The Longest Time Out Ever

Once upon a time, Israel disobeyed God year after year after year. Like a patient parent, He warned them time and time again, “Please don’t do this. Choose to obey.” He took the time to explain to them they were headed toward destruction and pain. They wouldn’t listen.

Finally, God had to follow through and discipline them. Like the best parents, He had to go against every impulse of His Father heart and punish His children so they would learn to not be self-destructive anymore.

In Israel’s case, God allowed/orchestrated the capture of the Israelites by enemy nations. They were carried off to Babylon, where the Israelites were enslaved for 70 years.

This may sound harsh at first read, but keep in mind God had been warning Israel through prophets for YEARS they were heading toward this exact punishment. God didn’t mince words. He was as honest with Israel as I am when I tell my children beforehand that a certain behavior WILL result in a spanking.

Like the unruliest of children, like me, Israel tested those limits. And they got exactly what God told them they’d get.

While reaping what they had sown in Babylon, Jeremiah, who was still in Jerusalem, sent the exiled Israelites a letter. In it Jeremiah quoted the Lord telling the Israelites to, “Build houses and settle down… Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage… seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile,” (Jeremiah 29:5-9).

When I am being disciplined by the Lord, the last thing I want to hear is, “Settle in; you’re going to be here awhile.” I much prefer to take my discipline quickly and get it over with.

Seventy years. The Israelites had FOUR GENERATIONS to sit and think about what they’d done wrong. That’s the longest time out ever. And yet, we can’t really get mad at God for going overboard – they were WARNED this was going to happen!

Imagine the self-loathing the Israelites felt. I can picture the Babylonians coming in, taking over, and marching the Israelites out of Jerusalem. I imagine the shocked men thinking, “This is really happening… God said things would happen this way, but we didn’t believe Him. We didn’t think He’d really go through with it, but here we are, being exiled. We have ANGERED God. We have angered GOD. Oh <expletive>!” Then the fear took over their bodies as the reality of the situation set in. It’s a wonder their legs were able to work at all.

I think a little fear was good for the Israelites. I know it’s good for me. I spend way too much time not having a healthy fear (awe, respect for) God. I need reality checks sometimes, and this was just such a reality check for the Israelites.

But lest that healthy fear turn into unhealthy fear (“God is scary”, “God doesn’t love us”, “God is spiteful”, etc.), God sends the Israelites a word of encouragement and reassurance once they arrive in Babylon. He says, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to [Jerusalem]. For I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future,” (Jeremiah 29:10-11).

When this letter was read aloud to the Israelites, I imagine they wept at these words. When my children come out of time out, they look at me with one question in their eyes, “Do you still love me?” And just as God says to the Israelites here, I want nothing more than to tell my children, “YES! YES! Of course I still love you! There is nothing you can EVER do that would make me not love you.”

God goes on to say to the Israelites, “I am with you and will save you…I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished,: (Jeremiah 30:11).

Even when you and I are in “times of exile”, experiencing the just discipline of the Lord for our disobedience, GOD IS WITH US! AND HE WILL SAVE US!

It may be a longer season of discipline than we’d like, but He is near, and He is good. And that is enough to get us through. That is enough to get us through.

How to Receive God’s Mercy

Yesterday we looked at Jeremiah 2 and saw ourselves in Israel’s rebellion. Like the Israelites, sometimes we choose to abandon God and go find substitute gods. We stop trusting the Lord and trust ourselves instead. We lose our awe of the Lord; we harden our hearts; we refuse to call sin sin.

We leave God with every right to abandon us. We have not loved Him well. In some cases, we have not loved Him at all. He has given us everything we have, including our lives themselves… but our twisted hearts have chosen to dishonor Him. We’ve opted to do things our way instead, loving ourselves and others more than God.

The Lord would be totally justified to wash His hands of Israel and of us forever.

But He doesn’t.

Instead, He says, “Return, faithless Israel…I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful…I will not be angry forever,” (Jeremiah 3:12).

What kind of God is this that loves the undeserving? How can anyone, much less the GOD OF EVERYTHING, extend this kind of mercy to the very people that have abandoned Him?

My brain cannot process this love. It makes no sense to humans. We don’t practice this kind of love, so we’ve never experienced it. It cannot be real. There must be some kind of catch. The verse says “return”… but that can’t be all one has to do to receive God’s mercy.

God goes on to say, “Only acknowledge your guilt–you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,” (Jeremiah 3:13).

Jeremiah 2 gives us the two-step plan to commit idolatry.

  1. Abandon God
  2. Find God Substitute

And Jeremiah 3 gives us the two-step plan to receive God’s mercy.

  1. Return to God
  2. Acknowledge Your Guilt

Simple. But not easy.

Oh, how my pride flares up at that second step! I know I have sinned, but I refuse to admit it. God knows I have sinned, but I still refuse to admit it.  WHY?

I am not the only one who struggles with step two. Many people will never accept Jesus’ gift of salvation because they staunchly refuse to acknowledge their guilt – their need of such a gift.

I’m sure a psych major could confirm there are several reasons why we dig in our heels when it comes to acknowledging guilt. Some of us have egos the size of China, and we are actually unwilling to believe we can do wrong. Some of us have the self-esteem of Eeyore, and we are afraid people won’t love us or value us if we admit we did something bad. Those of us who are particularly depraved oscillate between these two extremes.

But if we get hung up on “acknowledge your guilt”, we miss God’s heart in all of this.

Hear what God is saying.

“Return, faithless people…I will choose you…I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding…No longer will [you] follow the stubbornness of [your] evil hearts…How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation…Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding,” (Jeremiah 3:14, 15, 17, 19, 22).

Look past “acknowledge your guilt” and see the mercy and love God offers us! I want Him to choose me. I want knowledge and understanding. I want to stop following my stubborn heart. I want the blessings He has for me. And I want to be cured of my backsliding!

When we begin to understand the richness that can be ours, acknowledging guilt doesn’t seem so terrible. And when we start to realize, “Surely the [idolatrous] commotion on the hills and mountains is a deception; surely in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel,” the less we want our own idols (Jeremiah 3:23).

Whatever idol you are choosing – yourself, another person, another thing – it is a DECEPTION. Salvation is in the Lord. Return to God. Acknowledge your guilt. And feel His mercy and love wash over you afresh. He will frown on you no longer. He is merciful.