In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Three times in ten verses, and more besides: Return. It’s a refrain, the chorus to this song of God for His people: Return. Return, apostate Israel; return, sons of apostasy; return, sons of apostasy. And I will heal your apostasy. Turn again; because they have already turned—turned away from Yahweh, from their life, from their peace and salvation. Re-turn, from their idols and high places and all the ways they have walked away from their God. The Greek translation says, “Turn again from your turnings, and I will heal your wounds.” And Paul says, quoting Isaiah 59, “in their ways are wounds and misery.”
But their ways are easy and comfortable. Their ways seem good and right to their own eyes. It is all too easy to return to the habits of the flesh from which they had been ransomed and redeemed. And, if they are honest, they know that there is destruction that way. They know that there is ruin, and misery, and heartbreak. They know that these gods cannot satisfy, because they try one and then another and then another, and when they each fail, they discard them in turn.
But returning from their returning is easier said than done. What if they will not return of their own wills? Will the God who made them and calls them forsake and forget them? “The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? 7 And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8 She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. 9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. 10 Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 3:6-10). Israel, divorced and in exile. Judah, following the same pattern. Only the pretense of returning, half-heartedly.
But still, and ever, Yahweh holds out His faithful hands to His faithless people. I will heal your faithlessness, He says. Though their hearts are evil and deceitful above all things, though they follow only their own selfish desires and ways, the Lord has a Day—a day of judgment and darkness and blood and death. It happens in the midst of Judah, within Israel, right in the middle of the faithless and sinful and fallen-away. It happens at Golgotha, this day of judgment and death. The ark will be put away because the vessel of God’s saving presence has come. And from the cross He holds out His hands without ceasing. He gathers one from a city here, two from a family there, to bring them to Zion’s paradise. He takes hearts of stone, apostate and rebellious hearts, and He turns them again into hearts of flesh. He gives us twelve shepherds, not after our hearts, but after His own heart. They feed us with true understanding and knowledge through their apostolic word, so that we will never again follow our own stubborn hearts.
In our ways are only ruin and heartbreak. But “He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). By His wounds, you are healed. You and I were straying like sheep, but now we have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). One shepherd, one bishop, one Lord and God. Return us, O Lord, again and again, until our rebellious and stubborn hearts beat their last. Renew and remind us, and so relent, for the sake of the Good Shepherd.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/7/18