Sunday, August 30, 2009

August 30 - Jesus Brings Us Back from Exile

Living Water Community Church - August 30
Jeremiah 52 - “Jesus Brings Us Back from Exile”

Oh! How the city once full of people now sits all alone!
The city who was once a prominent lady among the nations has become a widow!
The princess who once ruled the provinces has become a forced laborer!
The city weeps bitterly at night; tears stream down her cheeks.
She has no one to comfort her among all her lovers.
All her friends betrayed her; they have become her enemies.
Judah has departed into exile under affliction and harsh oppression.
She lives among the nations; she has found no resting place.
All who pursued her overtook her in the middle of her distress.
The roads to the city of Zion mourn because no one travels to the festivals.
All her city gates are deserted; her priests groan.
Her virgins grieve; the city herself is in bitter anguish!
Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease.
For Yahweh afflicted her because of her many acts of rebellion.
Her children went away as captives before the enemy. (Lam 1.1-5)

It is not easy to talk about exile. Perhaps this is one reason why we avoid spending too much time in the parts of our Bible that narrate the exile of God’s people. Exile is a place where we are most lonely, where we are most vulnerable, where we are most without a home. Exile is the place where others take advantage of us, where they force us out of our homes, where they leave us hungry, threaten our lives, and kill our family members. Some of us stay away from these hard passages of scripture because we shudder at the reminder that this experience really could invade our comfortable lives. Some of us here today won’t read these parts of the Bible because they draw up memories that are very real and very painful.

When men with guns and bullets enter our homes, when children are stolen from the streets, when war occupies our cities, when our houses are taken away, when there is not enough food, when we have no option but to uproot our lives and move somewhere else--then all that is left us is to mourn, to lament, and to pray. The passage I read to begin this morning is from the book of Lamentations. It is the Jewish people’s lament over the destruction of their city and an appeal to Yahweh God to do something about it. When we experience exile, this is what we should do.

This morning I want to look at three things. First, we need to look at what happens in Jeremiah chapter 52. Then we’ll ask what this meant for God’s covenant people Israel then--why did this happen? Finally, we’ll talk about what this mean for us as God’s covenant people now.

I. What happened. . . ?
So first, what happened? The passage starts out just like the evening news or a chapter from a history book: this happened then this happened then this happened--King Zedekiah of Judah rebels against Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar brings his army to put down the rebellion, King Nebuchadnezzar surrounds the city and puts it to siege. These are the facts, things we could see if we had a videotape of the event. There’s no real consideration of what God is doing. We don’t get the “why” of the events--Jeremiah chapter 52 doesn’t tell us the real reasons these things are happening.
This is important to us. It’s important because when we face evil times, when we find ourselves in situations of loneliness, hunger, homelessness, violence, we usually don’t understand why they’re happening to us. All we can do is look up and ask God, “Why is this happening? When will you do something about this?” We’ll come back to this theme later. But before we can dig down to the deep meaning of what’s going on in this chapter, we need to get acquainted with the events themselves first.
For us to know what’s going on in Jeremiah 52, we need to know some sixth century BC world politics. Here’s the situation: Twenty years before our story begins, the kingdom of Babylon became the new world empire. Judah and Jerusalem were part of that empire. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, set up a series of puppet kings in Judah, and, one by one, these puppet kings rebelled against the world emperor, refusing to pay the heavy taxes and trying to set up their own independent states.
Zedekiah was the last puppet king. And just like the previous ones he rebelled against Babylon. This time Nebuchadnezzar decided to go to the root of the problem and get rid of not just the rebellious king but the entire city. This is where our passage picks up.
Nebuchadnezzar marches up with his army to Jerusalem and sets up camp surrounding the city. The people in Jerusalem probably hoped that he’d get tired of waiting and move on after a few weeks. But Nebuchadnezzar stays, and then he stays some more. He stays from January in Zedekiah’s ninth year as king until August of his eleventh year. I did the math; that’s two years and six months. And with each day, the food supplies are running lower, disease is beginning to spread, people are slowly dying. And Nebuchadnezzar’s army is still there, waiting.
By July of the second year of the siege, the food had completely run out. Other parts of the book of Jeremiah and Lamentations describe how dire the situation had become for those in the city--people eating animal dung, mothers eating their own children, people begging to die simply so they would no longer be hungry. More than a handful of people had already decided that it was better to desert, to crawl through a window or dig a tunnel, and cross over to the mercy of the Babylonian army and exile.
It’s no surprise then when we read in verse 7 that a group of people broke through the walls to escape the city. In fact, it’s not even surprising when we read a little further on that this group of people were not just citizens but soldiers--after all soldiers need to eat too. But then we read in the next verse that it was not only people, not only soldiers, but king Zedekiah himself who is deserting his city and his people.
This is the beginning of the end. Verse eight reads, But the Babylonian army chased after the king. They caught up with Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho, and his entire army deserted him--now the king who deserts his people is deserted by his own army. They captured him and brought him up to the king of Babylon [. . .] and he passed sentence on him. I don’t think we immediately get the force of what’s happening in this verse. The God-appointed king, the David-descended king of Jerusalem, the king whose great-great-grandfather Yahweh God made a promise to, that king is captured and is sentenced like a criminal by a foreign ruler.
In the United States, it probably wouldn’t shake us up too much if our political leaders were arrested and imprisoned. Here in Chicago we might even be pretty used to it. But that is not the way things were in Judah. God had made a promise to Judah’s king. He had promised the great-grandfather of the Judah-kings, David, that he would “establish the throne of his son forever.” This was a promise the people of Jerusalem prided themselves on. God looked out for their king. And now the David-descended king, as unjust and unwise as this one had been, was captured. This wasn’t just a ruler getting the country into trouble; this looked like Yahweh had broken his promise to his people.
A month later, when the captain of the Babylonian army finally breaks through the city walls, things only get worse. The houses are burned; the royal palace is burned; and then Yahweh’s very own temple is burned to the ground. The gold and silver and bronze of Yahweh’s temple are melted down and packed off to Babylon. The priests are executed. God is nowhere to be found. And now the stragglers in the city are being torn away from the land God gave them. Lamentations 5 records their lament:

