The Crux of Marriage

I think it goes with saying, these days, that the definition, position, and purpose of marriage are matters of great controversy in our society, and indeed, among many Christians today as well.  Of course, there are a great many Christians around who are ardently fighting to “protect” the Christian vision of marriage, too.  But what I’m beginning to notice is that they’re not doing a very good job, neither in influencing the culture around us nor in restoring godly order within the Church.

The reason for this trouble, I believe, is not for lack of right teaching so much as lack of right emphasis and focus.  The “one man, one woman” arguments are often made from a simplistic appeal to certain verses in the Bible, and the “no pre-marital sex” arguments are thrown in as the “God-honoring” thing to do with oddly minimal biblical explanation.

The Foundation in Genesis

The way I see many people defining marriage is the appeal to Genesis chapter 2, which says:

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”  So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.   The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.   So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;  she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”  Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

This is then shored up with Jesus’ citation of these verses when he taught on marriage in the Gospel books.  It seems like the perfect theological move: pick up a clear command and instruction from God identifying what marriage is about, take note of its direct affirmation from the Lord Jesus himself, and you’ve got yourself a sure and certain immutable truth!  Well, it seems perfect at first.  There’s something missing.

All we’ve got at this point is an argument of Law.  Essentially, we’ve made a Jewish theological assertion with the Jesus Stamp Of Approval.  Now, of course, as Christians, we do not discard the Old Covenant Law; it still teaches us about holiness and right and wrong.  But the Old Covenant and its Law are not the binding force over us as God’s New Covenant people, the Church.  At this juncture, the liberal perspective concludes that Christians are now free to redefine marriage into whatever model seems appropriate, including same-sex marriage, thus accommodating the trends of the culture around us.

The Gospel of Marriage

Instead, the appropriately Christian thing to do is look to the Gospel – the good news of Christ – especially at its focal point: the Cross.  What does marriage have to do with the Gospel?  What do we learn about marriage at the Cross of Calvary?

This is the point where I’d point us to Ephesians 5:21-33.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as 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, 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.

Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

At first glance this seems like a bunch of rules – more Law being doled out – and this time it’s looking rather demeaning to women compared to the original stuff in Genesis which suggests a less cluttered sense of equality between the husband and the wife.  But if we read more than just the first phrase of each line, we quickly find that St. Paul is working on a much larger scope than the husband-wife marital realm.  “This mystery [of marriage] is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”  Here, I believe, we find the Gospel crux of the subject of marriage.  It’s not just a set of rules – who gets married to whom and what one is allowed to do in marriage versus outside of marriage – but it’s also a picture of the Gospel.  In the union of husband and wife we see a picture of the union of Christ and his Church (which is His bride).

Now we’ve got what I would consider a properly Christian approach to defining marriage.  It’s not just about rules and laws, it’s about portraying God and his great love for us.  The Law and the Gospel work together in Christian theology and practice, and a reduction to just one or the other always falls short of the full truth and beauty of the faith and religion known as Christianity.

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Yet not three gods but one God

This is my sermon for Trinity Sunday 2016 at Grace Anglican Church.

Introduction: theology & history

We’ve just read through the Quincunque Vult, commonly known as the Athanasian Creed.  St. Athanasius was a hero of the Faith; he lived in the 300’s during one of the critical moments of Church history when Christianity was just becoming legal and popular, and all manner of false teachings were beginning to flourish and spread.  Athanasius mostly had to deal with the heresy called Arianism, based on the teachings of his contemporary, Arius, who taught that “there once was a time when Christ did not exist.”  Arius said that Jesus was God, but just that Jesus was not always God.  In the beginning was God the Father; the Son of God comes later.  The more the Early Church teachers and leaders reflected on this and the Scriptures, the more they realized that this just wouldn’t do.  If Jesus really is God, as the Scriptures and liturgy had been proclaiming ever since the time of the Apostles, then he must always have been God, because God is eternal.  If Jesus really is God, he must be co-eternal with the Father.

So as these theological ramifications were being worked out, the subject of the Holy Spirit also came into the picture.  The term “trinity” was coined in the generation before Athanasius, and was quickly adopted as the best word available to describe the Godhead.  Much ink was spilled in those early centuries over how to explain this Trinity without falling into paradox and contradiction.  How can we talk about three things: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and yet be talking about one God?  The standard Creed, written in Nicea in 325 and revised in Constantinople in 381, which we normally say together every Sunday, assumes the doctrine of the Trinity, but doesn’t really explain it.  And so today we’ve read this “Athanasian Creed” instead.  Despite the nickname, it was not actually written by Saint Athanasius, but by his successors in his honor.

Introduction: ordinary faith

Now, perhaps you’re feeling a bit wary at this point – Fr. Brench is about to go into this long confusing theological thingy and I’m not going to have any idea of how this is going to be useful or important in my life.  Well, you’d be half right.  We are going to be diving into some real theology this morning, but I hope that its relevance and usefulness will remain clear throughout.

Because, first of all, looking at the doctrine of the Trinity is really the most foundational answer to the big question: “Who is God?”  This may not be a question that non-Christians directly ask you very often, but it is often assumed in the way they evaluate us.  Whenever there is even a hint of interest or curiosity in faith and religion, the unspoken question is “who is God?”  And it’s one of the most important questions that anyone could ever ask!  So it’s something we should give some thought to before we get put on the spot!

In actual conversation, though, you’re probably more likely to be asked a slightly different question: “Who is God to you?”  This is the question of a pluralist; someone who does not have a defined belief system worked out, and is open to many possibilities of gods, even contradictory ones.  Unfortunately, sometimes Christians ask this question too.  “I like to think of God as love” one will say.  “I like how God is so holy and just, smiting the wicked in the end,” another will answer.  Very easily we can latch on to one aspect or image of God, claim it as our own, and rewrite both our theology and our Bible according to that one favorite thing.  Even otherwise healthy churches fall into this mistake sometimes by talking about “Jesus-only” to the virtual exclusion of the Father and the Spirit.  We have to remember that the question “who is God to you” is a movement towards inventing a god in our own image, rather than respecting the fact that we were made in God’s image.

