Jeremiah began his ministry when the Assyrians, the greatest power of the world at that time, which had dominated the world and seemed invincible, began to lose power. 114 years before, the Assyrians had taken the Northern Israel into exile. Assyria had fallen and Babylon and Egypt were seeking to take Assyria’s place as the next great power of the world. It was a politically unstable time and Judah was caught in the middle. It was in the midst of this political turmoil that the Lord called Jeremiah. God called Jeremiah to warn of the coming Babylonian invasion and the restoration that would follow the exile.
When Jeremiah began his ministry, it was during the reign of King Josiah. King Josiah brought about many reforms, repaired the temple and urged the people to return to the Lord. The people returned to the Lord. In the 13th year of his reign, God called Jeremiah to be a prophet to Israel and to the nations (Jeremiah 1:10). He was to uproot and tear down, meaning, to warn people of God’s judgement, and to plant and build up, meaning, to give a word of hope to the people.
After King Josiah, the next king was evil and the nation went back into her old idolatrous ways. The Israelites turned away from God. They worshipped idols. The priests, the kings and the prophets were far from God. That led to rampant social injustice. The widows, orphans and immigrants were suffering.
God told Jeremiah to stand at the temple gate publicly to preach God’s Word. This message was to be preached to all people, therefore, it was most likely that it was preached during one of the big religious festivals, such as Passover or the Feast of the Tabernacles. As the people entered into the temple to worship God, he warned them about religion.
The people worshipped God at the Temple but God was not pleased with them. They were going to the Temple because it made them looked good to be seen at the Temple. Furthermore, the spiritual leaders: the priests and the prophets were living in denial assuming that everything was all right because the Temple was there. They decided that the Lord would protect Jerusalem and Judah and would not allow anything to destroy the Temple. There were also fake prophets, saying that everything was all right. The false prophets said, “God will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us” (Jeremiah 5:12). They said “peace, peace” everything is fine (Jeremiah 6:14, NIV).
And so they would continue in their sin, and also go through the motions of the worshipping God at the Temple, thinking that everything were just fine.
Inside the temple, they worshipped God, and did all the required rituals, thinking that they would be accepted by God. But their hearts were far from God.
However, outside of the temple, it was a different story. These worshippers were unfaithful to God. They forsook God and worshipped idols. Jeremiah used the word “adultery” to describe their idol worshipping practice. Some even followed the pagan ways by offering their children as child sacrifices. They rebelled against God. There was injustice in the nation. They oppressed the weak, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows among them. Innocent lives were taken in the name of religion.
The Israelites had substitute worship with religion. Religion is not:
(1) Religion is not a lucky charm
“‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.(vv2-8, NIV).
The people kept saying, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”. Saying that would not save them. They had put their trust in the physical building. They thought the Temple could save them from enemies and that as a nation, their national security was strengthened. They had made the Temple their lucky charm.
For us as Christians today, wearing a cross pendant around our neck does not make us Christians. It is not a charm that brings us success or good luck or health. Some people hang a cross in their car as a lucky charm to protect them from accidents. The cross pendant and the decoration in the car is symbol to remind us of the sacrificial love of Jesus on the Cross for us. And that He had risen from the death and will come back for us and to judge the world. The cross pendant itself does not save us.
The act of worship in the temple would not save the worshippers. The people thought that as long as they were worshipping in the temple, the rituals would protect them.
The worship God was looking for was the transformation of His people: holiness, renewal of life and cleansing of the heart. Not the mere outward rituals and ceremonies.
True worship means there are changes for the better in the way we live and act. How are we living our lives? The way we live tells more powerful stories than testimonies that we say with our mouth. Are we just in our actions and in our dealings with others? Do we treat others with respect and dignity and do not oppress the foreigners or the migrant workers or our maid in our homes? Do we oppress the orphans and the widows and take advantage of them? True worship is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This is true worship. And we do not bow to other idols or political figures to save us. We give our whole heart and devotion to God, the maker of heavens and the earth for He rules with justice and He governs the world with His wisdom.
