“A Glory Abandoned”
Oct.24, 2010 Jer.2:4-13
We’re pretty good at hiding unseemly thoughts. The Apostle Paul wrote, “...judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes.He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1Co 4:5) For quite a while Colonel Russell Williams had been able to hide his sick thoughts and criminal actions, but much came to light this past week in an Ontario courtroom. His secret motives and covert night-time activities were exposed. The former commander of Canada’s largest Armed Forces base was convicted of 2 counts of first-degree murder, and admitted he was guilty of sexual assaults on other women, and breaking into over 40 homes driven by lust and fantasies. It was shameful not only for him; others in uniform felt it more difficult to be out in public as a result.
    Those who knew Colonel Williams at the base had a hard time reconciling what they knew of him with the condemned criminal. How could such a high-ranking, responsible officer be such a pervert? A pervert whose lust led him by degrees to death and destruction, including discharge from the Forces, being stripped of his medals, and incarceration.
    Is the guilt and shame entirely the colonel’s? Was he influenced by the culture in which we live? One person on Facebook this past week said after switching on the television, she saw 3 TV murders in five minutes; she commented, “Is that normal?” As for lust, would you say it’s common in our media today? Could not many of us confess to perverse thoughts or daydreams, we just don’t act on them as Williams did?
    When we forget God and take our eyes off Him, lesser gods and principalities are quick to grab our attention and draw our energetic pursuit. The Bible calls these ‘idols’. Back 2600 years ago in Jeremiah’s time they were represented by carvings of wood or stone, but maybe that’s just because the techies didn’t have HD! Jeremiah the prophet compared Judah’s religious adultery to wild animals in heat, searching out sex driven by lust and hormones. 2:23f, “How can you say, ‘I am not defiled; I have not run after the Baals’? See how you behaved in the valley; consider what you have done. You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving— in her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves...”
    We can be quick to label convicted sex offenders like Williams a ‘pervert’. But does that tag fit us - whether secretly or in our religious insincerity? Jeremiah 3:21, “A cry is heard on the barren heights, the weeping and pleading of the people of Israel, because they have perverted their ways and have forgotten the LORD their God.” Forgetting God leads one to become a ‘pervert’.
    How did this develop? And what’s the solution?
Throughout chapter 2, God reveals some puzzlement at the way the people of Israel were responding after all He’d done for them. After a promising beginning, they were abandoning Him without cause. V2, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert, through a land not sown.” The Hebrew word behind ‘devotion’ here is checed, also translated as mercy or lovingkindness, “the most intimate degree of loyalty, love, and faithfulness that can exist between two people...” (NIV Study Bible) Vv6f point out that the Lord “brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and rifts, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?’ ...into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce.” God had sustained and brought them through a barren wilderness into a rich place. V21, “I had planted you live a choice vine of sound and reliable stock” - the kind anyone would be glad to have in their vineyard. 3:19, “...How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation...”
    God had been so GOOD to them – that’s what made their deserting Him such a mystery. What’s the spiritual parallel here for Christians? Has God been good to us? In the words of Ephesians 2(4-7), “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions— it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Isn’t that wonderful? Love, mercy, grace, incomparable riches, kindness – how could anyone not want to just keep soaking that up? God plants us as a fruitful, choice vine in the vineyard of Jesus’ Kingdom.
    But the people of Israel and Judah couldn’t seem to recognize a good thing when they had it. They were driven compulsively by their lust and spiritual adultery: 2:25, “But you said, ‘It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.’” Sounds like a hard-core addict, taken over by their drive for their fix - “It’s no point, I just MUST have it.”
    And so, first the northern kingdom of Israel with its two calf-idols at Dan and Bethel, then the southern kingdom of Judah, slipped into worshipping idols from the surrounding nations, and those they had conquered. 2:7-8, “...you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.” Even the leaders, who should’ve known better, were sucked in - priests, scribes, political rulers, and prophets.
    A quick phrase search reveals that Jeremiah’s prophecy uses the expression ‘worthless idols’ six times – it’s not just ‘idols’ for him but ‘worthless idols’ – as if each time he says it he wants to turn to one side and spit! PTTUI!
