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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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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