 Starting on His terms: what & who is God?

So let us approach the subject of the Trinity on God’s own terms instead of our own.  His revelation of himself through the Prophets and Apostles, definitively collected in the Scriptures, and mulled over by the Church for these two thousand years, have much to offer us.  The most important starting point to the vast majority of God’s people, both before Christ and after Christ, is the oneness of God.  We are a monotheistic religion: The LORD is God, there is none other.  Established in Deuteronomy 6 and repeated by Jesus in Mark 12, the most important commandment of loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength is prefaced by this theological statement: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  There is one true God.

As a result, when we talk about the Father and the Son and the Spirit, we have what we call the unity of substance.  This teaching can be found throughout the Scriptures in many forms.  Psalm 33:6 says, “by the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the power of them by the Spirit of his mouth.” Here we see that the Word and Spirit are coordinate realities; the work of God is accomplished through both.  Another hint, indeed one of the most important Trinitarian references in the entire Bible is in Matthew 28:20, where Jesus instructs us to baptize people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Given how fundamentally important Holy Baptism is, the fact that Jesus puts his Father, himself, and the Spirit on an equal footing here makes it clear almost from this alone that the three are one-in-the-same God.

With the “what” of God being established as one being, we can now turn to the “who” of God: a trinity of persons.  Perhaps this picture (called “the shield of the Trinity”) can be helpful to explain this.

 

shield-of-trinity

There are many versions of this visual depiction of the Trinity; I got this version from the blog “Ministry With Children.”

The one God is in the center of the picture.  Above it you see that the Father is God.  Below it you see also that the Son is God and the Spirit is God.  But when you consider the Father or the Son or the Spirit on their own, they are not the same as one another.  Somehow, despite their unity of substance, having the same Being, the three are distinct from one another.  This has generally been explained as follows.

  1. The Father is ingenerate, the source or fountainhead of deity. Relationally speaking, the Father is the starting-point for understanding God.
  2. The Son is begotten of the Father (John 1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18).
  3. The Spirit proceeds (is breathed out) from the Father (John 15:26). This gets tricky because in the Creed we’re used to saying that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son.”  This is standard in the Western Church but rejected in the East.  Although the Gospel of John says the Spirit only proceeds from the Father, the phrase “and the Son” is added because the Spirit is sent into the world from the Father through the Son.  A number of times the Spirit is called “the Spirit of Christ” in the New Testament.

An Illustration used by St. Gregory of Nyssa can help put this another way: one torch passes the same fire to a second, and a third torch.  Thus you have one fire, yet three torches.  A caveat must be added, though, that the ‘lighting’ of the second and third torches is not an historic event, but a relational description.  This is why we say the Son is eternally begotten of the Father.  There never was a time when the Son or Spirit did not exist; they are equal with one another and the Father in every aspect of Godhood.

How to talk to God (or talk about God)!

Hopefully this helps you make greater sense of the Athanasian Creed.  It takes what I’ve explained and spells it out in greater detail.  It also uses very strong language at the beginning and end because it was written during a time of enormous controversy as many people were preaching a false Christ, rejecting the divinity of the Holy Spirit, dividing the Trinity into three gods, and other such faith-killing errors.  Our reception and use of this Creed is not a scare tactic, as if failure to understand it and sign it results in our damnation.  Rather, we use it as a teaching document and a reminder that if we reject the teachings of Christ and his Apostles, we are rejecting the very source of life that God has provided for us.

And, as if knowing better who and what God is isn’t enough for us, we can benefit from the doctrine of the Trinity in other ways.

First of all, grasping the basics of the Trinity helps us to pray.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Our Father.”  Many Christians today insist on completing their prayers with “in Jesus’ name, amen.  The New Testament epistles teach us to pray in the power of the Spirit.  The doctrine of the Trinity brings this all together: we pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, enabled or empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Many of our Collects are very formulaic about this: they begin by addressing God the Father, and then end with the phrase “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.”  Again, it’s the same dynamic of prayer at work, and we’re affirming the simultaneous Three-ness and Oneness of God while we’re at it.

Additionally, having this basic grasp of the Trinity is helpful in telling others about the faith.  There is a lot of misunderstanding about the Trinity in the world around us.  Muslims, especially, have been known to make grossly inaccurate pictures of the Trinity in an effort to undermine Christians’ faith and convert them to Islam.  In college I saw a pamphlet with a picture of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus with the caption “Holy Trinity Or Three Gods?  Find out more at the Muslim Students’ Association.”  Jews, also, criticize Christianity for straying from the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob because we “also” worship a Jewish man named Jesus.  Again, they don’t understand what we’re talking about.  And from another direction, Atheists sometimes mock and ridicule Christians.  Among the many points of our beliefs that are misunderstood and misrepresented is the Trinity, such that some assert that we claim that Jesus is his own father.  Of course this is nonsense, Jesus is the Son of the Father; although both are God, the Father is not the Son.  When we get lazy and simplistic, other people treat us accordingly.  Now, sure, people who want to mock us will always find something to mock us about.  But it does us no favors to feed the flames of their scorn.

So even though the Trinity is one of the most confusing doctrines in all of Christian teaching, it is something for which we give thanks.  There’s something comforting about the fact that God is more complicated than we can handle.  It’s almost a proof of his reality, that He is beyond human comprehension and we can only understand his Trinity-in-Unity from a distance.  It keeps us both intellectually challenged and intellectually humbled.  There’s always more to say on the subject, but we’ll leave it at that for today.  Let us give thanks to God for his great gift of self-revelation, that even though we can’t fully understand him, we can still know him, and know that he perfectly understands and knows us!

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Trumpism, Pragmatism, Americanism

Many of my fellow Christians have been watching in horror and dread as Donald Trump has continued to rise in the pools, knocking out his rivals for the GOP nomination one by one.  And now that he is the last man standing, many life-long Republicans are turning in their cards and searching for new alternatives.  Myself, I’ve never committed to any one political party, so the political upset before us isn’t hitting me as personally as it is some.  But the big question on a lot of peoples minds is “How ever did Trump get this far?

