It was not a pretty picture. The chosen people in the days of the young prophet Jeremiah, I mean. They were not a pretty picture. They'd become self-parodies, funhouse-mirror images of everything they were ever meant to be for God and for the world. These chosen people were led by sinful leaders: “The shepherds transgressed against me,” says their God. These chosen people listened to false prophets for their instruction: “The prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit,” God adds. And their priests? The priests, those beacons of wisdom, were utterly clueless: “The priests did not say, 'Where is the LORD?' Those who handle the law did not know me,” God explains. And that pretty land, flowing with milk and honey? “When you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination” (Jeremiah 2:7-8). Thinking to be wise, they became fools – what a self-parody.
Chosen to be an example of justice, their clothes are stained with blood, the blood of the poor, the blood of the innocent (Jeremiah 2:34). Chosen to be an example of piety, they're less faithful to the God of life and beauty than every other nation is to their little statues of death and ugliness. “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for what's useless” (Jeremiah 2:11). The people chosen as a model of pure worship are enthusiastic about idolatry: “As many as your cities are your gods, O Judah” (Jeremiah 2:28). They're so delusional that they'll call a tree their dad and a rock their mom, and their only real heartfelt interest in God is when they need bail money (Jeremiah 2:27).
Chosen to be free and independent to love him, they instead demand to be slaves to Egypt or Assyria, to lap up the waters of the Nile or the Euphrates like a dog, even though those mighty rivers are aimless as empty wells compared with the Divine Fountain they seem determined to abandon. Listen to God's words by his prophet: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant? Why, then, has he become a prey? … And now what do you gain by going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile, or what do you gain by going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates? 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” (Jeremiah 2:13-19).
God compares them to a cheating, loveless wife – on the hunt for new and exotic men, out waiting for them in the streets like a donkey or camel in heat (Jeremiah 2:23-25), but with no passion for her real husband. He adores her and provides for her, but she treats him like an abuser and refuses him (Jeremiah 2:31). So much so, her wedding dress burns in a dumpster fire, and she doesn't notice or care when her wedding ring tumbles down a storm drain into the sewer (Jeremiah 2:32).
Oh, she insists she's innocent. She insists she's done nothing wrong (Jeremiah 2:35). She refuses to be ashamed (Jeremiah 3:3). She thinks her husband is just being dramatic. She thinks he'll always be there. She makes nice with words, but in her actions betrays him every chance she gets (Jeremiah 3:4-5). She takes him for granted and treats their marriage like a joke (Jeremiah 3:9). She's given him cause to say, “Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband, so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 3:20). She's forgotten him and changed her name (Jeremiah 3:21). He loves her immensely and yearns to take her back and spoil her with his love. But as good as he is to her, she doesn't love him.
It didn't used to be that way. Once upon a time, she cherished that wedding dress. Once upon a time, she showed off her bright, shiny ring. Once upon a time, she loved her husband, her hero. Once upon a time, she swore she'd always be his, and that she'd always love him, always have eyes only for him, always love and cherish him all her life long. That's what she said, when she married him in the shade of the mountain in the desert. She was shy that day – she stood back from the thunder and lightning and smoke (Exodus 20:18).
But still, she took that vow: “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7). And Rev. Moses, officiating the ceremony, certified the covenant as valid, pronounced them husband and wife, there in the camp (Exodus 24:8). And then, up on the mountain, God the Groom hosted the reception: “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel, … they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:9-11). And on a pavement of sapphire, rich as the ocean and broad and clear as the bright morning sky, the Bride and Groom shared their first dance.
Those were the days. The days her husband wants her to remember. That's what he means when he says to her, through the mouth of Jeremiah, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). All he wants is for her to return. All he wants is for her to come back to him. All he wants is for her to learn again how to love him, love him the way she promised to love him, love him like he loves her. The deserted and jilted and lonely husband says to his loveless wife, urges her, “Remember our wedding day, how you loved me then, how things used to be! We can get back there, I know we can!” And so the only question is, will she make the effort to work on their relationship? Will she remember her love, the devotion of her youth? Can she have a heart to love again?
Fast-forward a few centuries. Go north, north to Asia Minor, to a city called Ephesus, where grows an outgrowth of the New Israel, the Church. And had any local church ever been blessed quite as much as the church in Ephesus? They were founded by Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila, who began teaching there in the local synagogue (Acts 18:19). And while Paul went off and worked elsewhere, the Ephesian church had the service of brilliant, passionate Apollos (Acts 18:24-27). And then Paul came back, and not for just a short while (Acts 19:1). No, Paul spent three years leading and growing the church in Ephesus – they had all that time with him (Acts 19:8-10; 20:31). They saw mighty miracles, they saw evil spirits cast out, they saw things they couldn't explain (Acts 19:11-16). “And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, and fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled, … and the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:17-20). In the face of riots, the church flourished, because they were so full of love and devotion.
Paul left again, after his years there. But he wasn't done with the Ephesian church. He called the elders to visit him one last time, and they wept with passionate love for him and for God (Acts 20:37-38). Paul encouraged them to stay faithful, to watch out for false teachers who would come in and arise even from among their number (Acts 20:28-30). “Be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:31-32).
A few years passed, and from a Roman jail cell, Paul wrote them a letter again. He reminded them that Jesus hadn't just given them a little advantage in life; he brought them from death into life, and given them all sorts of blessings: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, … and were by nature children of wrath … but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:1-7).