O Yahweh, reflect on what has happened to us; consider and look at our disgrace.
Our inheritance is turned over to strangers; foreigners now occupy our homes.
We have become fatherless orphans; our mothers have become widows. . . .
They raped women in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes were hung by their hands; elders were mistreated.
The young men perform menial labor; boys stagger from their labor.
The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped playing their music.
Our hearts no longer have any joy; our dancing is turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned!
Because of this, our hearts are sick; because of these things, we can hardly see through our tears.
For wild animals are prowling over Mount Zion, which lies desolate.
But you, O Yahweh, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you keep on forgetting us? Why do you forsake us so long? (Lam 5)

II. What did this mean for God’s covenant people then?
So what does this mean? Has God abandoned his people?
A thousand years earlier, right after Yahweh God had chosen a people for himself, opening up a road through the sea so they could escape from slavery in Egypt, he brought them to a mountain in the middle of the desert and made a covenant with them. Most of us probably recognize part of this covenant, the Ten Commandmentse, but what’s important for us today is what comes right before that. In Exodus 19, God speaks to Moses on the mountain. Yahweh God says, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I lifted you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. And now, if you will diligently listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Moses comes down the mountain and tells Israel what God said, and they answer, “All that Yahweh has commanded we will do!” This is the covenant, the agreement between God and his people. All the laws and rules about life and worship in Israel are explanations of what it meant for Israel to live as God’s special possession, as his covenant people. To have Yahweh as their God means to live like Yahweh is their God.
Forty years later, Moses stands with Israel just across the Jordan River from the land that God had promised their ancestors. Moses repeats the covenant to the people, reminding them what it means to be Yahweh’s covenant people and how serious it is that they live lives shaped by this covenant. We have this sermon written down in the book of Deuteronomy. At the very end, he lists all the ways in which God will bless them if they live according to the covenant--they will be an important nation, he will defend them against enemies, he will provide them plenty of food to eat. But if they do not live as Yahweh’s people, if they disregard the covenant, then Yahweh will curse them. Chapter 28 verse 36 threatens, Yahweh will force you and your king whom you will appoint over you to go away to a people whom you and your ancestors have not known, and you will serve other gods of wood and stone there. Verse 64 continues, Yahweh will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other.
What happened to Zedekiah and Jerusalem? Israel broke the covenant. Over and over and over again they broke the covenant. Jeremiah 52 doesn’t say much about what God is doing in the destruction of Jerusalem, but nearly every other chapter in Jeremiah does. I think of chapter 52 as the event that Jeremiah is is meditating and praying and prophesying about in the rest of the book.
Jeremiah explains what happens in chapter 52 plainly back in chapter 16. He writes, When you tell these people about all this, they will undoubtedly ask you, “Why has Yahweh threatened us with such great disaster? What wrong have we done? What sin have we done to offend Yahweh our God?” Then tell them that Yahweh says, “It is because your ancestors rejected me and paid allegiance to other gods. They have served them and worshiped them. But they have rejected me and not obeyed my law. And you have acted even more wickedly than you ancestors! Each one of you has followed the stubborn inclinations of your own wicked heart and not obeyed me. So I will throw you out of this land into a land neither you nor your ancestors have ever known. There you must worship other gods day and night, for I will show you no mercy.”
Jeremiah lists God’s charges against his people over and over. Any way they could break the covenant, anyway they could deny that they belonged to Yahweh--they did it. Instead of trusting Yahweh, they worshiped false gods who would approve of and bless their evil plans. Instead of trusting Yahweh, they burned their children to idols to ensure a better harvest. Instead of trusting Yahweh, they put their hope in political superpowers. Instead of trusting Yahweh, they trusted their military defenses. Instead of trusting Yahweh, they took advantage of the poor. Instead of trusting Yahweh, they had sex with whomever they wanted. Instead of trusting Yahweh, they ran after whatever their own self-seeking hearts desired. They denied God’s covenant with them by the way they lived their lives. And so Yahweh God cursed them. He says in chapter 6, “This is the city which is to be punished. Nothing but oppression happens in it. As a well continually pours out fresh water so it continually pours out wicked deeds. Sounds of violence and destruction echo throughout it. All I see are sick and wounded people. Take warning, Jerusalem, or I will abandon you in disgust and make you desolate, a place where no one can live.” (Jer 6.6-8)

