On Sept. 26, 2020, tens of thousands of Americans gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in answer to a call to prayer and repentance issued by different evangelical ministries. I was there with other Beyond Today staff covering this remarkable moment in our nation’s history, a moving occasion of people from various religious backgrounds—all knowing something is desperately wrong with America’s spiritual state—coming together to pray in what was called “The Return.”
The Return consisted of two separate events organized by two ministries, one led by messianic pastor and writer Jonathan Cahn and the other by Franklin Graham, son of famed American evangelist Billy Graham. Both issued calls for people to come to Washington on that day to pray for the spiritual and moral condition of America. Various leaders exhorted, prayed and sang, and people listened, cried and prayed in both large and small groups across the vast expanse of the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial eastward to the Washington Memorial.
Beyond Today staff were not here as participants of either event. We attended as observers to hear what was said and take stock of the focus of the gathering—to consider what it meant and what might come of it.
On the brink of divine judgment
We have written and broadcast extensively on the theme of America and other English-speaking countries facing a time of crisis and the need to turn to God in national repentance.
We present matters from a biblical perspective, seeing our peoples like the ancient nation of Israel, a people blessed by God according to promises made to the national forefather Abraham. Ancient Israel and Judah, Abraham’s heirs who inherited only a portion of the full promises, were consumed by moral and spiritual decay very similar to what we see today.
We have repeatedly shown the scriptural connections of America to the consequences that befell the Israelites, explaining that just as God punished Israel for its sins, so will America suffer the same fate unless its people return to God—looking to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ and humbling themselves in repentance based on God’s law.
At the Washington event we heard sincere acknowledgement of problems along with calls to repentance. Several speakers acknowledged that America has grievously sinned and deserves God’s judgment. Many cited the more than 60 million abortions in America since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ironically, the event was held the same day President Donald Trump announced in the White House Rose Garden his nomination of strongly pro-life Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Some see Justice Barrett’s pro-life position as offering hope that a future court decision will overturn the controversial 1973 ruling.
Several speakers at the rally also noted the urgency of the moment. Racial strife has been spilling into the streets of major cities, leading to further division and suffering. And this is on top of the economic and health impact of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.
All this was addressed within the context of judgment and calls to recognize God’s hand on the nation. Jonathan Cahn gave a passionate and provocative warning of judgment modeled after the prophet Jeremiah.
God instructed the prophet to take an earthen potter’s flask, gather the elders of Jerusalem at the Valley of Hinnom on the south side and there proclaim a fiery message of judgment against the city. Jeremiah was to throw down the flask and shatter it, symbolizing God’s intent to break the city with its inhabitants into so many pieces it could not be reassembled whole (Jeremiah 19). It was a dramatic moment when Cahn, in a powerful reenactment, smashed a large earthen flask before the thousands of onlookers.
A deep sense of national waywardness
I heard many blunt and true statements from sincere speakers. “The churches of the land are filled with golden calves,” proclaimed one of the leading organizers. “God has left the building,” he said, referring to Ezekiel’s vision of God’s presence leaving the Jerusalem temple. Another acknowledged in prayer to God, “We deserve your judgment,” yet pleaded, “Give us more time”—seeking more time and mercy for people to change, repent and return to God.
There was the sounding of a shofar, a ram’s horn, used in biblical times as a cry of warning of impending danger and for calling people to a solemn assembly, which indeed this occasion was. The event fell on the Sabbath between the biblical Feast of Trumpets and Day of Atonement, a period revered in Jewish tradition as the Days of Awe, with this particular day known as Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return,” coming near the end of a 40-day period called Teshuvah or “Return.” In Jewish thinking, this is a time of judgment and restoration to God through deep introspection and repentance. It was a dramatic day of prayer.
I stood on a small hill in the shadow of the Washington Monument watching thousands of sincerely devout people stream by. Some were pushing strollers with children. Others were in wheelchairs. Many joined with other participants in forming small circles and praying for the nation and its leaders. All were peaceful. We saw no sign of violent protesting. We felt completely safe among these masses. Here were people who sense something is terribly wrong with America today coming together to call out to God and seek Him in prayer.
Will we heed God’s case against His people?
But again I ask, what is the result of this great day of prayer? Were hearts changed? Did the calls for repentance point to what God says must be done to bring about lasting reform and change?
I had opportunity to talk with Jonathan Cahn for a few minutes. I wanted to discuss with him from a biblical perspective how God looks on America and what God points out as systemic problems in her people. A key issue I brought up is what God said through the prophet Ezekiel concerning two principal reasons for the captivity of Israel and Judah at the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians.
