The Scattering And The Gathering God
1. For three months from October till November we heard messages from Isaiah and Jeremiah. Each time we did, as background to the time period that the messages were given, we touched upon the downfall of the kingdom of Judah and its history afterwards. The messages we've read so far were given firsthand to the Israelites within their specific historical situation. But, the ones being called out to in today's passage of scripture are "the foreign nations." "O people of the different nations, listen up to the word of the Lord. Inform the faraway islands," (verse ten).
2. Israel is the people of God. Yet, God's final interest does not lie with Israel. It is with the nations of peoples. It is the entire world. God has spoken to and worked for Israel. But, by means of Israel's history God is speaking to and working for this world. I'd like for us to keep these two points particularly in mind as we recall the history of Israel.
He Who Scattered Israel
3. The first point is that the God of Israel himself is the one who had scattered his people Israel. The northern kingdom of Israel was demolished by Assyria and the southern kingdom of Judah was demolished by Babylonia. But, it says that the one who scattered the people among the various nations through those demolitions was not Assyria, nor Babylonia but none other than their own God.
4. The reason God drove his own people out was that of their sins. And it was because of their stubbornness in not admitting their sin as sin, rejecting the word of God and in refusing to repent. Jeremiah once said this to the Israelites, "From the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, even unto this day, for twenty-three years, even though the word of the LORD has come unto me, and I have spoken it unto you tirelessly, you have not obeyed it. Even though the Lord has tirelessly sent his servants the prophets, you have not listened to them or obeyed," (Jeremiah 24:3-4). So, the Lord sent destruction upon this [disobedient] land of Judah.
5. Within the historical events of the scattering of the Israelites, we must recognize the fact that God hates sin. God abhors the disobedience of humanity. He abhors the stubbornness of humans refusing to repent of their sin. How much does God hate sin? He hates it to the extent that he destroyed the nation and scattered his own people to foreign lands.
6. Last week we celebrated the birth of Christ. But, we know that Christ would be crucified and die on the cross. The one who sent Christ into the world is the God who once scattered Israel and is also the same God who hates sin. So, with the cross God ultimately demonstrated his wrath against sin. How much does God hate sin? How strong is God's anger against sin? It is such that he would put even his own son on a bloodied cross and kill him.
7. But, we are told through scripture that this same God who abhors sin so much is also a God who loves sinners so strongly. To Israel scattered because of their sin God had this to say, "I love you with an everlasting love and I pour out my unfaltering affection," (31:3).
8. God hates sin, but God loves people. Therefore, he is willing to separate the people he loves from that sin that is so hateful to him. God purifies his beloved. When those we love are affected by cancer, we wish for the cancer to be removed from them. For that reason we think it is right for the surgeon's knife to enter the body. Likewise, through historical processes God has performed surgical operations to remove sin. God has wished for the removal of all impurity and idol worship from the Israelites. He has hoped for the removal of their stone hard stubborn hearts and the giving of fleshly soft hearts, contrite hearts. How strong is God's desire for this? For this reason he thought it was right to destroy one of the kingdoms and to destroy even his own temple. Also, he thought it was right to scatter the people of God among foreigners and make them an object of their scorn.
9. He is the very same God who has given us Christ. Along with demonstrating in Christ his anger for sin, the same God loves us sinners and made Christ's death our redemption for sin. Through Christ's death we are given peace with God. But, we must see that in [his death] there also lies God's will to cleanse people. The God who gave Christ is the God who once scattered Israel. One theologian put it this way in his sermon, "Often times we too easily regard God's forgiving love and grace without any need for sensitivity to sanctification and holiness. But, reconciliation takes place in forgiveness and grace. Cleansing and sanctification take place in reconciliation. Therefore, a sinful person receiving forgiveness is like undergoing surgery that arises from disease." I totally agree with that.
