Text: Jeremiah 8:4-12
This week we get another of the hard Sundays in the Church Year, although the last few Sundays have kind of been preparing us for it. Two weeks ago, we heard our Lord’s warning about false prophets. Last week, we heard how the Lord brings down the proud, but raises up those who trust in Him. In the Old Testament reading today, we heard St. Jeremiah deliver Word from the Lord that Jerusalem would, in fact, be destroyed for her unfaithfulness. In the Gospel, Jesus foretold how Jerusalem would – again – be destroyed; this time, for failing to recognize, “the day of [her] visitation.” (Luke 19:44 English Standard Version) We must confess that, sadly, these things did happen. The city of God was destroyed both in 586 B.C by the Babylonians, and in 70 A.D. by the Romans. Each was a punishment from God for the unbelief of His people.
After Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon, the people were led off into exile. After 70 years, the Lord brought them back to their home. Under the faithful leadership of men like Ezra and Nehemiah, the city was rebuilt. After the walls were rebuilt, the people held a feast to God and they sang these words in praise of Him: “Our fathers acted presumptuously…[they] did not obey Your Commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that You performed among them…But You are a God ready to forgive, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.” (Nehemiah 9:16-17) Today we confess that our God is a just God, who punishes those who despise Him; but even more, does He stand ready to forgive those who trust in Him.
Like we said, this is one of the hard Sundays. Next to the crucifixion of our Lord, the destruction of Jerusalem in the Old Testament is the most painful lesson to read and learn. There’s actually a whole book of the Bible devoted to it, the book of Lamentations. This destruction wasn’t without warning, however. We heard in the text how the Lord, “paid attention and listened,” hoping that His people would listen to prophets and repent of their sin; but they would not. He sent them one prophet after another; Isaiah and Micah, we know by name – but Scripture indicates there many were others, too. The prophets came foretelling the destruction that loomed on the horizon, and also the Lord’s mercy. Even in the face of disaster, the Lord stood ready to forgive them. If His people confessed their sins and trusted in His Word, He would turn the disaster around in an instant – even at the last moment. We heard the Lord speak through Joel back on Ash Wednesday, “‘Yet even now…return to Me with all your heart…’ Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him.” (Joel 2:12, 14) But, His people would not listen.
“When men fall, do they not rise again,” God said. “If one turns away, does he not return? Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return.” (vv. 4-5) By return, the Lord means repent. Here, the Lord laments the refusal of His people to trust in Him. The stork in the heavens knows her time, the swallow and crane, too; but not His people. Fueled by lying scribes and prophets, who took the Lord’s name in vain by teaching His Word falsely, the people learned to hold fast to sin and not God. They charged headlong into sin like a horse to battle. Their consciences became seared. They no longer knew how to repent; they forgot how to blush. The Lord longed to gather His people like a hen does her chicks, but they wouldn’t have it. “Therefore,” God said, “when I punish them, they shall be overthrown.” (v. 12)
We cannot confess our God to be a God of mercy and forgiveness without confessing that He is also a God of justice. This thought is brought up in our text. There cannot be forgiveness without some transgression to forgive. The Lord has revealed to us and all people His standard of righteousness in the Ten Commandments. He wrote them both on stone and upon our hearts. To go against the Commandments is to disobey God’s will in favor or our own. It is in fact, to despise what is good and love what is evil. Justice demands that there be punishment of sin. Even still, the Lord is ready to forgive those who repent of their sin. The Scriptures tell us that forgiveness is freely given and received through faith in Christ. There is no work to do, no merit to earn by good behavior. God simply forgives those who confess His Word to be true, who repent of their sins and look to Him.
Those who refuse to repent of their sins, who hold to them, also refuse God’s mercy. Instead of acknowledging God to be in the right, they exalt themselves into His place. And God will not have His glory be shared. Therefore, He pronounced His just judgment against Jerusalem. The Lord raised up Babylon and brought them into the Holy Land. He used King Nebuchadnezzar as His instrument, hoping – even then – that His people would repent. And when they didn’t, Jerusalem was destroyed. The glory of the Lord left the temple, and it was torn down. The walls were leveled and homes destroyed. The people were forced to run from their homes. Thousands were captured and exiled to live in Babylon, while others occupied their houses and businesses. Many perished. Ours is a God of justice, who punishes those who despise Him.
This is a hard week in the lectionary, but let’s have it be hard for the right reason. The destruction of Jerusalem in both the Old and New Testaments should rouse in us an awareness of what awaits us if we continue in sin. We all have an awareness of this by nature, St. Paul said to the Romans; but it becomes clouded when we give ourselves away to sin. To sin is to reject God, to reject His mercy and choose His justice. We have done this throughout our lives, even today. Today, we have done what is evil, proving that the Lord is justified in His words and blameless in His judgment. (Ps. 51) The same that happened to Jerusalem stands ready to happen to us as individuals, on an eternal basis. Thankfully, the Lord has provided a way of escape. This way is Jesus.
The people sang in Nehemiah, “You are a God ready to forgive, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” It is this love that caused God to put forth His own Son, Jesus Christ, in our place. The destruction we merited by our sins, the Father placed upon His shoulders. On the cross, Jesus was forsaken by God for us and the temple of His body was desecrated so that we might be cleansed from sin. This cleansing and deliverance from sin is not something we can earn or purchase or deserve; God gives it freely out of His own mercy. God does not wait to mete out justice on those who hate him; He longs to forgive those who trust in Him. He desires, above all things, to forgive and do good to those who recognize Him to be in the right, who repent of their sins and trust in Him.
This is one of the hard Sundays, but there is a reason we hear these texts around this time of year. Normally, this text comes about the middle of summer when people are all relaxed and secure, perhaps even secure in their sin – as even we may sometimes be found. Let us hear the sadness in our Lord’s words, that He will punish those who reject Him. However, He longingly desires to forgive and gather together eternally those who repent of their sins and trust in Him. May He cause His Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, that we would always be aware of the sin that clings so close, repent of it, and so receive His merciful forgiveness and be gathered together in His eternal kingdom. Amen.