Those who read my blog with any regularity may also be wondering what I think I’m doing, trying to write about politics.  Indeed, political science is not my strong suit.

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But I have studied theology, the Bible, and also a great deal of history.  And as a minister who particularly has the job of preaching a sermon every week, it is part of my role as an attentive pastor not only to have one foot in “Bible land” but the other foot “in the world,” as preaching is about bridging the gap between the two.  So cultural observation is an important part of my job as a member of the clergy, and every now and then I come across thoughts about some of the why’s and how’s of current events.

Politically speaking, Donald Trump is all over the map.  He has a history of supporting Democrats, even though he’s running on the Republican ticket.  I’m told his economic and governmental views are not entirely typical of right-wing politics.  He has been quoted to say that his own campaign website might be inaccurate, revealing his penchant for “changing his mind” from event to event as suits the whims of his audience.

What Trump is, however, is pragmatic.  He wants to win, and he will do whatever makes sense to achieve that goal.  This can lead to a great deal of self-contradiction and hilarity.  Tired of Mexican immigrants?  Build a wall!  Want to win over the evangelical vote?  Talk about faith!  These (and probably many other) examples are rather silly; building a wall isn’t a terribly helpful plan, and the authenticity of his Christianity is widely doubted.  Despite all that, though, he has something going for him here: American culture is extremely pragmatic.

Perhaps this has something to do with what some sociologists like to call “the Protestant work ethic.”  With a practical view of life separated from traditional religion and traditional aristocracy, the American colonists formed a culture of hard work and independence.  The quintessential American, realizing the American Dream, is the man or woman who starts out with little, applies himself or herself through honest work and diligence, and ends up rich and successful.

Although a litany of failed businesses have been dredged up to argue that Trump is not really a wise businessman, it goes without saying that he has been a successful businessman somehow.  He work hard, and has become wealthy; he sets goals, makes priorities, hires and fires, and achieves.  Ignoring his methods and his ethics, Trump is a veritable American poster boy.  The culture of pragmatism is in his blood, and people recognize that.  Granted, there is much that he lacks, and there are many reasons to be upset at his ascension through the electoral process thus far, but I believe it is his pragmatism that has made him so popular and successful thus far.

what to make of all this…

The message of the book of Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most appropriately direct Christian response to the philosophy of pragmatism.  The book begins by exclaiming “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.”  Purely on a pragmatic, or materialistic, or worldly perspective, life is a vain exercise – ultimately meaningless.  The world continues on long before and after we live on it.

It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. – Ecclesiastes 1:13b

This, I think, is the kind of thing we have to remind ourselves when considering the success of folks like Donald Trump.  He is operating on a principle that doesn’t last.  The allure of pragmatism is its immediate sensibility.  But what seems sensible “right now” does not often line up with what’s wise in the long run, or even what is moral and just and right.  Certainly there seems much in what Trump says and represents that appears heartless and ignorant; he represents a brutal form of pragmatism.  But a pragmatist he is, and for better and for worse Americans love a pragmatist.

As Christians we have to remember that such worldly philosophies all have their limits, and Donald Trump is perhaps a good reminder of the downfalls of pragmatism, and indeed the very American Dream that “made America great.”  In this regard it’s no great surprise that Trump is doing so well in the polls.  And thankfully this turn of events is causing many Christians to reassess their political alliances and affiliations.  Too many of us have attached the Christian faith to various worldly causes and philosophies for too long; it’s time to explore anew what it looks like to be a Christian in this place and time without the clutter and intrusion of non-biblical worldviews.

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Learning from the Liturgy: Ascension Day

Ascension Day is perhaps the most under-celebrated important holiday in the calendar.  Representing one of the lines of the Creeds (“he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”), this holiday marks a significant turning point in the Gospel story and sets the stage for how the Christian’s relationship with God is defined.  We often think of it as an awkward point between the Resurrection of Jesus (Easter) and the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), but even in itself the Ascension is a major event.  What I’m setting out to do in this post is draw from the various Scriptural and traditional resources of the Church’s liturgy to explore some of the basic teachings and implications of this great and underappreciated day in the year.

The Event of the Ascension

Christ’s ascension is described in three books: Mark, Luke, and Acts.

In Mark’s Gospel account, the Ascension is in the now-controversial end of chapter 16 (which many scholars argue is not original to Mark).  There, Jesus rebukes the apostles for their lack of faith when they didn’t believe the news of His resurrection at first; he commanded them to go into the world and preach the Gospel, promising that all who believe and are baptized will be saved; he listed several “signs” of Gospel victory including the exorcism of demons, the multiplication of languages among God’s people, and other miraculous victories over the normal forces of nature.  The casting out of demons, in particular, was prominent in medieval Christian piety at this time of year, as the congregation would have just had a procession around the borders of their village or town, blessing the crops for the new growing season, and casting out the forces of evil that would oppose them.  The Gospel account then ends, saying “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.

jesus_ascending_to_heaven

painting by John S. Copley, in 1775

In Luke and Acts, a similar outline can be found.  Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be witnesses of His death and resurrection to Judah and Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  He is taken up bodily into heaven, and a pair of angels tells them that He will return in the same way.  There is also a promise given concerning the gift of the power of the Holy Spirit, which would follow soon after, and for which they were to wait.

The Passing of the Torch

One major feature of this event is the transfer of authority, leadership, and mission from the person of Jesus to the people of Jesus.  The Apostles had “graduated” from disciples (learners) to apostles (people who are sent).  A similar story is found in 2 Kings 2, which is the only other story in the Bible about someone ascending into heaven.  The Prophet Elijah, after a long and tumultuous ministry, is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, and his disciple Elisha literally takes up the mantle and carries on Elijah’s ministry.

In Church tradition there is a special candle called the Paschal Candle which is lit during the Easter Vigil, and remains burning throughout the season of Easter.  It was, therefore, a very large candle in order to keep going all that time.  In some of the more elaborate churches back in the day, they would connect this candle to a sort of pulley system so that when the Gospel is read during Mass on Ascension Day, the candle would be lifted from its place near the altar up into the arched ceiling among the rafters.  That candle represents the presence of the resurrected Christ, and its ascension was a visual display reinforcing the ascension of Christ.