    By the time Jeremiah began prophesying in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign, idolatry had become common practice among those who were SUPPOSED to be Yahweh’s people, ‘holy to the Lord’ like the little sign on the turban of the High Priest (2:3). [TIMELINE CHART] Judah had had some good kings - Asa, Jehoshaphat, Azariah, Hezekiah - but then in 697 BC (just before Josiah) came wicked Manasseh, for 55 years. 2Kings 21 lists how Manasseh went whole-hog into evil: rebuilding high places, altars to Baal, an Asherah pole, worship of the starry hosts, sacrificing his son in the fire, sorcery, divination, consulting mediums and spiritists; not to mention shedding ‘so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end’ - likely including godly folk who resisted the idolatrous innovations (2Kings 21:22). One Jewish tradition holds that the prophet Isaiah was sawn in two during Manasseh’s reign. In short, it’s written that “Manasseh led them astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites.” (2Ki 21:9)
    Hold on a minute - didn’t we just have a Witches’ Walk? Don’t some popular crime shows feature spiritists? And how come there seem to be fewer and fewer people each year showing up to the annual Life Chain, protesting abortion and euthanasia, slaughter of the ‘innocents’? With our declining birthrate, do we put material pursuits over family?
    Granted, according to 2Chronicles 33, Manasseh did have a period of repentance and housecleaning - but it must have been pretty limited, because when Josiah conducted his reforms after the discovery of the Book of the Law, there was a long list of items still to be dealt with; see 2Kings 23. There v7 notes, “He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes...” Now that’s disturbing - male prostitutes, and not likely for women but for men. Any parallels today? Perverted behaviour that’s becoming normalized – do away with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?
    There may have been reforms, but to Jeremiah it became painfully apparent that idolatry was deeply entrenched in the Jewish people. Even in chapter 44 - just before the destruction of Jerusalem, when the political leaders rebel against Babylon and flee to Egypt - even there, far away from Judah’s high places and altars, Jeremiah still has to confront men and women who try to defend their custom of burning incense and pouring out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven (Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar) and making cakes like her image. This whole tendency to run after other gods was just too deeply embedded to be erased by external reforms. Too widespread; 3:2, “"Look up to the barren heights and see.[referring to the high places where pagan gods were worshipped] Is there any place where you have not been ravished? ...You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness.”
    Through the prophet, God uses word-pictures to describe how unthinkable, how impossible to understand, their infidelity is after all He’s done for them. 2:13, “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.” Like turning from a clean clear spring to dry cracked tanks.(And you thought ‘living water’ was just a New Testament metaphor!)
    Here’s another word-picture in 2:32, “Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.” In our own family, with a wedding coming up, Meredith has been hunting carefully for a wedding dress, for bridesmaid dresses in burgundy, for the right decorations, table settings, and so on. Those things are pretty important to a bride! She has even set up a wedding website, complete with a photo of her and beau showing the engagement ring. Yet God’s saying here to His people, ‘Am I not more important to you than that? A bride doesn’t forget her wedding ornaments, her jewellery - how can you forget Me?’
    Israel and Judah stand out particularly in that most countries back then had their standard gods they worshipped and they didn’t change - that would be almost unpatriotic, worse than not being a Leafs fan in southern Ontario (!). God challenges them in 2:10f, “Cross over to the coasts of Kittim and look, send to Kedar and observe closely [ie from westernmost to easternmost countries]; see if there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.” A commentary notes how attached the people of Egypt were to the god Amon-Ra: one Pharaoh Akhenaton discouraged the worship of this god, trying to erase any reference to it; but after the Pharaoh died, worship of Amon-Ra was reintroduced and instead references to Pharaoh Akhenaton were erased! And yet – the people of Israel seemed only too happy to adopt foreign gods and worship customs instead of Yahweh who had delivered them. They abandoned a truly GLORIOUS God for shameful, lustful, fertility-oriented pagan gods and rituals.
As a result, they were suffering the consequences. Adopting courtroom-like language, God pleads His case against Israel and Judah: 2:9, “Therefore I bring charges against you again," declares the LORD. "And I will bring charges against your children’s children.” The heavenly host are called in as witnesses or jury: v12, “Be appalled at this, O heavens...” The question is put bluntly in v31, “You of this generation, consider [perhaps, weigh or deliberate as a judge would] the word of the LORD: Have I been a desert to Israel or a land of great darkness?” Rhetorical question implying, No, God has been good to them; so why have they rejected Him?
    Because the have turned away, they’re negatively affected. 2:21, although they were planted like a choice vine, “How then did you turn against Me into a corrupt, wild vine?” And this was particularly mind-boggling in Judah’s case, who had watched Israel to the north become increasingly heathen and then be overrun and exiled by the Assyrians in 722 BC, about a century before Jeremiah. Yet the lesson that should have been plain was lost on Judah. 3:8-10, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood [ie worshipping carved idols of foreign gods].In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense," declares the LORD.” God tried punishing them as discipline but they didn’t respond to correction (2:30).