Instead of being strangers and aliens, they'd been brought into God's house and made into his temple (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so he urges them to live like this new humanity, and to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). He commends them for their love and faithfulness, in fact, he thanks God for it (Ephesians 1:15). And then he reminds them that Christ is their Bridegroom, who loves and cherishes them: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish,” a radiant bride on her wedding day – in fact, Paul tells the Ephesian church, the whole point of marriage is to showcase the love between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:25-32).
A couple years later, Paul writes to the young lead pastor of the Ephesian church, Timothy, who works alongside Priscilla and Aquila and a devout local Christian named Onesiphorus. And Paul has heard that some things in the Ephesian church aren't going quite so well – people are running astray after false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Some of the wealthy and entitled Ephesian widows are causing a ruckus and parroting the latest ideas they'd heard (1 Timothy 2:11-15; 5:3-16; 2 Timothy 3:6), and so Timothy needs to raise up healthier leaders to model the gospel in their teachings and their lives (1 Timothy 3:1-13). “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching,” Paul urges Pastor Timothy (1 Timothy 4:16).
And where does Paul point the Ephesian church? To rediscover their true love. As it is, some of them love a lot of things – “lovers of self, lovers of money, … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4). But they need to get back to true love, the way they started out: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
Decades pass. Paul has gone from the earthly scene. John has spent some time in Ephesus now, and so, if the stories are true, has Mary the mother of Jesus spent the closing years of her earthly life with them. Talk about a richly blessed church! But John is the last apostle, living in exile on a cold little island called Patmos. And in his cave, he has visions. And in his visions, Jesus comes to him, to John the Secretary of the Lord, and dictates a little letter to the church in Ephesus.
At first, what he says is a relief. The Ephesian church has finally overcome its problem with false teaching – they won't put up with it: They “cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2). What's more, just like in the days of the theater riot, when Demetrius the silversmith whipped up the crowd in Artemis' unholy name, the believers in Ephesus have patient endurance and, through it all, haven't grown weary (Revelation 2:3).
But still, not all is well. Because Jesus has one more message for them: “I have this against you: That you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember, therefore, from where you have fallen” (Revelation 2:4-5). It's just like in the days of Jeremiah. Whatever you can say that's good about the Ephesian church, they've gone astray from the devotion of their youth. They no longer love Jesus like he loves them. Unlike Judah, they're still faithful. They won't cheat on the Truth. And they're busy in work, they're a fine homemaker. But the relationship is still on the rocks... because although they don't stray and although they keep busy, they've fallen out of love with Jesus. And without that, what good is all the rest? They need to get back to that first love, back to the devotion of their youth.
Now, I'm sure that if you built a time machine and flew it back to the days of Jeremiah, and if you did some street interviews anywhere in Jerusalem, asking people if they loved the LORD their God, they would say yes – yes, of course they love the LORD. That's what they'd say. That's what they'd claim. It's just that God disagrees: he's not feeling the love.
And if you took that time machine forward to the days when John wrote down these words from Christ, and you walked into a church meeting in Ephesus and asked the people there if they loved Jesus, they would say yes – yes, of course they love Jesus. That's what they'd say. That's what they'd claim. It's just that Jesus says he hasn't been feeling the love. He knows the spark's gone out – and if they don't get the spark back, then the whole lampstand is going to go (Revelation 2:5).
They can say, over and over again, that they love Jesus. But what matters isn't the words they say. It's not even the things they do, in terms of the motions they go through, as ends in themselves. What matters is the heart that's underneath it. What matters is their devotion. What matters is their passion. What matters is whole-souled intimacy in the relationship. What matters is their love and adoration. And the same is true for us.
When we read these words of God through Jeremiah, when we hear this message of Jesus through John, we have to ask ourselves the question: How's our love? How's our spark? Is it still there, sizzling and burning bright and warm? Are we still polishing and wearing our ring? Are we keeping the dress clean? Are we building a healthy relationship with Christ while we wait for him to pull up in his shining limo to drive us to the chapel?
Or, instead, have we lost the passion with which we loved Jesus at first? Do we take him and our relationship for granted? Does he have to fondly reminisce about the devotion of our youth, the days when we were a young church on fire for him? Or is that love still there?
That's a question for serious reflection. We're coming up, in a few days, on Valentine's Day. And this feast of St. Valentine, or at least what we've made of it as a culture, is all about love, romantic love, in our relationships. And you could actually say that Valentine's Day is a day of repentance. In marriages and courtships all across the land, it's meant as a yearly wake-up call, a time to turn back and recover love in its freshest form, the way it was at first, the fresh devotion of their youth. It's a time when couples rediscover and enrich their love and put into practice all the intimacy-building celebrations that breathed life into their love in the beginning, and still can do the same now.
It's not that it's the only day in the year to do those things. It's not that it's the only day in the year to show and express love. It's a day of remembrance of their youthful faith, hope, and love for one another. It's a day of repentance, for a man and a woman to do again the sort of intimacy-building works they did together at first. It's a day of rediscovery of just how good and fresh that love can be again.
If you're married, please, please do that with your spouse. But as a church, let's do the same with the Bridegroom who stands in heaven for us, waiting for the wedding day. Let's make ourselves ready (Revelation 19:7). Let this be our day of repentance, our day of return to our first love, to the devotion of our youth. “Return..., declares the LORD. I will not look on you with anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD. … Return...” (Jeremiah 3:12-14).
Let us heed the Groom's call to “repent, and do the works [we] did at first” (Revelation 2:5). And if we do, he promises a beautiful, everlasting honeymoon at nowhere less than “the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). May we rediscover the passionate joy of our first love, and keep it always, just as Jesus always keeps the passionate joy of love for us that led him to – and through – the cross. Hallelujah. Amen and amen.