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a paschal candle from 2008

What Jesus does next

Other readings that come up in the various worship services on Ascension Day can include Daniel 7 and Hebrews 4.

In Daniel 7:9-15, we read the vision of the Ancient of Days taking his throne in heaven, and the many peoples of the world gathering to worship Him.  The Beast (the devil) is defeated, the judgment book is opened, and the days of the rest of the evil ones in the world are now numbered.  This is a cosmic behind-the-scenes look at the Ascension of Jesus.  For, as Mark’s Gospel observes, Jesus ascended “and sat down at the right hand of God.”  This isn’t a seat of rest, it’s a seat of enthronement; the King has arrived in his throne room to rule over all.  This is why proclaim Christ as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out,” Jesus said, shortly before his arrest and crucifixion (John 12:31).

But Jesus is also our great High Priest, and that is the picture given at the end of Hebrews 4.  Verses 14-16 declare “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  The meaning of Jesus as our high priest is explored throughout the following several chapters of the book of Hebrews, and received particular attention during Holy Week leading up to Easter, but here the theme is briefly revisited as a reminder of Christ’s ongoing priestly work at “the throne of grace.”  He is not just the judging King, he is also the merciful Priest.

icon_of_christ_sergey_radonezhsky_and_evfimy_of_suzdal

Jesus depicted both as a bishop/priest and as a king

What we do next

Our part in all this begins to appear in the same quotes from Hebrews 4 – “Let us then with confidence draw near.”  In recent times, other readings have been drawn in to tease this out more carefully.  Ephesians 1 and 4 both the Ascension of Christ towards earthly applications for us.

In Ephesians 1:15-23, St. Paul prays that we would receive the spirit of wisdom to know the inheritance we have in Christ, particularly in light of his being seated at the right hand of God, where all things are put under his feet.  As the head of the Church, he fills all and is in all, meaning that in his ascension to heaven he actually became omnipresent, as God is normally understood to be.  Although Jesus still exists as a human, with a body, he is now everywhere present, particularly through the Church, his mystical body.  This Paul presents to us as a comforting assurance of God’s grace, for if we are part of his Church then we are called to a rich and glorious hope.

Additionally, a traditional prayer for Ascension Day (the Collect of the Day), makes the link between Christ’s ascension and our union with him there even more explicit:

Grant, we beseech you, Almighty God, that as we do believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell…

This is taken a step further in chapter 4, wherein Paul speaks of the Body of Christ not just as a source of hope, but of salvation and gifts.  Verses 7 and 8 say “Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.  Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.””  The “host of captives” are the people he freed from the power of sin, death, and the Devil.  This includes both the dead, among whom Christ descended in his own death, as well as the living, to whom he gives new life through regeneration – the second (spiritual) birth through Baptism.  And on top of that he gives us gifts!  To some degree this is a preview of the Pentecost, which follows ten days after Ascension Day.  Though the gifts particularly mentioned in Ephesians 4 are actually ministers: Apostles (or bishops and other leaders), Prophets (or preachers), Evangelists (or missionaries), and Pastor-Teachers (or other clergy, ministers, or mentors).

In the Ascension of Christ, we see his formal enthronement in heaven, and according to ancient custom, the newly-installed King distributes gifts to his people.  It’s a glorious event, and a cause for great celebration!

Celebrating in Song

There are a few, but really excellent, Ascension Day hymns out there; the two that come to mind most immediately are See the Conqueror mounts in triumph and Hail the day that sees him rise.  But there are also a number of Psalms that are associated with this holiday.

Psalm 8 speaks of mankind as being made “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.  You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet…”  This is very similar imagery to some of the Ascension material already quoted, and is taken up in Hebrews 2:6-8 as applicable to Jesus himself.

Psalms 21 and 24 and 47 are songs of praise to the king, which in the context of Ascension Day make for appropriate expressions of fealty and worship toward God the Son, our King, Jesus.  The first focuses on the king already on his throne, the second speaks of his enthronement, and the third is explicitly about God being the enthroned king.

Psalm 108 is a song of victory, especially characterized by its 5th and 6th verses: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!  Let your glory be over all the earth!  That your beloved ones may be delivered, give salvation by your right hand and answer me!”  It described the conquests and reign of God our King using the names of lands that were adjacent to ancient Israel, perhaps rendering the psalm difficult for modern readers to wade through, but the picture of victory and rule is clear throughout.

The Road to Pentecost

Parts of Psalm 68 also show up in bits of the liturgy for Ascension Day, as well as the Sunday after the Ascension and on the day of Pentecost.  This psalm, thus, provides a sort of long-term link that helps connect the brief season of Ascensiontide to the next great feast, Pentecost.  Verse 18 was already quoted in Ephesians 4:8, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there.”  This verse alone, it seems, provides the big picture explanation of how the Ascension of the victorious king leads to the divine gift-distribution of Pentecost.

hortus_deliciarum_pfingsten_und_die_aussendung_des_heiligen_geistes_auf_die_apostel

an 11th century depiction of the divine gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost

The Psalm begins with what can be taken as a picture of the Ascension: “God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered” and verse 19 implies our heavenly unity with the ascended Christ: “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation.”  And although the image of God being “above us in heaven” is one that has been around for thousands of years, the end of this Psalm is especially illuminated by the Ascension of Christ:

O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God;
    sing praises to the Lord, Selah
to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
    behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
Ascribe power to God,
    whose majesty is over Israel,
    and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is God from his sanctuary;
    the God of Israel—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God!

Finally, verses 7-14 have a particular focus on the blessings from God, his people “diving the spoil,” abundant rain being spread across the parched dry land, our heavenly inheritance being restored, and so forth.  All these are pictures of the gift of the Holy Spirit whom Christ sends to his people on the day of Pentecost.  Thus the Day of Ascension is not just a holiday to end the Easter season, but also the beginning of a gleeful (and prayerful) ten-day anticipation of yet another party!