In Ezekiel 20 God says the problems and captivity of the Israelites stemmed from their violation of His Sabbaths and the deep-seated idolatry that continually entrapped the nation.
By way of background, the elders among the Jewish people had come to Ezekiel to hear what God would tell them about their circumstances. Through the prophet, God rehearsed His deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt and giving them laws and statutes to live by. “But,” God said, “they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me. They did not all cast away the abominations which were before their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said, ‘I will pour out My fury on them and fulfill My anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt’” (verse 8).
God further said: “Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes; they despised My judgments, ‘which, if a man does, he shall live by them’; and they greatly defiled My Sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out My fury on them in the wilderness, to consume them” (verses 12-13).
Leaving no room for misunderstanding the reasons for their punishment, God repeated Himself: “Notwithstanding, the children rebelled against Me; they did not walk in My statutes, and were not careful to observe My judgments, ‘which, if a man does, he shall live by them’; but they profaned My Sabbaths . . . Also I raised My hand in an oath to those in the wilderness, that I would scatter them among the Gentiles [the other nations] and disperse them throughout the countries, because they had not executed My judgments, but had despised My statutes, profaned My Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their fathers’ idols” (verses 21-24).
Israel repeatedly violated God’s commands to observe His Sabbaths and chose their own gods—idols of wood and stone. In their worst moments they engaged in child sacrifice, offering their infant children to the fires of the pagan god Molech.
With this background, my question to Cahn was whether there was a need for him and the ministers gathered with him to heed and share a message of warning from this prophecy. His answer indicated there was. Churches, he said, must look at their connection to the early Church and realize where Christianity began.
Regrettably, time did not allow us to further discuss this point. However, since God does not change (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8), His warning remains true. Any professing Christian and denomination should realize that the Church Jesus began kept the Sabbath and taught God’s commandments. Subsequent Christianity strayed from the faith delivered by Christ to His Church (to learn more, download or request our free study guide The Church Jesus Built). There cannot be a full “return” to God without acknowledging these facts.
Worship in vain
The stench of abortion in America is a living witness to the result of our sins of idolatry and Sabbath breaking, both causing us to miss the knowledge of the true God and His Son Jesus Christ. Since 1973 more than 60 million children—all made in God’s divine image—have been aborted. A generation of children has been offered up on the altar of personal convenience and self-will just in America alone.
The issue of abortion rights has become the litmus test for Supreme Court justices, as we have plainly seen in recent confirmation hearings. Liberal progressives fear a conservative court will reverse the Roe v. Wade decision and again allow states to declare abortion illegal, as was the case during the first 200 years of the nation’s history.
Furthermore, while Jesus Christ’s name is regularly invoked in the churches of America, these churches for the most part meet in accordance with longtime tradition on the first day of the week, Sunday—a direct repudiation of the Fourth of the Ten Commandments, which tells us to observe the seventh day, Saturday, as God’s holy Sabbath.
And like the seventh-day Sabbath, God’s other holy festivals (listed in Leviticus 23) are shunned, being replaced by pagan holidays like Easter and Christmas. God is thus not worshipped in spirit and truth—from a changed heart and according to God’s Word (see John 4:24). People can be sincere yet worship God in vain. There can be no effective return or repentance till this core truth of the Bible is recognized.
Turning part way is not enough
On the stage of this noble effort to stir worshippers to faith and create a revival of spirit in the nation and a “return,” many men and women decried abortion, homosexuality and the growing moral and spiritual confusion in America. They honestly assessed the corruption devouring the heart of the country.
They rightly said the nation’s “churches are filled with golden calves,” but they do not know how to take the critical steps to throw out the idols of self, pride and religious tradition from their own worship. How effective would be a call to humbly assemble every week on the true biblical Sabbath—Saturday—and worship God as He directs?
How effective would be a call to replace the pagan trappings of Easter Sunday and Christmas with a call for worshipping God on the annual festivals He actually gave in the Bible to His people? It is time for Christians to return to the their biblical roots, as taught and practiced by the Church in the book of Acts.
Indeed, is God really found in the nation’s great cathedrals and ornate, lavish megachurches in the posh suburbs of America? It is an uncomfortable question. The answer would turn long-established religious worlds upside down.
