on turning people away from sin

“Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 

Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” 

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” 

And I said, “I see an almond branch.” 

Then the LORD said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.”

The word of the LORD came to me a second time, saying, “What do you see?” 

And I said, “I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north.” Then the LORD said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. For behold, I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, declares the LORD, and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me. They have made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands. But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the LORD, to deliver you.”

Jeremiah 1:4-19

How would you act if you were to go meet a king? I’d probably put on my nicest clothes; I’d practice my bow beforehand; I’d act as respectfully as I could. When I was a little kid, anytime my classmates and I saw our headmistress we’d greet her very politely, but I noticed our voices always went up several octaves every time we did so. So if I were to greet a king my voice would probably sound like I was trying to sing the chorus to Let it Go.

But that is not how Jeremiah is prepared to act here when he goes to see the king. And how does it make sense that God is telling him to speak harshly against the king?

You see, God was in the business of turning people away from their sins. It mattered to God that his people, his chosen people that he had saved time and time again before Jeremiah, had forgotten him, that they had turned to false gods and lived as if they weren’t God’s people. It mattered to God that the kings he had put in place to watch over his people had also forgotten God, that they cared more about making themselves rich and chasing after their false gods than acting justly and looking out for poor people.

Disobedience and sin matter to God. It mattered so much that he sent messengers like Jeremiah to tell his people that they were doing wrong, that they should turn back. Disobedience and sin matter to God so much that he had to punish it, even when it was being done by his own people whom he loved. Which is why he told Jeremiah that these enemies from the north would crush his people in the end. God knew that his people still would not listen to his voice, would not turn back to him, no matter how many messengers he sent. And so he would allow their enemies to crush them. Their sin could not go unpunished.

Now that’s all a bit hard to relate to. What does God’s relationship with his people 2600 years ago have anything to do with us today?

Well, God is still in the business of turning people away from their sins. What if I told you today’s passage was just a dress rehearsal for something much bigger that happened about 600 years afterward? 

Because 600 years after Jeremiah, God sent another young man to confront his people, who had fallen back into sin, and their sinful rulers too, and tell them to turn back. But this time, God did not save this man from harm. In fact this man was treated by God as if he were sinful: the young man was murdered and crushed by his enemies, he was punished though he was innocent. 

So why would God punish the man that he had sent? 

It all hinges on who this man was. He wasn’t just a normal man. He is the Son of God. He is God. This man was Jesus, sent to turn people away from their sins. And where Jeremiah’s words had not turned people from their sin, and where their punishment did not stop them from falling back into sin, Jesus finally changed everything. Jesus took the punishment that should have fallen on all other people onto himself, and paid the cost for it with his death. But God raised him from the dead, and now all people who put their trust in him can live new lives, free from the sin that crushes and poisons and chokes us, free to live as we were meant to live, free to be open and honest with each other and with God. 

And that’s how God is still in the business of turning people away from their sin. Jesus speaks to us even today, Christian and non-Christian, telling us the good news that he is alive, that he has taken the punishment for sin that should have been ours, that we are free forever. So how do we respond? Do we take in this good news, do we think about it, or do we scowl like the ancient kings scowled at Jeremiah? Will we act as if God’s punishment is at our door, or as if God’s punishment has been paid for by someone else, and that we are free? 

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