As is prayed on the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost,

O God the King of glory, who has exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto your Kingdom in heaven: We beseech you, do not leave us comfortless; but send to us your Holy Spirit to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place to where our Savior Christ is gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.  Amen.

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Stirred up by God

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” – Eph. 5:14

Introduction

Our God is a god of resurrection, of rebirth, of new life.  He takes that which is null and void, utter nothingness, and creates light and dark, earth and sea, and all the cosmos.  He takes that which is dead, be it mud or dust or stones or dry bones, and he breathes his Spirit upon them and they become living beings.  He takes that which is evil, sinners like you and I, and gives them a spiritual bath, and they become holy, as He is holy.  This is the message of Easter, and one of the causes of our celebration not just last Sunday, but throughout this whole season of Eastertide.

Although we are starting a new preaching series through another book of the Old Testament, we remain very much on topic with this Easter celebration.  The book of Ezra is the story of God giving his people a new life, a rebirth, a resurrection.  You may recall a few weeks ago we read about the destruction of Jerusalem and the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians.  That was the death of Israel as a country; God’s people would never again be an earthly kingdom.  But now, in the opening chapter of Ezra, we see Israel rising again from the dead.  And, just as Jesus’ resurrection body was somehow a little different from its former life, so too is Israel being restored in a different manner than its previous state.

Actually, this had already happened before in the life cycle of Israel.  Roughly a thousand years earlier, they entered into Egypt as a family of less than 100 people, and eventually emerged a small nation.  Now, they entered into Babylonian captivity as a kingdom, and are emerging as a religious organization – a church!

The Story of Ezra 1

We begin around the year 538 BC, about fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem.  You may recall that Jeremiah’s prophecy for this exile was that it would last seventy years.  It’s difficult to get exact chronologies with ancient history like this, but it does seem that, in God’s great mercy, he relaxed his sentence of exile just a little bit, and allowed the exiles to begin to return home twenty years early.

Whateverso, it is critical to note that in the very first verse of this book, Ezra tells us that God “stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia.”  Just like in the other historical books of the Bible, we find the emphasis that God is also the god of history.  He oversees events and guides people toward the decisions that advance his will and his plan for salvation.  In this moment of history, Israel was dispersed and as good as dead, so it required a powerful king to make their restoration possible.

Why would Cyrus do such a thing?  Sometimes people read his proclamation, note how accurate his description of God is, and conclude that he was a convert to Judaism.  As awesome as that would be, it was not the case.  He honored the gods of many cultures, especially the Babylonian gods.  In his polytheistic worldview, he seemed to believe that all the local gods were responsible for his phenomenal rise to power, and so he sought to honor and thank them by having their temples repaired and their respective worship patterns properly restored.  He did this in Babylon, in Egypt, in Jerusalem, and likely other places too.  As far as he was concerned, as long as he makes all those gods happy, they’ll continue to support him and his dynasty.

Verse 4 has some features in its wording especially tailored to pop out to the reader of the Bible.  First it mentions “survivors,” highlighting the trial of God’s people under an oppressive exile, and second it mentions “silver and gold” as gifts that people should give them to assist their return home.  Both of these are major echoes of the story of the Exodus!  There, Egypt was plundered as the Israelites up and left that land.  Now the same kind of thing is happening again; God’s people are going home, and are given a kick-start in money and supplies.

The discerning reader may at this point may propose an objection.  Verse 5 notes that only the leaders of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are mentioned; what about the other ten tribes?  This is the reality of what is called “the faithful remnant.”  Already in the book of 2 Chronicles, members of the ten northern tribes were increasingly invited to unite with the tribe and kingdom of Judah for the purpose of worship and obedience to the Law of Moses.  Now it’s final; God’s faithful people, the true Israel, is just the tribe of Judah and whoever joins with them.  This also sets us up for the situation found in the New Testament: Judea is the region faithful to the Bible, Samaria is the northern region that rejects the teachings of the Prophets, and Galilee is sort of a northern colony that’s faithful to the ways of Judea.  The true Israelites are not God’s people according to flesh and blood anymore, but by faith.  The same is true today: none is born a Christian.  And even though infants and young children are baptized, salvation comes to those who have faith in Christ.  God’s people are not just a remnant, they are the faithful remnant.

And so the final few verses of this short chapter continue on with an inventory of Temple articles that are collected, mostly from Babylon, and assembled to be brought back to Jerusalem.  Again, Cyrus was doing this sort of thing for lots of other temples too.  In most cases he was making sure that the statues and idols and images were being restored, but since the Jews didn’t use those things, he had to settle for these pots and basins and other utensils instead, which were prescribed for use in the worship of God.  We in the liturgical tradition can appreciate this sort of thing – it is difficult to celebrate the Eucharist without a chalice and paten, for example.  And while it can be done with an ordinary plate and cup, there is a certain air of appropriate reverence that’s lost when you do that.

So that’s the story of the beginning of the restoration – or resurrection – of Israel.  We’ll look at more of this book over the next few weeks to see how God’s people experienced set-backs and triumphs in the process.  I think we’re going to find some very ripe and useful analogies for our own day and age, now that much of the Church has been devastated by the ways and whims of the world and we find ourselves having to rebuild.

Exhortation

For now, though, how does this opening chapter speak to us today?  The heart of the message, as I see it, conveniently sits in the heart of this chapter: verse 5.  There, we find it says “Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem.”  Who rose up to answer the invitation of King Cyrus to return home?  Yes, some leaders are mentioned, but the middle of the verse clarifies this more carefully: everyone whose spirit God had stirred up to go.

