us.  God’s greatest gift, our free will to do whatever we please, becomes our greatest curse when sin is involved.

Our sinfulness separates us from God, Isaiah says in 59:2.  It is not God who ruins the relationship with His holiness but we with our sinfulness walk away, or build the wall of separation, or become enemies of God.  Paul picks up this idea throughout his writings but especially in Romans 2, where the punishment for our sin is to let it run its course.

And sin on the loose is a harsh punishment, for sin always seeks to increase itself.  Lies always lead to more lies and ultimately to broken relationships.  I have given up on political dialogue in this season because anyone who is paying attention in the least knows that our government does not speak truth but convenience.  Whatever helps their cause is what they say, even when facts or experience or common sense or their own previous statements contradict it.  And when the truth dies, so does trust, relationship, and hope.  Similarly, violence always leads to more violence, hence the Old Testament rule “an eye for an eye”, which really meant “no more than an eye for an eye”.  Name the sin and follow it to its logical conclusion and you will find death and broken relationship.

But thanks be to God that He breaks the cycle of sin.  God teaches us another way, a way that regards truth as a required good unto itself, that repays peace for violence, and that brings life, eternal life, back to our sinful souls.

So we have a choice to make.  We can either follow God’s ways and find life and eternal friendship with God, or we can follow our own way and find death and separation from Him.  But the choice is ours, and to “not choose” is to choose the later.

Jesus was deeply inclusive, and it drove the Pharisees nuts.  At his first adult synagogue service, He quoted Isaiah as His personal mission statement.

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the  Lord’s favor…” – Isa. 61

They loved it and praised Him thoroughly.  Until, that is, his next statement…

“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

Jesus’ suggestion that God might love and care for people other than Jews flips their opinion 180 degrees.  From their amazement and praise, they move to wanting to kill Him for blasphemy.  The Jews of Jesus’ day simply would not tolerate Jesus’ inclusiveness.

In today’s reading, we have another phrase Jesus famously quoted in His own ministry.  “for my house will be called a house of prayer.”  He says it as He attacks the temple money changers in a fit of rage.  And we usually take it to be a statement about the disruptive noise of the animals, the cheating scales of the money changers, and the misuse of the Temple.  But if you read this in context, you find that it is once again a statement of inclusiveness.

Every Jew upon hearing a short quote from the Old Testament would know the entire passage and context immediately.  So they would have known that Jesus was speaking about people who were declared by the Law to be unacceptable to God yet by God through Isaiah to be even more acceptable than the Jews themselves.  Eunuchs, foreigners, Gentiles who the Pharisees feel should have no place in the Temple, are proclaimed to be closer to God than the Jews themselves.  And it was in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place where Gentiles were allowed to worship God, that the money changers were disrupting worship with their animal sales.  After all, they were only Gentiles.

If Jesus can again and again proclaim a gospel that includes, shouldn’t we too?  Or will we, like the Pharisees, interpret the Law as exclusionary and risk finding ourselves opposing Jesus Himself?

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I ask you, “how are you suffering right now?”  None of us likes to suffer, yet everyone will at one point or another.  It is one of the most avoided parts of life, yet it is inevitable.  It tests our faith like nothing else, yet every person faces it.  I have, you have, Jesus did, and the scriptures promise that we will.

In fact, the scriptures also promised that Jesus would.  Isa. 53 is known as the chapter of the Suffering Servant and is a direct description of Jesus’ suffering.  I used to ask how the Jews missed this obvious prophecy of suffering, until I began to ask which prophecies of Jesus’ second return I am missing.

God does not cause our suffering.  Rather, when we sin and walk away from God He allows it.  And as we walk away from Him, consciously or not, it leads to our own suffering.  When we ask, as most do at one point or another, why God allows suffering (when what we really mean is, “why does God cause my suffering?”), we don’t have to look any further than our own choices.  God doesn’t allow our suffering – He allows us to sin and reap the consequences of of that sin, which are suffering.

And as we age, we begin to realize that it is in suffering, and maybe ONLY in suffering, that we truly grow as people.  We never grow in the midst of comfort, and seldom in the midst of blessing.  But when we suffer, the real self is revealed, and we cry out to God, either in fear, pain, or anger.

Does God cause our suffering?  No.  But He can use it to grow us into the people He has created us to be.

Which bible verses do you tend to claim for yourself?  And perhaps as importantly, which ones do you not claim for yourself?  We tend to be pretty selective when it comes to the scriptures we read or don’t read.  Even within one book, even one chapter, we can claim a verse and ignore the next.  If we truly are a “people of the book”, we need to be a people of the WHOLE book.

Our readings in Isaiah are a great example.  Who among us hasn’t read, heard, or sung part of chapter 52, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'”? 

Yet who among us has read, heard, or sung the verses immediately preceding this, “‘For my people have been taken away for nothing, and those who rule them mock,’ declares the Lord. ‘And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed. Therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it.'”?

We ignore anything the prophets speak about our poor worship practices, our selfish ambitions, and the consequences of our idolatry.  We decide that these verses are for Israel, foretelling their Assyrian or Babylonian captivities.  But the truth is that we ignore these passages to our own peril.

We need to read the comfort passages right alongside the accusation passages.  We need to take heed of God’s warnings as much as God’s grace.  We need to begin to see the whole picture of scripture, not just the parts we like.  Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the problems of our spiritual ancestors, to turn away from Christ in action if not in word, and to become “practical atheists” and suffer the same fate as literal ones.

As the centuries pass, it seems to get harder and harder to be expectant in our waiting for Jesus’ return.  For the church in Thessalonica, it was easier.  For them, it wasn’t 2000 years since Jesus promised His return; it was not a generation past.  They, and I believe Paul himself, believed Jesus would return literally any day.  In fact, they believed this so strongly that many of them had quit their work and spent their days on a hillside watching the clouds for Jesus’ return.  When He didn’t return that day, they went to a relative’s home, mooched their food and bed and then returned the next day to wait again.  After a while, this began to ruin the reputation of the church.  This lead Paul to his teaching, “you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

But how do we continue our waiting with any urgency when after 2000 years we’ve seen no sign of Jesus’ return?  I truly have not met anyone in my lifetime who lives with the urgency that Paul commands.  And this is not a shortcoming, or a sin, of God’s people today – it is just a result of a long wait.

But I imagine how much easier it would be to get the church moving in areas like evangelism and mission if we could truly know that Jesus was returning in the next week.  Imagine if you knew you had 5 days before Jesus came back, 5 days to tell your non-Christian friends and family members about the grace of God and the power of His salvation.

Without a finish line, urgency wanes.  Maranatha – “come, Lord Jesus.”