    So the options had run out. V35, “I will pass judgment on you because you say, ‘I have not sinned.’” One of Jeremiah’s first visions, back in chapter 1(13f), is of a boiling pot, tilting away from the north; God interprets it this way. “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land...I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshiping what their hands have made.” Like Israel, Judah will be devastated by war: plundered, laid waste, towns burned and deserted (2:14f). And it’s all their doing, a result of their choices: 2:17, “Have you not brought this on yourselves by forsaking the LORD your God when he led you in the way?”
In the church, we may pretend to be religious; we may pride ourselves on our orthodoxy, our denomination, our regularity in attending or even at the forefront of serving. That’s important. But woe to those who let their devotion to the Lord slip and become enchanted with worldly things, “worthless idols” as Jeremiah would call them (PTTUI). God’s message to Jerusalem through Jeremiah was almost wistful: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert...Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest...” (Jer 2:2-3) What is Jesus’ rebuke to the first of seven churches addressed in the last book of the Bible? The church in Ephesus - the ‘mother-church’ where Paul had laboured; a church where Jesus says, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance” - a church that had endured hardships for Jesus’ name (Rev 2:2f). What’s His rebuke? Rev.2:4, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love...Repent and do the things you did at first.” God calls His people back to their first love, that white-heat of ‘checed’, the passion of appreciative dear relationship and devotion.
    How do we do that? Repent, as the Lord says; recognize and admit our guilt, the reality of our short-fall in the eyes of God. Jer 2:22, “Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me," declares the Sovereign LORD.” Asking for forgiveness is part of the Lord’s Prayer. Don’t be self-deceived or presumptuous, like those in 2:35, “Yet in spite of all this you say, ‘I am innocent; He is not angry with me.’” Ask the Holy Spirit to show you any faults or blind spots. How have you been trying to find satisfaction in ‘broken cisterns that cannot hold water’ that you’ve dug for yourself? (2:13)
    Next, identify your idols. What are you treasuring or pursuing or attached to that’s worthless in God’s eyes? What are your ‘high hills’ or ‘spreading trees’ where you cavort and try to find pleasure or meaning apart from Christ? (2:20) “Does a maiden forget her jewellery...” (2:32) - what charms you? Have material goods become an obsession? Do you like to feel important - you’re a bit jealous YOU won’t be elected reeve or mayor this week? Are you proud or humble - do you like ‘calling the shots’ or do you try to find how you can help and serve others in response to their genuine needs?
    Third, cultivate holding God in awe. 2:19, “Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the LORD your God and have no awe of me," declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.” Is your little tightly-controlled world humming along like a top just as you plan, quite independent of God’s interference? Do sunsets and stars and autumn colours prompt you to stop and praise the Creator? What’s your ‘glory’? 2:11, “My people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.” Is the Lord your ‘best’, your righteousness, the One who enthralls you most, whom you find delight in praying and singing to? Can you honestly say with the Psalmist, praying to God: “...I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever...As for me, it is good to be near God.” (Ps 73:23ff) Or do you secretly hanker after some other ‘portion’?
    Finally, if you’ve been letting Self sit on the throne instead of your Saviour, stop taking it out on others. Manasseh turned away from God and consequently filled Jerusalem with innocent blood. 2:34, “On your clothes men find the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in.” Have we been venting our spleen on hapless bystanders - our family members who just happen to be in the vicinity when we blow up? Does our bitterness find outlet in inappropriate ways? Do we ‘gunny-sack’ our complaints, waiting to dump them on someone with whom we feel safe, someone that won’t talk back or challenge our justifications? Stop making others suffer as a result of your sinful selfishness and refusal to see things God’s way.
    God’s intention is to bless others through us. 2:3, “Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of His harvest...” See how that’s looking beyond the nation of Israel to all peoples? Catch the big picture in 4:1-2, “"If you will return, O Israel, return to me," [that’s an invitation!] declares the LORD. "If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ then the nations will be blessed by him and in him they will glory."” That’s God’s dream, His purpose - to bless others through us, that they too may discover how glorious and good He is. That will happen if we live idol-free lives before Him in a truthful, just and righteous way: controlled not by lust, but by Jesus’ lovingkindness and mercy. Let’s pray.