Just as God “stirred up” King Cyrus to add the Jews to his list of people to allow to go home, God also “stirred up” his people to answer that invitation.  This is very important to take note of.  Remember, they had been living scattered throughout the Babylonian and Persian empires for fifty years.  Most of them had never even seen Jerusalem before!  When I was small child and learning American history in school, I went home one day and asked my mom “why didn’t the slaves go home to Africa after they were freed?”  Surely, I naively thought, they’d want to get away from their former oppressors and back to their ancestral homes.  But as my mother briefly explained, and as I came to understand as I got older, it wasn’t that simple.  It was a long, dangerous, and expensive journey to take a ship from America to Africa.  And in many cases they had been living here for over one hundred years – this was their home now!  So they had neither the means nor the desire to go back to Africa; they had a new life here, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For the Jews in Babylonian and Persian captivity, yes, the distance to Jerusalem was shorter and their removal from their homeland more recent, but the same problems apply.  Indeed, Jeremiah himself had told them to invest in their captive lands and make themselves comfortable.  In 29:5-7, we have a letter that he wrote to the exiles, in which he instructs them “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  This doesn’t conflict with the promise that God would bring them home again; it’s simply a reminder that they’re in exile for the long haul.

This issues a challenge for each of us.  Although, like in Jeremiah 29, we are called to invest in this world, be wise with our money and resources, raise families, care for the needy, pray for our government leaders, and so forth, we are also taught that our true citizenship is in heaven.  While we are called to be obedient and respectful to our earthly kingdoms, we are also called to be builders of a heavenly kingdom.  So here’s the big question: what happens when God stirs up our hearts to rebuild Jerusalem?  How do we faithfully answer God’s calling upon our lives to pay homage to our true spiritual home?  What do we do in this life to “come home” to God?

One of the first things this involves is simply putting our faith in Christ.  Do you know and love the Lord Jesus?  Is his sacrifice on the Cross something you believe and accept on behalf of your own sins?  Is his resurrection life what you desire and accept for yourself?  This is, as I said last week, the beginning of the Christian life.  It is the faith of the newborn Christian who freshly says “Yes!” to Christ.

Perhaps the very next thing that we do to answer God’s stirring is to worship him.  One of the biggest emphases in 2 Chronicles that we saw earlier this year was the central importance of worship, and it will also feature prominently in the book of Ezra.  As God calls us to himself, our appropriate response includes “not failing to meet together,” as the book of Hebrews puts it.  Come to the celebration of God’s Word and Sacraments, where Christ is proclaimed and offered.  I don’t say this out of self-preservation, like I’m concerned about my own interests and income, but out of love and concern for all of you: the spiritual life of each of God’s people is fed through a regular engagement in worship with the rest of the Body of Christ.  When we absent ourselves from congregational worship, we starve ourselves.

But then there is yet another level of response to God’s call, God’s “stirring up” of our spirits, and that is the call to ministry.  No, I don’t mean this just in the sense of becoming clergymen or pastors or prayer ministers or Vestry members, but in any of the broad aspects of ministry.  When the Jews were called back to Jerusalem they had a Temple to rebuild, so they needed Priests and Levites.  But they also had a city to rebuild, so they needed builders, specialists, and political leaders to organize them.  They were also rebuilding a society and culture, which required people from all walks of life, not just the scribes and lawyers to teach them the Law of Moses which would order their civil life.  It is the same today: God has called Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, and Pastor-Teachers.  Some ministry is outward-focused like the apostle and evangelist types, who get out into the world to find new people who need the love of Christ.  Some ministry is inward-focused like the prophet and pastor-teacher types, who help make sure the Church grows healthily and faithfully.

So there are these three movements of response to God’s calling – in, up, and out.  We first respond within as we put our faith in Christ and commit ourselves to him.  We then respond upwards as we join our brothers and sisters in Christ in the public worship of the Church.  And finally we respond outwards and we look to the work God has given us to do; to love and serve him as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

Have you heard the stirring of God’s Spirit within you?  How have you responded thus far?  Have you stagnated in your response?  Have you jumped ahead to get involved without first tackling the basics?  I’d like to encourage you all to be brave and take the time to pray and listen to God on these matters.  When God’s people do this, it not only benefits us as individuals, but as a whole church.

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” – Eph. 5:14

 

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Praying Psalm 51 in Lent

Psalm 51 is probably the most famous of the penitential psalms.  Unsurprisingly, it has been set to one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written by a human being.  Traditionally it is sung (or just read and prayed) as part of the Ash Wednesday service every year.  Apart from its liturgical use, though, it has been a favorite prayer of penitence for Christians the world over for centuries.

It was originally written by King David, according to its introduction in the Bible, as an expression of his penitence after he was called out by Nathan the Prophet for his heinous crime of adultery.  To match this, medieval devotional books suggested this psalm as a particularly fitting biblical resource to combat (or repent of) the deadly sin of lust.

Additionally, the structure of this Psalm reveals a three-part movement of confession consisting of contrition, absolution, and penance.  Contrition is the surrender of the heart to God, recognizing one’s sins and being truly sorry for them.  Absolution is the cleansing act of God that removes the guilt of sin from the person.  Penance is the joyful (though sometimes also painful) process of healing one’s relationship with God in light of His gift of forgiveness.

Part One: Contrition

The first six verses describe the cry of the contrite heart.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.  Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.  Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Here we recognize our sinfulness and turn to God as the only one who can blot out our transgressions and wash us from our iniquity.  This is not only true of our sinful acts, but also true of our sinful nature.  “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” is part of the Scriptural basis of the doctrine of Original Sin.  This is the teaching that every human being is tainted by sin from the very beginning of their existence; children and infants may be “innocent” in the ways of the world, but even they are not entirely “innocent” from sin.

Part Two: Absolution

Verses 7-12 form the appeal for absolution.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.  Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Sometimes Christians are hesitant to pray for the forgiveness of their sins, arguing that God has already promised forgiveness, or better yet, has already forgiven them on the Cross, or on the day that they were first converted to Christ.  This Psalm shows us both that we should ask for forgiveness constantly, and how we should ask.  Remembering that this is a psalm of David, who had been a devoted follower of the Lord God all his life, we find that prayers of confession like this are most certainly appropriate for all Christians to make.  And, as these verses reveal, we are to ask for forgiveness with confidence.  “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” it says, having the uttermost trust that if God’s people honestly ask for cleansing, God will do it.

