THE KIND OF FAITHFULNESS GOD WANTS
FROM HIS PEOPLE
September 18, 2005
One of the leaders in the history of this country who I think probably doesn’t get enough credit is John Adams, the second president of the United States. He was the fellow who suggested that Jefferson pen the words of the Declaration of Independence. It was Adams’ influence which brought Washington to be the commander of the Continental Army. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War itself, Adams was appointed by the Congress to do something he had little background in, and that was to serve as a sort of Secretary of War. In his letters to his wife Abigail in those years, he lamented the circumstances he saw in what passed for the Army at the time. He wrote, “Unfaithfulness in public stations is deeply criminal, but there is no encouragement to be faithful. Neither profit nor honor nor applause is acquired by faithfulness. “There is too much corruption, even in this infant age of our republic. Virtue is not in fashion. Vice is not infamous.”
That outlook by a man who saw the circumstances and the needs of his day is somewhat parallel to what the great prophet Jeremiah saw when he looked out over Jerusalem and Judah in his day. He worked somewhere from about 627 BC down to about 585 BC, and he saw the decline of Judah and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, and the people being led away into captivity. He was commissioned by the Lord in those days to go out and challenge the unfaithfulness in the land. He did so with great strength. You have to remember that this is not the work of a man who just found fault with things and enjoyed confronting people with their wrongdoing. These are the words of a tenderhearted man whose heart was broken by what he saw. The same prophet who wrote Jeremiah also wrote the Lamentations over the fall of his people when he hurt so much for them. He never enjoyed seeing anybody’s downfall. And yet God sent him on a task which he faithfully fulfilled.
The first one of Jeremiah’s public declarations of his people happened in Jeremiah 2 and the first part of chapter 3. It is this passage which helps us to see the kind of faithfulness God wants from his beloved people. It is a lesson for the church today also.
We might just start by focusing for a moment on the quality of faithfulness. God has always sought faithfulness. Faithfulness is simply the devotion, the dependability, the reliability, the trustworthiness which comes from people genuinely believing something. God wants faithfulness because of what he himself is. His own nature is to be faithful. In Hebrews 10:23, the writer said that Christians should hold fast our hope that it waver not because he who has promised is faithful. What God is like has a big bearing on what we are supposed to be like. We can’t be the children of a faithful God, a trustworthy God and a God who cannot lie, without our also determining to be faithful.
God wants us to be faithful not only because of what he is like, but because there is no real rewarding, lasting relationship of any kind possible without faithfulness. Most of us realize we can’t build a good, strong marriage without faithfulness. We can’t have friends that we really depend upon without faithfulness. We can’t build productive businesses without dependability in people. Our country cannot be protected without the faithfulness of people who are willing to stand watch. We cannot build a strong church without the faithfulness that is in the lives of members who can be depended upon to love the Lord first and to do what they can in his service.
A second thing that we could observe about faithfulness, not only that God wants it, but that it is possible. So many people have demonstrated faithfulness. You have known faithful people. The Bible recounts for us many stories of people who were faithful in the face of great odds, or despite great danger to themselves, even enduring terrible hardships and paying awful prices. Here are people who were faithful – Jesus being the highest example of all.
Here in Jeremiah 2, the people that Jeremiah writes to have known what it is to be faithful. Notice in verses 1 and 2 he says, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I remember the devotion of your youth.’” I am told that that word for devotion recounts the closest, most intimate, most loving kind of loyalty that any Hebrew word could describe. These people had been devoted. “I know the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride (the closest, purest kind of love), how you followed (there is the commitment to God) me in the wilderness.” He says, “Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest,” and God then protected them by requiring it of people who brought disaster on the apple of his eye. Here is a relationship in which people are faithful and devoted to the Lord, and he loves them as his own special treasure. Faithfulness is possible.
But then the third thing that we have to notice from this passage is that so is unfaithfulness possible. It is possible for people who have been loving and devoted and committed to fall away. The words that are used by Jeremiah in this passage are words that are translated sometimes “faithless,” the opposite of faithful. Sometimes the words are translated “apostasy” or “apostasies” or even “backsliding.” The idea is that people who have been people of faith can and sometimes do fall away from that commitment that they made to the Lord.
It is amazing that there are arguments among religious people over whether a child of God can fall away when it is so obvious that it happens. This past week a man called me from a community in northwest Arkansas talking with me about the congregation there. He indicated that if we could all the people in this community who are members of the church to be here, we would have to build a different place to meet. As it is, our place is too big, he said. Illustrations that Jesus used in his parables show it happens – the parable of the sower, for example. Here are people who received the word joyfully, but their hearts are like rocky ground and as soon as the trial comes, they have no root and they wither away. Here is the seed sown in the thorny ground. The word is received joyfully and it takes root and begins to grow, but before long the cares and the riches and the pleasures of this life choke it out. People don’t remain faithful in that way. There are actual stories in the New Testament of people who became unfaithful. Demas, a co-worker of Paul, decided that he loved this present world and forsook Paul in the service of the Lord. Men like Hymenaeus and Philetus erred from the truth by saying that the resurrection was already past, and they fell away. Alexander and Hymenaeus were men who made shipwreck of their faith, Paul said. And then there are the warnings of the New Testament: “Let him who think he stands take heed lest he fall” – things like that that would make no sense if it were not a fact of life that sometimes people do fall away.
