Return to the Lord

April 18, 2017

There was a way back to God for Israel, and there is still a way back today for people who have turned away from God.

FROM A SERMON BY Bill McKibben

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anual typewriters are archaic in today’s world, but we had one in our house when I was growing up. It was a keyboard machine operated entirely by hand, used for producing characters resembling print. When a key was pressed, a little arm with a raised letter on the end flew up and struck a ribbon, transferring an ink impression of the letter onto the paper. As a child, it was fun to push keys as fast as I could. My favorite part was when the “ding” would sound at the end of the line. That ding signaled that it was time to press the carriage return lever—a handle on the right side of the typewriter that returned the carriage back to its first position so the operator could begin the next line of type.

When I started high school, our class had the first electric typewriters in the school. The electric typewriter featured a metal ball that revolved to position the selected letter on the line. On that machine, when you needed to return to the left margin, you simply hit a button. Like the older manual typewriter, though, the machine would ding so you knew when to make a return. Today, some decades later, I work on a computer. There is no ding telling me when to return; the return function is automatic when the the right margin is reached.

Hosea's call to return

The prophet Hosea spoke of a return with spiritual significance. Hosea was a contemporary of Isaiah and Micah, living six to eight hundred years before the time of Christ. The thrust of his message to the Northern Kingdom of Israel was an impassioned plea: “Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1).

In prior chapters, Hosea had condemned the backsliding of Ephraim (or Israel), and explained the reason for the nation’s distress, saying, “Ephraim is oppressed and broken in judgment, because he willingly walked after [behind or short of] the commandment” (Hosea 5:11).

In succeeding chapters, the prophet related in vivid, metaphoric language why the people needed to return to God.

In succeeding chapters, the prophet related in vivid, metaphoric language why the people needed to return to God. In one descriptive phrase after another, he pointed out their sins against God. For example, in chapter 7 verse 8, he described Ephraim as being like a cake that is not turned—a pancake that is half done. The people were engaged in a great deal of religious activity, but they were “raw” or “undone” in terms of any reality in their relationship with God. In verse 9, Hosea asserted that Ephraim was unaware that strangers had “devoured his strength”—the people had been robbed of their spiritual vigor and were in a state of moral decay, but did not realize it. In chapter 12, the prophet accused Israel of having “the balances of deceit” in her hand, and of loving to oppress.

The consequences of turning away

Clearly, Hosea’s message was not a positive one! It could not be, because Israel’s condition was deplorable. In fact, throughout the whole book, we find that God was saying to the people that they had been unfaithful to Him as their covenant God; they were committing spiritual adultery. The people were in desperate need of a return—they needed to come back to God.

There was no excuse of ignorance on Israel’s part; the nation had been blessed in many ways throughout their history. God had met with them on Mt. Sinai during the time of Moses and revealed His will for them, giving them His Law written on tables of stone. God had worked miracles on their behalf. He had commissioned prophets who had expounded His instruction to them. However, they had turned away from Him. Hosea 5:11 states that they willingly chose to walk short of what God told them to do.

God responded to their disobedience by saying through Hosea, “Therefore will I be unto Ephraim as a moth, and to the house of Judah as rottenness” (Hosea 5:12). When I was a child, my grandmother had bags of mothballs hanging in her closet to deter moths from getting in and eating holes in the clothes. Moths are destructive “Rottenness” also alludes to decay. So in picturesque language, God was saying, He would devour and destroy their efforts because of their rejection of His commandments.”

Political solutions cannot solve a spiritual problem

The people had looked outside of God for a solution to their distress. They approached the greatest political powers in the area to find a solution to their problems. We still have people in our day who look for political solutions to mankind’s problems. However, God derided Israel’s attempts to find a personally crafted solution. You can almost hear Him saying, “You went to the King of Assyria to solve this problem? The problem is that you will not do what I said, as your God!”

There are no political solutions to ungodliness. That may not be a popular view but it is true. Ungodliness cannot be rectified through a political system, a particular leader, or even a certain style of government. It can only be rectified through an inner transformation of the human heart that occurs when an individual yields in complete surrender to the will of God.

God responded to Israel’s rebellious actions, saying through the prophet, “I will be unto Ephraim as a lion, and as a young lion to the house of Judah: I, even I, will tear and go away; I will take away, and none shall rescue him” (Hosea 5:14).

God cannot compromise with sin

Some people in our day seem to think that God should only be nice, kind, and gentle. God is all of that, but make no mistake, He is also a God of judgment! Hosea used vivid, metaphoric language to try to get Israel’s attention and make them aware that retribution would certainly come if they failed to return to God. They could not go against the revealed will of God and expect that He would overlook their rejection of Him. That is still true today! No matter what our culture says, we cannot continue to resist God without incurring His wrath.

We dare not lose sight of the fact that if man willfully continues in rejection of God’s commandments, brokenness and oppression will follow.

Of course, God reaches out to sinful man. The prophet Isaiah pled with Israel, saying, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). God offers mercy, but He will not compromise with sin. We dare not lose sight of the fact that if man willfully continues in rejection of God’s commandments, brokenness and oppression will follow. Sin has consequences!

In a theological sense, we use the word apostasy to describe a turning away from God. The word apostasy literally means “a total desertion or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, or cause.” It comes from a Greek word which means “standing away or withdrawing.” Some have said that apostasy really occurs in two parts. The first part is when we withdraw from God. The second part is even more serious; when we have rejected God, that is when God withdraws from us. Through Hosea, God warned the people of Israel that His withdrawal was coming and He would stay withdrawn until they returned to Him. He said, “I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face” (Hosea 5:15).

God cannot countenance sin. That is what His whole plan of redemption is about—a balancing of His holy justice and judgment with His grace and mercy. We cannot fully appreciate the grace and mercy of God until we understand that God’s divine justice must be satisfied. His pure and holy nature demands it.

God created humankind with a free will. He allows people to go their own way because He wants them to serve Him out of willingness rather than coercion. However, choices have consequences. When an individual willingly chooses to go against what God’s Word says, brokenness will follow. When a nation willingly chooses to go against what God’s Word says, oppression will follow.

It is interesting how many people who do not worry about what God thinks feel free to accuse Him when trouble comes. Frequently the first question is, “Why did God do this? Where is God in all this?” They do not stop to consider that they have been ignoring God and His commandments. For the most part, people just keep on going, giving no thought to the fact that a return to God is needed.

The way to return

There may come a time, as it did with Israel, when God must say, “I’m going to step back until you finally can acknowledge your offense and return to Me.” However, notice in verse 15 that there also is a reference to mercy. God says, “I will go and return to my place till they acknowledge their offense, and seek my face.” There was a way back to God for Israel, and there is for people today who have turned away from Him. Hosea said, “If we come and return to the Lord, He will give us life and we can know Him.” There is a positive impact on our lives when we follow this admonition and “come and return” to the Lord. Our sins will be forgiven and we will be right with God. We will have an intimate, thriving relationship with the Creator as we keep our eyes on Him and live in obedience to His Word. Finally, we will look forward to a blessed eternity with Him!

Today, if you are not where you’re supposed to be with the Lord, we urge you to return. The “ding” is sounding; we are nearing the end of the line. The Holy Spirit still is calling hearts to repentance, just as when the prophet Hosea, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, called out to Israel to return to the Lord. God promises to renew and restore if you will just yield to Him. Pay heed to His warning, and return to Him today!

About the author

Bill McKibben is Director of Asia Work for the Apostolic Faith organization, and pastor of the Apostolic Faith Church in Seattle, Washington.