These verses also contain the words that inspired a modern song of worship.  Again, sometimes the words “take not your Holy Spirit from me” come under fire as inappropriate for Christians, as if they only belong in the Old Covenant of Law and fear, and not in the New Covenant of grace and hope.  Stereotyping issues with the covenants aside, suffice it to say here that the Psalms are just as valid as Christian prayers as they were Jewish before Christ.  Whether it’s possible or not for a Christian to “lose” the Holy Spirit, or whether it simply means to lose some degree of the Spirit’s active presence within us, it should be of every believer’s concern to remain in full communion with God’s Spirit at all times as well as possible.  Any turning from God should be a grievous event that causes us to seek Him out, looking to “restore the joy of Your salvation.”

Part Three: Penance

With the contrite heart established, and the plea for absolution made, we finish in penance.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.  Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.  O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.  For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Two acts of penance, so to speak, are highlighted as a response to God’s absolution and cleansing.  One is to “teach transgressors your ways.”  This is not elaborated on beyond that verse, but it seems to show that by the penitent’s example and testimony, other sinners will be encouraged to “return” to God also.  The rest of the final verses focus instead on worship.  In light of God’s forgiveness we are moved to “sing aloud,” and “declare” God’s praise, and offer “right sacrifices” of “burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings” and “bulls.”

Some of this is generic worship language that could translate into just about anything today.  Singing of God’s righteousness and declaring His praises are acts that can take many forms and in many styles.  Freed from the burden of guilt, the Christian is able to praise God with joy through music or Bible-reading or prayer or even other acts of good work and service to others, though the emphasis in this psalm is definitely on verbal acts of worship.

But the final verses that deal with the topic of sacrifices point us to something rather more specific in the Christian context.  Despite how many Protestants today use the word “sacrifice” to describe worship offerings of music or money or self-commitment, the Christian sacrifice is rather more defined than that.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”  Considering this alongside his other teachings, such as in later in the same book, we’re directed to see that the Christian sacrifice, centered on Christ on the Cross, is “our Passover” feast, Holy Communion.  Just as the Old Covenant animal sacrificial offerings were signs of peace (or communion) with God, so too is the New Covenant bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist a sign of peace (or communion) with God.  Thus, one of the most appropriate things for a freshly-forgiven sinner to do is to come forward to the Lord’s Table and receive Him in the bread and the wine.

Or, to consider this the other way around, it is valuable and important to make sure that we have undergone self-examination for the purpose of confessing our sins to God before going to Holy Communion.  As this psalm says, “a broken and contrite heart [God] will not despise.”  Plus, St. Paul said the exact same thing.  Don’t you just love the consistency of the Bible throughout the ages of its writing!?

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The End is not The End

This is a homily on 2 Chronicles 36 for Grace Anglican Church upon Passion Sunday 2016.

Passion Sunday begins “Passiontide,” a relic of days when Holy Week had a warm-up week beforehand.  We’re all familiar with Palm Sunday which brings us through Christ’s triumphal entry and his death; Passion Sunday prepares us for that by speaking of Jesus as our great high priest in the book of Hebrews.  For us today, though, we’re using a different story to shed more light on the Passion story: we’re finishing the book, 2 Chronicles, in which we find a brilliant parallel or typology prefiguring the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Historically, chapter 36 shows the avalanche of Judah’s last 22 years, hurtling toward its end, but typologically or spiritually, it shows us that four-part movement of Christ: suffering, dying, being buried, and rising again.

Suffering (verses 1-10)

The first ten verses summarize the stories of the last three J’s – Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin.  As you may have noticed in going through them, it’s the same story retold with all three of them: 1) they live lives of evil, 2) they suffer exile, and 3) the Temple is plundered in the process.  Not only does this reinforce the common saying that history tends to repeat itself, but the author is also trying to make a certain point.  This emphasizes that the blame for going into exile is not localized upon any one particular bad king or generation, but is universal and intergenerational.  We say the same thing in the Church about the last judgment: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Let’s run through those three stories very briefly with a political commentary.

  1. Jehoahaz was deposed by Pharaoh Neco and replaced with an Egypt-friendly ruler.
  2. Jehoiakim was captured by Nebuchadnezzar, who’d just defeated Assyria
  3. Jehoiachin was deposed by Nebuchadnezzar and replaced by a Babylon-friendly ruler.

Notice the frequent practice of interrupting royal succession to destabilize the Judean kingdom!  As we’ve seen in previous chapters of 2 Chronicles, international politics have dragged God’s people into a number of unfavorable situations and conflicts, and here it’s getting worse and worse for Judah.  A modern analogy for these foreign kings installing kings of Judah would be when secular governments see fit to choose or approve Bishops and clergy in the Church.  This has happened in many times and places, often with disastrous results: the Investiture Controversy in the Holy Roman Empire back in the 1000’s, it’s happening in China right now, and even the Church of England has to get royal approval when electing the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Sometimes the Church and states have worked well together, but such relationships seldom remain favorable for long.

Death (verses 11-16)

After many years of this foreign meddling in the Judean kingship, the suffering of that kingdom results in its death under King Zedekiah.  He receives a heavy condemnation in verses 12 & 13: he did what was evil, he didn’t humble himself, he rebelled against his oath to God, he stiffened his neck, he hardened his heart, and he wouldn’t turn to the Lord.  In short, he was utterly unfaithful to God and to his over-king Nebuchadnezzar.  Remember, it was Nebuchadnezzar who had gotten him onto the throne in the first place; Zedekiah was a vassal king under the Empire of Babylon, and even that arrangement he couldn’t respect.  If he couldn’t abide an earthly king over himself, how could he ever abide his heavenly king!

And it wasn’t just Zedekiah.  The people of Judah also were very unfaithful – their entire spiritual life had gone awry.  Verses 14 through 16 describe their thorough abandonment of God.  They rejected the Law, living in unholiness.  They rejected the Temple, turning to idolatry.  They rejected the Prophets, holding God’s word in scorn and derision.  These three areas, Law, Temple, and the Prophets, represent the three areas of faithful living.  The Law refers to behavior and lifestyle, the Temple refers to worship and the heart-relationship with God, and the Prophets refers to the knowledge and teaching of God.  By contrast, good discipleship address all three of these areas.  Christians are taught to believe in God (the teachings), belong to God (in worshipful relationship), and behave like God.  If you haven’t read our Catechism, To Be A Christian, I urge you strongly to consider doing so; it follows this very pattern, and is very useful and helpful at expressing the basics of the faith.