In Jeremiah 2, look at the statements of what happened: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me?” (2:5) To go “far from” is a word that is used for sheep who wander or people who go astray. Look at 2:13, “My people have committed two evils; for they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Maybe we need to think about the picture this is presenting. My grandfather lived in a place that had an old cistern. It happened that on his farm he also had a spring. The old cistern was made out of rocks and then plastered inside, and they caught rain water with it and even sometimes hauled water and poured into it. And if you ever tasted that water, it was everything but pure and tasty. But you could go down the hillside where the Ozark spring ran out the hillside with clear, cold, refreshing water. To give up the spring water for the old stale water out of the cistern would be the most foolish trade you could make, but that is what God said his people had done in a spiritual sense.
Look a little farther with me at 2:32: “Can a virgin forget her ornaments or a bride her attire?” I did a wedding recently where the bride forgot the groom’s ring, but I have never done one yet where the bride forgot her wedding dress or attire, to look as beautiful as possible. Unfortunately, this passage says, “My people have forgotten me days without number.” Isn’t that a sad picture? God wants faithfulness. Faithfulness is possible, but unfaithfulness does occur.
Sources of Faithfulness
How are we to see to it that we build that faithful relationship with God, and that we avoid the trap of unfaithfulness? What can happen to allow us to be strong, vibrant, faithful people in our relationship with God and our walk with Him? If you read between the lines in Jeremiah 2, you discover the sources of faithfulness in God’s people.
In the first place, the kind of faithfulness God wants comes from remembering how much we have been given by the Lord and then living like we appreciate his good gifts. In Jeremiah 2:5 it says, “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, and a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?’ And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things.” You would have expected that people would have been so grateful for deliverance from that and for inheritance into this and for all the protection in between that they would never forget what God did and they would be so grateful to him that they would serve him faithfully from then on.
Harvey Porter, before he passed away, wrote an article on being faithful in the line of duty. Here is one line from it: “Grace appreciated will always see duty performed.” I think that is a great way of saying it, and a true statement. Anyone who remembered and appreciated how much God had done would have wanted to have been true to him. Unfortunately, beginning in the middle of verse 7 and continuing we read this, “But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.” It is a sad story of not remembering, but forgetting instead. Instead of keeping on in God’s way, they left it. Instead of being devoted to his truthfulness and being trustworthy, they became undependable. Instead of sacrificing spiritually to him, they offered what they had to the idol gods of the nation. God wants us to think of what he has given and live like we appreciate it.
Second, to be faithful God wants us to commit our way to him and to stay with it, and not change from one to the other time after time. Listen to the way the evidence is laid out in the court of heaven in verses 9 and following. The prophet has God saying, “Therefore I still contend with you (in other words, this is indictment or lawsuit against you), declares the Lord, and with your children’s children I will contend. For cross to the coasts of Cypress and see, or send to Kedar and examine with care (that simply means from the west to the east – the entire pagan world); see if there has been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord.” For people to change the living God for those who are not god - that kind of change is unfaithfulness.
Jeremiah portrays the foolishness of this a little more up in verse 27 and 28. He pictures his people worshiping these idols of a nation “as saying to a tree, ‘You are my father.’ And to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’” He says, “For they have turned their back to me and not their face. But in the time of their trouble they say, ‘Arise and save us!’” Do you see what he is saying? They have changed to these which are not gods, and they are satisfied with that until they get in trouble and the pressure is on, and then they want to change back to me and say, “Rise and save us while we remain devoted to those who are not gods at all.” God says, “Where are the gods that you made for yourself? Let them arise if they can save you in your time of trouble; for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah.” God wants us to commit our way to him and not to change.
Third, the faithfulness that we are looking for is something that God desires because he wants us to do what is good for us. God wants us to not have to bear the pain of unfaithfulness. Think of any human relationship that you can think of – marriage, friendship – and inject in your mind unfaithfulness into that picture and ask if it doesn’t hurt. Unfaithfulness always hurts. In this passage in verses 14 and following, God pictures Israel as being a son and not a slave, and he wants to know now how is that they have become slaves. How is it that the lions have roared against them, that the land has been made waste, that the cities lie in ruins without inhabitants, that the enemies from Egypt have overtaken them again? And in verse 17 he says, “Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the Lord your God when he led you in the way?” And verse 19 says, “Your evil will chastise you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God; the fear of me is not in you, declares the Lord God of hosts.” Jeremiah will say later that “your sins have withheld good from you” (5:25).