(2)Religion does not necessarily mean that we enjoy a healthy relationship with God
Having a religion does not mean having a relationship with God.
9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury,[a] burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.
Verse 9 mentions 6 of the 10 Commandments. You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make idols, you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witnesses against your neighbour.
The 10 Commandments is the foundation of the covenant relationship between God and His people. The people thought that they would be safe to do whatever they like if they had performed all these rituals.
Having a religion does not necessarily mean that you are have a real relationship with God. Being a Christian does not mean you have the license to commit sins and behaviour which are morally wrong and displeases God. God forgive sins, yes, but we often bend it too far. We often takes His grace for granted and think it is ok to sin because God will forgive us when we ask for forgiveness. Let us truly repent and forsake sinful ways. God is not a machine that dispenses grace like dispensing drink from a vending machine.
If we are reading the Bible, attending church just as a ritual, it does not mean we are having a close relationship with God. Do you know the heart of God? Do you spend time with God just because He is your Heavenly Father and you love Him and enjoy Him?
Without a love relationship with God, reading the Bible, prayers, coming for Sunday worship is a burdensome chore. It is burdensome, dry and boring. But genuine relationship with God gives us joy, strength, love and fulfilment in life.
(3)Religion does not mean we are superior than others
12 “‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. 14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors. 15 I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your fellow Israelites, the people of Ephraim.’
Shiloh was the central city of Israel. It was the centre of worship for about 400 years. It was the place where the tabernacle of meeting and the Ark of the Covenant was. Shiloh enjoyed all this glory for these hundreds of years. The people in Jerusalem thought they were better than the northern tribes because they had the Temple. But then, these glorious years ended quickly.
The Lord then drew a comparison between Shiloh where the tabernacle used to dwell and in Jerusalem where the temple now dwelled. By Jeremiah’s day, Shiloh had been in ruins for a long time. If God did not spare Shiloh from His judgement, where His Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant used to be, what would make God spare Jerusalem even though His temple was there? If the people of Jerusalem did not repent, a similar ending would come to them, as what happened to Shiloh.
Having a Temple in their city did not mean they were superior than the others. Going to church does not mean we are superior than those outside of the church.
One thing that we Christians tend to do when we talk to unbelievers is to talk down to them because they are not Christians. We can be harsh and say unpleasant things to them. Some Christians will say: you are suffering from certain illness because of your sins or the sins of your ancestors, and so on.
We are too quick to judge. We are too quick to see the speck of sawdust in their eyes and pay no attention to the plank in our own eye. We have lost compassion for others.
Yes, their souls matter. We care for them and we really want them to be in Heaven with Jesus someday. Evangelism is important but it has to match the way you live your life. If not, it will repel people from coming to know the love, mercy, holiness and grace of God. Let us evangelise with our lives, and not with words.
(4)Religion is not our safety net
Rituals will not save us. Coming to church, reading the Bible daily do not save us if we do not have a genuine relationship with God, our Creator.
Religion is not an investment. Some people hope that by putting in certain hours at church, or serving in the church, we will be rewarded with a long life, with a life with no worries, good health and wealth. If you put your trust in religion, it will disappoint you. You will still face problems and worries, your health may decline as the years go by.
Religion does not provide a safety net for us. We can only find refuge in God alone.
What kind of a Christian are we? What kind of a church are we? Let us prayerfully examine ourselves.
Are we worshipping God because it is our Sunday routine? Are our hearts far from God although we are sitting in the sanctuary or worshipping from home?
Christianity is not just a religion. It is a lifestyle. Religion does not work. Religion does not save us. God is not looking at our rituals and ceremonies. He is looking at our heart.
Jeremiah was a prophet who warned people of God’s judgment if they did not obey Him. Yet, Jeremiah also reminded the people that God is a God of Grace. God said He will punish His people, yet, He will restore.
What does God require of us? To love Him wholeheartedly. To walk with Him in humility, to care for one another, not to oppress the weak. God requires transformation from within: walking in holiness and righteousness. May our lives bring glory to God.