Anyway, the result of all this unfaithfulness is the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah; the death of God’s people as a sovereign people-group.  Verse 16 says there was “no remedy;” there was no healing for the land.  Judgment had come and the time to repent was over.  That’s what happens when you turn your back on God’s compassionate love!  For remember the great promise from God when the Temple was first built – if my people repent and return to me I will restore them and heal their land.  The other side of the coin was that if God’s people refuse to be God’s people, then God will cease to be their God; and thus their existence as a country came to an end.  And as you go through verses 17 through 19, you’ll find that the words “all” or “every” appears 5 times.  The destruction is total.

Where was God in all this?  Is it fair to say that he abandoned his people?  Even in the midst of all this suffering, collapse, and defeat, God was with them.  His faithful prophet, Jeremiah, was ministering all throughout these years, as verses 15 and 16 mention.  Also, if you read through the Book of Jeremiah, you’ll find a great deal of interactions with these last few kings of Judah.  But it was no good; God’s words fell on deaf ears.  After Jerusalem’s defeat, Jeremiah went on to write the book of Lamentations, earning himself the nickname “the weeping prophet.”

Burial (verses 17-21)

Something the Babylonians picked up from the Assyrians before them was the practice of genocide by mass emigration.  Rather than kill off a valuable labor force, they would take the majority of a conquered city, and spread them out through other parts of their empire so the people would still live and be productive workers, but would be separated from one another such that they would pose no cultural or military threat by organizing themselves together again.  That is the exile, or dispersion, that God’s people experienced.  In many ways that exile is like a death – Israel no longer existed as a country; it was now simply a remnant of people scattered here and there across Mesopotamia.  It’s also similar to the Church today – we, God’s people, still don’t have a homeland.  Our Holy Land, our Promised Land, is a heavenly inheritance in the New Creation which is still coming into the world.  Thus we are, in a sense, dead to the world, yet alive in Christ.

For the Judeans at this time, exile affects Temple, land, and people.  The Temple is destroyed and its accoutrements taken away; no more worship according to the Law of Moses can happen anymore.  The land, too, is a part of this exile, experiencing what verse 21 calls “enjoying its Sabbaths.”  This is a reference back to Leviticus 26:34-35,43, where “Sabbath years” for the land are prescribed.  Every seven years, a field was to be left fallow.  This is, in part, an extension of applying Sabbath Law to the earth, and, in part, a wise practice of crop rotation.  As for the people, we read elsewhere in the Bible that only a tiny remnant of poor people were left in and around Jerusalem; everyone else was gone.

This exile has two aspects to it.  It is both restorative and punitive.  It’s restorative partly in that the land gets its Sabbath rest as I just described, but also in the sense that the people get to be restored to the land at the exile’s end.  Jeremiah prophesied “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10).  In the meantime, the exile is definitely also punitive, a punishment.  Jeremiah also said “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.  Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chalde’ans, for their iniquity, says the LORD, making the land an everlasting waste.  I will bring upon that land all the words which I have uttered against it, everything written in this book, which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations.  For many nations and great kings shall make slaves even of them; and I will recompense them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.” (Jer. 25:11-14).  So the Babylonians also will eventually be punished for their treatment of God’s people.  This may seem strange at first – if it’s God’s will to overthrow Judah, how can Babylon be sinning by doing so?  We have to remember that the Babylonians were hardly a righteous bunch of people, themselves, and will also have to account for their own deeds before God in the end.

This exile is said to have lasted for 70 years.  Psalm 90 says the years of our lives are seventy, noting that to be an average healthy lifespan.  So an exile lasting that long makes sure that basically everyone who was taken away from Jerusalem will die in exile.  It will be at least one full generation before anyone gets to go home.  Historically, measuring those 70 years is tricky; some scholars think it was from the destruction of the first Temple until the beginning of the Second Temple’s rebuilding project, but otherwise 70 was an approximate number for symbolism’s sake.

Resurrection (verses 22-23)

Finally, the story ends with the glimmering sunrise of restoration.  The people that seemed to be dead was coming back to life.  There is a future because God promised it.  The people had reached a dead end; only God could get them past it.  The same is true for us and for our salvation; as Jesus himself said, “With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

The final verses of the book of 2 Chronicles essentially echo the beginning of the book of Ezra.  By God’s grace and inspiration, King Cyrus of Persia devises an alternative plan to the old genocide-by-migration model of empire building.  Instead, he invites conquered peoples to live in their own homelands to improve local morale; making for a happier and more stable empire.  We see this same model used very effectively by the Roman Empire a few centuries later.  Anyway, the final sentence in the book is a quote from Cyrus’ edict: “let him go up.” Only one word in Hebrew, v’yah’al, this was an invitation to any of the Hebrew people in his empire to return to Jerusalem and Judah and rebuild their Temple.  This is very much the message of Jesus: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me.”  This is also the message of the Church to this day: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).  This is the final invitation to faith in God unto salvation!

Conclusion

We’ve made it to the end of the book!  I want to summarize the lessons of this chapter and the whole series in 2 Chronicles with five points, and you can follow them on the fingers of your left hand: JESUS PROMISES SALVATION through FAITH despite EXILE.

First (the thumb), we see the Old Testament attests to Jesus.  (Thumbs up!)

Second (index finger), we see God keeps his promises, both the curses and the blessings.  (Pointing to what’s ahead.)

Third (middle finger), we see God alone saves his people.  (This is a tall order!)

Fourth (ring finger), faithfulness is critical to our spiritual life, and it begins with worship.  (Whether you’re wearing an earthly wedding ring or not, you will be wearing a heavenly one.)

Fifth, Many of you have felt to be in exile, here in this small congregation.  Despite worldly success or decline, the Gospel always remains the same.  (The circumstances of this life are of small consequence in eternity.)

Jesus promises salvation through faith, despite exile.  Amen.

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