Why does the Lord so often ask his servants to go and find out information when he already knows everything? The investigation is never for the Lord. It is for the sake of his servants. Now Jeremiah joins the ranks of so many Old Testament individuals who were told to investigate for God. The Lord sends Jeremiah among the people to seek out the honest and the truthful. Fervently the prophet walked up and down Jerusalem’s corridors, searching through squares, speaking with women gathering water and striking up conversation with men conducting business.
Humanly speaking, these were still the good days of Jeremiah’s ministry. While he had been rejected by his family and hometown, Jerusalem had not yet turned against the prophet. Jeremiah could still walk unopposed through the city watching her people and listening to their public lives.
More hung in the balance than anyone knew. The Lord himself had told Jeremiah, “If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” It did not take Jeremiah very long to find the impenitent, those people struck by the Lord only to make “their faces harder than stone.” These people had committed the ultimate sin: they had refused to repent.
Jeremiah thought the explanation lay in the demographics. “These are only the poor; they are the foolish, for they do not know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God.” Yes, these people were foolish, but perhaps that was low-level ignorance. So Jeremiah goes to those who should know better. Those high-ranking officials could not hide behind ignorance. “But with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds.”
The refusal to repent transcended socioeconomic barriers. To borrow a scriptural axiom, the citizens of Jerusalem, from the king on the throne to the lowest slave girl, refused to repent. After his spiritual tour of the city even Jeremiah had to admit “their rebellion is great and their backslidings many.”
The investigation had revealed a complete spiritual rebellion in Jerusalem. And it all led the Lord to ask a question no soul on earth would ever want to hear. In fact, this might be the most frightening question asked in all of Scripture: “Why should I forgive you?”
Jerusalem had no good answer. Of course, that did not stop God’s people from coming up with their own misguided solutions. Some thought they had forgiveness coming by virtue of the fact that they belonged to God’s chosen people. Others thought they did not even need forgiveness. Some, like the false prophets and wicked priests, thought their position precluded them from punishment.
Jerusalem’s answers were all incorrect. So the Lord’s question remained: “Why should I forgive you?” At this point God listed the fruit of Jeremiah’s investigation of the people. Their children had sworn by other gods. The adults were committing adultery both spiritually and physically. Although they had been blessed by the Lord like “well-fed, lusty stallions” they acted like stubborn donkeys, refusing to acknowledge the true God who had given it all to them.
“Should I not punish them for this?” the Lord asks rhetorically. And punishment was coming. Once again the Lord reminds the people that the enemy from the north would succeed in burning through Jerusalem’s walls like a consuming fire. Harvests will be devoured, spelling disaster for God’s people. No fortified city will be able to save them.
It was all because the called workers of Jerusalem had completely failed those they were called to serve. “The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority.” And wouldn’t you know it, these actions were met with enthusiasm among the people: “My people love it this way.”
Is this still the case today? It seems that the days when pastors could command unquestioning authority are long gone. A century ago, pastors could tell their people how to live, and most would acquiesce. Teachers could discipline however they liked and the parents would always follow suit. Clearly, this is no longer the case. But perhaps that is for the best. Such authority placed into a sinful individual’s hands carries perhaps too many opportunities for sinful pride to wreak havoc.
Faithful workers of the Lord are not perfect servants. They are repentant servants.
Abraham Lincoln knew a thing or two about the dangers of power placed in sinful hands. He once wrote: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character give him power.”  There are times when pastors or teachers are tempted to use their position to garner popularity by making others happy. When this gets in the way of God’s word, the ministerial situation becomes as dangerous as the prophets of Jeremiah’s day.
Even if you do not serve in an authoritarian ministry, temptations abound. Seeing your community living like Jeremiah’s Jerusalem might tempt you to let them walk down their path to destruction, never giving them a second glance. These are the thoughts of a battle-hardened heart that no longer thinks true repentance is possible. Solomon once warned against withholding God’s good word from the people: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act” (Proverbs 3:27).
These temptations can strike teachers, too. How tempting it is to give up on the rebellious child and have him sent to another school for the smallest infraction! Or perhaps your temptation is more subtle, as you simply “wait out” a troubled child to finish out the year so you can “move him up” to bother another teacher. If you can’t beat ’em, graduate ’em.
So what makes us different from the prophets and priests of Jerusalem? We still sinfully exert our power when we can. We still give up on the people of our community because of who they are or because of their socioeconomic status. We are called workers, but we still sin.
The difference has been laid out throughout these first chapters of Jeremiah. It is repentance. Faithful workers of the Lord are not perfect servants. They are repentant servants.
The priests and prophets of Jerusalem refused to repent so the Lord asked them an ominous question: “What will you do in the end?” That question still gives perspective today. Point your flock to the end of all things, because that is the only place that will show everything for what it really is. The stuff of this world we love so much will be gone. The money collected will be of no use. All the friends I gained by giving up on parts of God’s word will not be able to save me. The end will reveal what really matters—faith in our Savior, Jesus.
Why should God forgive you? Because of Jesus.
Thanks be to Jesus, who has taken away our prideful sins, our apathetic trespasses and our incendiary iniquities. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit, who gives us the willingness of our new man to not give up on our calling but enables us to speak the truth in love to our people, our children, our families, and our community.
So the Lord’s frightening question remains: “Why should I forgive you?” You know the answer. He came to be one of us. He came to be punished for every one of our sins. He came to be completely washed over by death. He came to take life back and give it to you.
Why should God forgive you? Because of Jesus. What will you do in the end? Trust in Christ, who will be there in the end to take you home forever.
“‘As surely as I live,’ God said, ‘I would not have the sinner dead,
But that he turn from error’s ways, Repent, and live through endless days.’
“To us, therefore, Christ gave command: ‘Go forth and preach in ev’ry land; Bestow on all my pard’ning grace Who will repent of sinful ways.’” Amen.