In spite of clear sincerity, in our view The Return was a miry mixture of Messianic Jewish teaching—the blowing of the shofar, reference to the Days of Awe and mention of Rosh Hoshana (the biblical Feast of Trumpets) and Yom Kippur (the biblical Day of Atonement)—coexisting with an evangelical Christianity that is deeply rooted in pagan worship days, festivals, practices and beliefs. (Search for these subjects at our website UCG.org to see what the Bible really says about them.)
I was reminded of the metaphors God uses to describe His people in Hosea chapters 7-9. They are hot, like an oven, sincerely seeking understanding and restoration, but none calls on the true God. They have mixed themselves among each other and are like a cake unturned, half-baked and not complete. Their strength is gone, and they don’t know it. Gray hairs are on their head, and they don’t see it.
This is very strong language, but the times call for it.
I stood in the center of the National Mall in Washington, America’s secular cathedral to its might, pride and power. I heard the name of God invoked, and I saw the people come seeking spiritual understanding and healing. They know something is deeply wrong in America. But at the same time they did not hear, nor likely desired to hear, the full solution to the national sickness. You, however, have opportunity to hear and respond to God’s word of truth—to truly return to God.
Misplaced trust in religious ritual and institution
I was reminded of when God sent Jeremiah to the temple in Jerusalem, the center of the city’s religious life. God’s presence came down into this holy place. But the hearts of the people were far from God in truth. Idolatry was still practiced in the land. God’s commandments were not fully observed.
The temple was seen as a sort of “good luck charm.” Its presence, the people thought, would preserve them from harm. They believed that they were a special people and that God would always keep them in the land. No matter what happened, there would always be Jerusalem and a descendant of David sitting on the throne.
God told Jeremiah to stand in the temple and give a very different message: “‘Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, “Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah who enter in at these gates to worship the Lord!”’ Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Do not trust in these lying words, saying, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these’” (Jeremiah 7:1-4).
The people of Judah were trusting in the temple structure and its rituals and services to protect them. They had an outward form of religion symbolized by the temple, with its priests and rituals, but their hearts were far from the pure religion of faith and trust in God as defined by the basic tenets of the law.
“For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings,” God told them, “if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever” (verses 5-7).
The people of Judah had a form of religion that failed to translate into true justice toward the poor and dispossessed. They worshipped their own gods of pride, wealth and conceit. And eventually it caught up with them.
Claiming to follow God while denying Him
In Washington, D.C., many prominent buildings and monuments bear the name of God and quotations from the Bible. Moses and the tablets of the Ten Commandments are carved on the Supreme Court building. Yet that same court sanctions abortion and the trampling of sexual identity and bans the Bible and God from public life.
The Christian religion of America bears the name of God and His Son Jesus Christ, but lacks the full revelation of biblical truth and is compromised with beliefs and practices incorporated from ancient paganism.
God speaks to us today through these ancient words of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “‘Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, “We are delivered to do all these abominations”? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:8-11).
Washington’s National Mall is like a secular temple for the nation. It’s like the forum of ancient Rome and the acropolis of Athens, where the seat of power resides and national history is enshrined. On this day in September 2020 called “The Return,” a group of religious leaders addressed masses of assembled people and led them in prayer. They said good words. They called out the sins of the nation. They blew a horn of warning and smashed a vessel as a reminder of what Jeremiah once did in Jerusalem. Did God hear?
A point of no return?
I don’t doubt the sincerity of the thousands of people who came out for this event. They know to the depth of their being that something is terribly wrong, and they seek to preserve a good life for themselves and their children and grandchildren. But what does God see, and how does He view all of this at this moment? Again, we need to go to the Bible.
Notice how God looked at religious leaders in the day of Jeremiah: “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” (Jeremiah 5:30-31, English Standard Version).
The religious leaders leading throngs of people in a day of prayer are held accountable by God for what they teach from their pulpits. God says a minister can rule (teach or preach) at his own direction, on his own, and be teaching falsely. We noted earlier that Ezekiel said Israel’s punishment of exile and captivity came because of breaking His Sabbaths and idolatry. These sins still plague our people today.
Are we at a point of no return for America? The “return” that will please God must include His eternal spiritual law in its fullness. By that I mean God’s law written on your heart (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10), not just professed in the mouth. The time has come for you to decide for yourself whether you will follow God as He shows from His Word. It is time you seek God and search the Scriptures to understand what God wants you to do.
It is time to declare for the Kingdom of God over any kingdoms of this world. The Return, while a start, did not go far enough. It is left to you to decide whether you will repent and acknowledge the message God has given through His prophets. Your time is now!