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Return to me, O Israel

Jeremiah 4:1

Last Sunday we reached a wonderful temperature of 22 degrees at our home. A friend in SYD said it was 30 degrees where he lives. Here in CBR, the beautiful spring weather decided that it would withdraw on Monday and snow was falling in the Brindabella’s, and in some CBR suburbs I believe.

Seasons in CBR are not the only matters that have a life of their own! Two weeks back I was in SYD at a conference. One of the keynote speakers was Hayley Jones (not her real name) who is a political journalist and commentator.

Hayley said she likes to bring contemporary issues of faith into the public square for discussion. She doesn’t go to this space to fight the issues, rather she speaks to ‘shine a light, and to be a light’.



But what Hayley has also discovered is that she has needed to increase her personal and family security measures because of social media and internet trolls who, even as Christians, seek to argue and act in not so Christian and neighbourly ways.

One of the ‘changing seasons’ that we now find ourselves caught up in is in the area of influence through social media. Hayley said ‘this is fundamentally changing and even eroding our worth as human beings’. We ask ourselves the question, ‘What has happened to us that we have so rudely placed ourselves at odds with one another?

I was talking with a Christian recently, and they told me the story of how they were driving to church when the driver of another car ‘misrepresented the road rules. The person telling me the story said that their partner who was driving their car had a few words to say about this - in a not so Christian manner.

They drove on to church, only to discover that the ‘other driver’ was also pulling into the church carpark, he too on his way to church. Thankfully when the partner uttered the not so neighbourly words to the offending driver, the windows of their car were wound up, so apart from a red face, there was no embarrassment.

Modern trends, along with many of the sad news items of recent years leave us uncomfortably in a season of restlessness.

But seasons of restlessness are not uncommon bed partners with human history. Today you possibly heard one of the shortest bible readings in your history of attending worship. And I do that with unashamed purpose. It’s such a simple, yet profoundly striking message “Return to me, O Israel.”

Jeremiah also lived in a restless time in the history of his world. He saw and experienced the results of the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the rise of the Babylonian Empire. The latter led to the exile of many Jews from their occupied land into Babylon, and their Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.

Yet in the restlessness of that history, the words of the prophet Jeremiah reflect a Godly call to the people of God.
In the previous or third chapter of Jeremiah, the call for God’s people to return to God was made not less than four times. I think there might be a message there.

“Return to me, O Israel.” If I would be a little more of the evangelist, I would encourage us to replace “Israel” with our own name, or – ‘Return to me, Gary’, ‘Return to me, Australia!’

And yet, it seems this spoken word of God through Jeremiah is all command, all invitation, and all a plea from the heart of God. ‘Return to me you who are my people!’ Do we give God first place in our heart, mind and soul?

On Friday I read on the ABC news site that the Anglican Church through its General Synod offers a formal apology to victims of Domestic Violence. Church leaders and the teachings of the church have at times let down many people in this area.

To quote a comment on the ABC site, one person said that it was ‘incredibly heartening’ to see the church commit to addressing domestic abuse. Sadly, there are also other matters that need to be addressed, and the whole church, not just the Anglican Church does need to dive deeply into its training of leaders and its own leadership and management practices.

While such reforms are more than overdue, the process for reform starts with each of us. But neither should such reform, or any reform, begin without the primary foundation of the call of the church and its people to return to the Lord our God.
Credibility and integrity in many forms have been in short supply. Hence, as we heard from Hayley Jones, SBNR is a popular acronym. SBNR is Spiritual, But Not Religious. Or, as Hayley also said, people like the product (Jesus), but they don’t like the retail outlet (which is the church).

But to be counter-cultural in all this, I believe the church, you and I, also need to be prayerful and mindful not to condemn or be a lynch mob toward perpetrators or protagonists.

Karl Barth, the German Theologian b. 1886 d. 1968 wrote wheelbarrow loads of theological books. Barth was also a caring, inspiring man of God who practised what he wrote.

In one of his sermons to prisoners in Basel Prison in Switzerland, he said “Sorrow is your plight, and so it is mine. We suffer here within the walls of this house, and so do the people of this city, even of the whole world. Behind the sorrow of each individual there lies the sorrow of a world in disorder, of a harassed, dark, and dangerous world. There also lies the sorrow of humanity as it is: not good, but haughty and lazy, a liar and a poor wretch, not well off, but living in misery. What a great thing it would be were we able to throw in the face of all these adversities the defiant, [words of Psa 73:23] “Nevertheless, I am continually with you, you hold my right hand”.

What words of comfort and wisdom, and yet Karl Barth was no soft touch. He was profoundly concerned with the life and witness of the church.

At the historic Synod at Barmen in 1934, the brave and small ‘Confessional Church” in Germany challenged Hitler and his colleagues as the latter tried to strangle the church. That meeting was largely due to the fact that Barth had made the churches of Germany face some most searching and awkward questions about their duty as the church under such a person as Hitler.

The circumstances are very different, but the attitude of our facing ‘some of the most searching and awkward questions’ today is where we must delve. But do it within the heart of God, following in Barth’s footsteps. In my mind, that is the church. Fighting a tyrant one moment, and encouraging the prisoner, the church, to walk hand in hand with God at the same time. Have the mind of Christ who loved even His enemies!

“Return to me!” How should we return to God? That’s for you to seek from the Lord – maybe through prayer or talking it through with God, maybe through reading scripture, maybe through quiet, or friends or even enemies, maybe through your own exposure or hurt from some wrenching experience – resolved or not, forgiven or unforgiving, angry or relieved. ‘Return to me!’

Hayley Jones’s keynote address to the conference was simply titled ‘Grace”, and to that she commented that Christians need to be vigilantes of God’s grace. To do that, I believe we first come to God, because often times, at least for me, it’s only in God’s Spirit that we know what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and there find the strength, courage and integrity to accomplish the task.
If we, like Karl Barth, address some of the ‘deeper, awkward, and searching questions’ that we face, I wonder what might bloom.

I believe we must also walk hand in hand with God as we speak into that space of unaddressed questions. Could that be the emerging spirit of a reforming church and people who would no longer need to define themselves SBNR, but rather SALGAHC. (Spiritual And Loving God And His Church) and ATQ (Addressing The Questions!).

God, through Jeremiah, appeals to His people, “Return to me”. Yet at that time it appears to have fallen on deaf ears and hardened hearts.

600 years later God made another appeal, the ultimate appeal through His son Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son”. Indeed, “God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved”, or returned to God through Jesus. Jn 3:16-17

Through our faith in Christ and focusing on His life, death and resurrection from the dead we ARE returned to God. ‘Return to me’. And here we will find our way, the way to be Christ in a world, as Barth said, ‘in disorder, harassed, dark and dangerous’

God is continually with us, holding us by the hand. Return to Him and rejoice in His peace – peace that passes all understanding. Amen

The Rev Gary Whelband is a retired Uniting Church minister and Air Force chaplain. Gary’s ministry both within the church and the Air Force has taken him to many parts of Australia and overseas. Gary continues to support our congregation’s worship through his preaching. 

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About Our Church

Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering and ministry.

We aim to help people have life to the full. We welcome people into a our Christian community where they can connect with God, with one another and with opportunities to make a difference in our changing world.

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