10. This could also be said about the following words of Paul which are frequently quoted: "We know that everything works together to be beneficial to those who love God, in other words, those called according to God's plan," (Romans 8:28). How could he claim that "all things are beneficial," even the harsh things in this world that smite the church and Christians? These words continue as follows, "God has set in advance those whom he has known ahead of time that they would be made like the image of his son. That is, to make the son the first born among many brothers," (Romans 8:29). In other words, by all things working together, due to the process in which one is made like the sinless son, these things become beneficial in a true sense.
11. God scattered the Israelites. But, it was for their benefit. The wrath of God was revealed in it. But, it was not to utterly destroy them. It was really for God's cleansing work on them.
The One Who Gathers Israel
12. Therefore, the act of scattering was not God's last action. There was more ahead. The one who scattered Israel would regather them. This is the second thing we should keep in mind.
13. To scatter the Israelites God used a great nation of this world. He used "ones stronger and superior to [Israel]," (verse eleven), who were Assyria and Babylonia. However, when God regathered his own, God visited with a very great power. The text has it that, "The Lord set Jacob loose, he redeemed them from the hands of those stronger and superior to [them]." God's hand of salvation was bigger and stronger than his hand of chastisement.
14. When they were restored back by God's hand of salvation, it didn't mean just going back to the old way. There was meaning in the sufferings they went through. There was meaning in the experiences they had in the fall of the country. There was meaning in their having been scattered.
15. Through it they came to know true wealth. They received "grain, wine, olive oil, lamb, and cattle." But, that wasn't all. "Their souls became like watered gardens, they would never dry up again," (verse twelve). Why? Because they "had been flourishing by turning to the Lord's grace." It wasn't just material wealth that they were receiving. They were receiving it as the Lord's blessing. When one does not know the blessing of the Lord, when one does not know that he or she receives from the Lord, no matter how prosperous, his or her soul is a dried up desert in life. For their souls to become like a watered garden, they had to lose everything once. It had been necessary for them to receive all as a blessing from the hand of the Lord.
16. So, they did come to experience true joy. This joy was not the kind that one receives from the world but a joy that one receives from God. But, the joy that God gives is not something that God makes from nothing. The verb in use here is "transform." A raw material is needed for the production of joy. This material is sorrow. It is true sorrow. It is not the pain we feel at some misfortune or accident. It is not the sorrow we feel over the effects of our sin. It is the sorrow we feel over the very sin itself [that we have committed]. God scattered Israel and he first gave them the material of sorrow. He did it to transform their sorrow to joy and to make them celebrate with joy instead of pain.
17. So, their wealth and joy drove them to worship. "I will drench the life of the priests with marrow, and I will stuff my people up with good things to eat says the Lord," (verse fourteen). By saying the life of the priests will be drenched with marrow it means to say that the Lord will be worshipped again in his temple and many sacrifices will be offered. (Since there are many sacrifices, the priestly portion will be a lot.)
18. But, the message spoken through the mouth of Jeremiah is extremely surprising because before the temple was tore down, there was no one who criticized the worship at the temple as much as Jeremiah. "O people of Judah entering the gates of the temple in order to worship the Lord, all of you, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the God of Israel, the Lord of the Armies, Make straight your path and deeds. If you do, I will let you dwell in this place. Do no trust in the vain words of the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord. ... While you steal, murder, fornicate, swear on lies, burn incense to Baal, and follow heretical gods that you do not know, do you come to this temple called by my name and stand before me and say 'We are saved!'? Aren't you doing everything that ought to be detestable? Does this temple called by my name look like a hangout for robbers in your eyes? I would say so. It seems that way to me also, says the Lord," (7:2-11).
19. Thus, when Jeremiah states here that worship will be offered again that does not just mean that the temple will be rebuilt or that the temple will flourish once more. It is talking here about the restoration of true worship. The worship that will be offered there will not be like it used to be. It will not be a worship of people who know not repentance or know not the comfort of God because of it. It will be none other but a worship involving thanksgiving and self sacrifice from a people who have begun to live anew through God's forgiveness.
20. Thus then, we have seen through the history of Israel the God who scatters and the God who gathers. Also, this same God is the one who has given us Christ through the history of Israel and is the one who speaks to us now and is at work for us today.