III. What does this mean for God’s covenant people now?
This is a terrifying story when we understand what is happening. This is a story of God abandoning his faithless people. It is a story of God handing them over to those who want to destroy them. What are we to make of this? What does it mean for us today?
I can tell you one thing that it does not mean. It does not mean that whenever we experience bad things that God is punishing us. When life falls apart it is not God getting us for doing something wrong. There is a whole book in the Bible, the book of Job, that makes the point that God is not an angry debt-collector, hunting us down so he can get out of us whatever we owe him for our sin.
There’s a story about Jesus and his followers. They’re walking down the road, and his followers see a blind beggar sitting alongside the road. One of them asks, “Who committed the sin that caused this man to be born blind--what is it him or his parents?” We end up asking that question a lot. But Jesus turns to us, just like he turned to his followers, and says that we’re completely off base. Hard times are not a sign of God’s angry punishment; instead, they’re an opportunity for God to do something in our lives to heal us. Jesus responds to his followers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but he was born blind so that the acts of God may be revealed through what happens to him.” (Jn 9.3)
God’s glory is not in punishing us but in healing us, in restoring us. Exile in our lives, whether it be in a metaphorical sense of job loss or family difficulties or in the literal sense of being chased out of one’s home by war--exile is not a sign of God’s punishment. It is a sign of God being ready to heal us.
“But, Josh,” you say, “how can you say that? Do you know how long I’ve been without a job? Do you know when I last spoke to my family? Do you know what happened to me when I was little? How can you say that in these situations God is ready to heal me?” Church, we need to mourn. Let us mourn the evil in our lives, the hard times we live in, the violence that keeps us far from home, the sickness that afflicts our bodies, the death that steals the people we love. I don’t deny that exile is evil. I don’t mean to say that each wound in our lives results in something good. But I do see Jesus.
You see, the violence in our hearts and our self-seeking idolatry earn us exile just as much as the covenant-breaking people of God who have gone before us. If Zedekiah and Jerusalem deserved exile for each one loving themselves instead of trusting Yahweh, then so do I. I love myself, I love my plans, I want what I want. I do not want to live with Yahweh as my God. I break the covenant. I and all the people like me deserve exile.
But instead of allowing me to die slowly, lonely and away from home, starving for everything worthwhile and sick to death of my own selfishness, God gave Jesus to the world. And instead of sending me away into exile and death, God sent Jesus away. Instead of me being abandoned, Jesus chose to be abandoned by God--he cries out from the cross “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus is exiled and I am brought back into God’s people. The apostle Paul describes this in 2 Corinthians 5: In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us this message of reconciliation. . . . God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.
Scattered throughout Jeremiah there are quiet promises that God had not rejected his people forever, but that after a time he would restore them. Chapter 30 says, So I, Yahweh, tell you do not be afraid, you descendants of Jacob, my servants. Do not be terrified, people of Israel. For I will rescue you and your descendants from a faraway land where you are captives. The descendants of Jacob will return to their land and enjoy peace. They will be secure and no one will terrify them. For I, Yahweh, affirm that I will be with you and will rescue you.
In Jesus, this reconciliation happens, the exile is over, sin is payed for. When God raised Jesus from the dead, it was a declaration that a time of restoration has come. God’s covenant people are no longer cursed but loved--and even more God has opened the door for all peoples to be part of the renewed covenant people. Instead of being exiled for our faithlessness, we are welcomed in on the basis of Jesus’ faithfulness. Jesus brings us all back from exile.

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