“Come, let us return to the Lord” – a reflection on not returning to in-person gathered worship

Isaiah 5.5-7; Jeremiah 9.10-14; Hosea 4.1-3, 5.15-6.3

“Come, let us return to the Lord…”

How different those words sounded just a few weeks ago, when the worship planning group met to plan for our return to in-person gathered worship, which was to have been this weekend. Then, those words spoke of joyful return, of a promise fulfilled. But the world has changed quickly since then, and our plans have changed with it, and we are not gathering. I wonder how those words sound to you today?

“Come, let us return to the Lord…”

Perhaps it sounds like a promise of things to come – after all, our gathering for worship is not cancelled, but postponed. Or perhaps, as this fresh loss compounds our grief for all the losses of this time, it sounds like an empty promise, hollow words when we cannot return.

It is, I think, no coincidence that the book of Hosea, like many of the prophetic texts in the Bible, was written during or just after a time of upheaval, sadness, separation and loss, when the people of Israel were taken in exile to Babylon. There was perhaps something about that experience of devastation and separation which enabled people to face some of the harder, more uncomfortable truths about what it means to live in the world in relationship with God.

“Come, let us return to the Lord…”

This is not really about returning to worship, though it might have fitted that context well. Nor is it about returning home, returning to a beloved community, though it might have had those resonances for its original hearers as well as for us. It is about turning to God, and not just turning but re-turning, turning again, setting our face in the direction of God, living our lives oriented towards God, and accepting that to do so is not a once-and-for all decision, but a continual process of turning and returning.

The life of faith is not static, it requires us to be continually ready to move, to change, to turn and re-turn, as we try to keep ourselves firmly pointed towards God, in all the changing, challenging and confusing circumstances of life. Church traditions, at their worst, encourage us to stay still, to stay put, to resist change, because ‘we have always done it like that’. But at its best, the tradition of the church encourages us to root ourselves in a long line of faithful people who have turned and returned to God in every generation, adapting to all manner of circumstances, and trying to work out afresh what it means to remain faithful to God now, in this time and place and situation.

Our readings today contain some pretty devastating imagery. Imagery of violence and destruction, of turmoil, loss, devastation and extinction. This is, perhaps, not the sort of stuff we expect to hear very often in church. But it is important stuff to engage with, and to engage with well.

Some of this imagery has been used badly, to suggest a vengeful God who destroys or harms as punishment for human sin. That is not a God I recognise. Sometimes this sort of imagery has been used to justify human violence, the violence of the privileged towards the oppressed, and that is never right. We need to be very careful to resist any reading that could seem to condone abuse or violence.

So how do we read these texts? It helps, I think, to start by remembering that the relationship between God and human beings is not – in the ordinary sense – an interpersonal relationship. God is not a person, and our relationship with God is not the same as our relationship with other humans. Nor is God’s relationship with God’s own creation the same as our relationship with God’s creation, of which we are a part.

A careful reading of the text from Jeremiah may also help us here. ‘Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness?’ asks the prophet. A question we may well echo as we see the destructive impact of climate change on our world. And God replies ‘Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them and have not obeyed my voice or walked in accordance with it.’ It would be easy to read that as God punishing people for their disobedience by destroying the land. But I think it is better read, especially if we are looking for parallels with our present climate emergency, as God spelling out the inevitable consequences of humanity turning away from the way God wants us to live in relationship with creation.

It’s a bit like if you say to a child: “if you touch the cooker, you’ll get burned” – that’s not a threat of punishment, but a warning about consequences. So, in these sometimes disturbingly violent texts, God is not threatening us, but warning us about the consequence of our own actions and inactions, and the choices we make in how we relate to one another, to God, and to the creation of which we are a part.

“Come, let us return to the Lord…”

This is a call to turn back towards God, to notice those times when we too have ‘stubbornly followed our own hearts’, to commit again to walking in God’s ways and placing ourselves in right relationship with God, with our neighbours, and with creation.

This is not easy stuff. It never is, but especially now. It is not easy in terms of how we respond either to the climate crisis or to the Coronavirus pandemic. Sometimes it will mean making decisions which are costly or even painful. Often it will mean wrestling long and hard with what it looks like to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves, now, in these circumstances, in response to these crises. What that looks like will continue to change, and we will need to be prepared to change in response, to turn and turn again towards God who is unchanging in faithfulness and love.

There is a spiritual which emerged from the Shaker tradition which has the chorus “to turn, turn will be our delight, til turning, turning we come round right” and as they sang it, the Shakers would dance, turning and moving as they worshiped God. Dance is often used as a metaphor for the life of God in the Trinity, as one of continual movement in relationship. We too are caught up in this dance, in this turning and returning to God.

It is hard, sometimes, to learn new ways of dancing, new ways of living, new ways of expressing our love for God and neighbour. It is hard, and it can be heartbreaking, and it can be joyful, and inspiring, and devastating, and beautiful – sometimes all at the same time. But we do not do it alone. Even when we cannot meet, we are still part of the same dance, turning together towards the same God, seeking together to walk with Jesus, bound together in the life of the Holy Spirit.

So come, let us return to the Lord, together-but-apart, let us know, let us press on to know, the Eternal One whose appearing is as sure as the dawn. Amen.    

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ reflection series.

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