There is an old African parable that comes originally, as I understand it, from Zimbabwe. It is a story of a hyena and a hare that were on their way to a party at the house of their friend, the monkey. They went along the way looking forward to the party, and a little ways down the road they came to a place where the road forked. The hyena decided, “Maybe this long trip can be cut a little shorter if I take this way.” The hare decided to keep on the road they started down. After an hour or so, here came the old hyena through that thick, rough brush between the two roads. His fur had been torn in tatters by the thorns and briers that grabbed him along the way. His feet were oozing blood because of the roughness that was there. His tongue was hanging down and had a cut in it. He panted, “I thought I would come to see if this way was better after all.” And the hare said, “We are still on the way.” So they went along and the hyena decided it had to be shorter the other way. And so he cut through the brush again, and every time he was looking a little worse for the wear and a little more haggard. The hare went on, enjoyed the party at the monkey’s house and had a fine time with all his friends, but the hyena never showed up. Late that afternoon on the way back home, the hare happened to notice laying off in the brush by the side of the road the body of the hyena. The fur was torn from his body in many places and his wounds had gotten worse and worse because, you see, he had not learned to choose a way and be faithful to it. As he had cut back and forth, he had done the injury to himself. God wants us to be faithful because he doesn’t want us to be hurt.
Fourth, God wants us to be faithful in order to bear good fruit in our lives. He wants something good to come from our journey through this world. In verses 20 and following in this passage the picture is disappointing in the extreme. It is degrading and humiliating to see what unfaithfulness can do to a people, and the kind of fruit he can bear. In verse 21 it compares Israel to having been the choicest of grapevines planted in a good land and now its fruit has become like a wild vine instead. Look what happened to these people. In verse 20 it says, “I broke your yoke and burst your bonds; but you said, I will not serve. Now he says on every high hill and under every green tree you are bowed down like a harlot.” These are places where worship to the idols took place, and in some cases they actually involved sexual immorality practiced in the name of religion as if that were going to produce fertility in the lives of the people. That was the degrading effect of Canaanite religion. That is how these people are acting. That is the fruit that they have born. In verses 23 and following, he compares their behavior to a wild animal out in the desert in heat that sniffs the wind for someone to be unfaithful with, for someone to degrade herself further with. He says they are without shoes because they have been chasing that kind of way of life so much they have worn out their shoes.
I read a story about a young lady who fell in love with a boy who was not a Christian. He loved her, too. He promised that he would go to church with her. He went with her in the days leading up to their wedding and all the while he was saying to himself, “As soon as we are married, I will quit this.” The first Sunday after they were married, she got off and headed off to worship on the Lord’s Day morning, and he stayed at home. The second Sunday the same thing happened. It went along like that, and their first baby was born sometime later. His bride missed two Sundays after the birth of that little one. The third Sunday she got up and got dressed and then set about getting her little boy ready to take to church with her. While she was doing that, the husband sneaked outside, raised the hood of the car, took the battery cables off, and put down the hood. She went out with the little baby, put the baby in the seat, put the key in the ignition, turned the key, and nothing happened. She checked the gear shift, turned the key again, and nothing. She came back in a and got her coat and another blanket for the baby and headed down the sidewalk the two miles to the meeting place of the church. That young man was so ashamed of himself and so convicted that he went out and hooked the cable up, started the car, pulled up beside them and said, “Get in and I will go with you.” He went with her that Sunday and the next Sunday and the third Sunday he was baptized into Christ. That man became a leader in that local church and bore great fruit. Do you know why it happened? Because of his wife’s faithfulness! Faithfulness or unfaithfulness bears fruit in one way or another. God wants the fruit in our lives to be good fruit, and that can happen if we allow it to.
In the early 1940s there was a member of the Lord’s church named Wilkin B. Bacon. He was a Choctaw Indian and he got the name of Chief Bacon. He was a singer who sang in quartets at those times, and in the early 1940s he had been traveling with the Stamps Quartet in and around Dallas, TX. One night in the middle of all of that he showed up back home, and he said to himself, “I am supposed to be a child of God, but I am letting the demands of the quartet keep me away from so many services of the church and from the work I am supposed to be doing. And so in the midst of that struggle, he quit what was taking him away from the Lord. He wrote a song in the middle of that experience. The song is in our song book. I am going to read you the first stanza. “Jesus the Savior came down from above. He came to bring mercy and love. Crucify him, the mob scornfully cried, so he on Calvary died. While on the cross, he prayed, Father forgive for they know not what they do. For us he died that for him we might live. Can he depend on you? Can he depend on you his blessed will to do? Will you be crowned with the faithful and true? Can he depend on you?” Are you faithful? Am I faithful? Will we be faithful? That is what the Lord wants for us in our lives.
I want to finish with one statement from Jeremiah 3, beginning at verse 22. God says, “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness. Behold, we come to you for you are the Lord dour God. Truly the hills (this is the idol worshiping) are delusion, the commotion on the mountains. Truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel” and the salvation of Bill, too, and you. It will be today if you will confess your faith in Christ and be baptized into him and live for him from now on.