I have a rabbi friend who says it’s impossible to know what Judaism was like before the Exile.
During their several decades of captivity in Babylon, God’s people were changed forever. Rabbi Jeffrey points out that all the gathered writings we have today were written and edited from the perspective of that dark experience and those deep transformations.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel was besieged, then conquered and scattered to the four winds by the Assyrians in 722 BC.
Now we refer to them as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
The Southern Kingdom of Judah was besieged and conquered and carried into captivity by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
Our Living in The Story readings this week offer a hindsight perspective. As they relate the pivotal historical events that forever changed Israel as a people, they tell their story through the lens of Exile and Return.
The people of Judah (now taking back the name Israel) had returned to their homeland and learned some invaluable lessons.
“We did this to ourselves,” is the bottom line of their self-analysis. This is the story line we read through the Kings and the Chronicles and the prophet Isaiah.
History with a theological perspective.
The king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Israel’s capital city, Samaria; for three years he besieged it. And the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away and he placed them in the cities of the Medes.
This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt and they had worshiped other gods…
Yet the LORD had warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying: “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”
But they would not listen; they were stubborn, as their ancestors had been…They despised the covenant the Lord made with their ancestors; they despised the warnings he gave. Instead, they went after false idols and so became false…
They followed the nations…and rejected the commandments of the LORD their God…they made for themselves images of calves; they worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal making their sons and their daughters pass through the fire…
Therefore the LORD was angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone.
But Judah also did not keep the commandments of the LORD their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced.
So the LORD rejected all the descendants of Israel; he punished them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until they had been banished from his presence.2 Kings 17
Hezekiah led Judah in real reform for 29 years. Then his own son, Manasseh, led his people into spiritual and economic decline for 55 years.
King Josiah brought revival and renewal and the nation prospered for 31 years. And then Zedekiah reigned for the last 9 years, during Judah’s last days.
King Zedikiah watched helplessly as the powerful king Nebuchadnezzar plundered the Temple, breached the walls of Jerusalem and executed his family before putting the king in chains and marching him and his people across the Fertile Crescent to Babylon.
How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?
Where is your steadfast love of old,
your faithfulness which by you swore to David? …….
But now you have spurned and rejected him;
Have you renounced the covenant with your people?(from Psalm 89)
It’s a story of a slow spiral of self-destruction as this unique people of Creator God persisted in creating their own gods in their own image; as they insisted on being their own gods; as they resisted loving their God and loving their neighbor.
“We did this to ourselves,” is the reflection of the later writers who preserved and passed on these stories.
The last days of Israel and then the last days of Judah and Jerusalem is sad reading.
Maybe because it sounds so familiar.
I watched a documentary about the Dust Bowl not long ago. Back in the 1930’s, the rich grasslands of the mid-West were transformed into a desert within just a few years. It’s heart wrenching to see the photographs of that stark brown world. At the same time, across the country, Wall Street was collapsing and sending shock waves throughout every Main Street in the United States.
I’m guessing many may have wondered if these were our last days as a nation.
It is always difficult for the people who are in the middle of traumatic events to be able to recognize all the causes and discern a way forward.
And so it wasn’t until later – with a good deal of hindsight and broader perspective – that USA was able to admit a painful truth about these tragedies: “we did this to ourselves.”
It isn’t until we get some distance from a crisis that we can learn the life lessons these events can offer.
Then again – hindsight isn’t always 20/20.
I don’t know about you but I still cannot look back at many of the challenges and choices in my own life and know if I did the right thing or not.
But like the people of Israel, telling the story and reflecting on it – there are always lessons to be learned when we look back and remember. There is always a broader perspective that comes into our awareness when we give things some time.
When the desperate captives of Jerusalem found themselves languishing in Babylon, they finally figured out:
THIS was their time.
They had a choice: they could be lost to history as were the ten lost tribes of Israel. Or they could turn, repent and re-invent themselves.
It was in the time of Exile that the Jews finally became a monotheistic people; finally truly began to worship only the one true God and to have no other gods.
It was in Babylon that the synagogue system developed.
The people finally understood how crucial it is to teach our children, to form them in faith and faithfulness, to proclaim to the next generations the steadfast love of the Lord.
It was because of the Exile that the Hebrew writings were collected and edited and shaped into the written witness of the journey of this people of God. They told their story – the good, the bad, the ugly – so that maybe other generations might learn the lessons of their own mistakes.
And the story they told became their Holy Scriptures; a sacred witness so that other generations might know the faithfulness of the God who is God alone, the God whose mercies are new every morning.
Part of the advantage we gain as we read through the Bible in this Living in The Story project is that we encounter the big picture of God’s stubborn grace within the sweep of human history.
We don’t dismiss and diminish the deep trauma that can come to us and to others, but we can see those experiences within the larger cycles of living.
And what those cycles show us is that every single time there is a last days event – something new is born.
We remember our own good, bad and ugly experiences of our lives so that we can remember the newly born grace.
When America looks back and remembers the bloody battles between brothers during the Civil War, does that mean we have finished learning the lessons we need to learn about working through our strong differences of opinion?
When America looks back and remembers the turmoil and the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement, does that mean we have finished learning the lessons we need to learn about treating all our citizens with equity?
When America looks back and remembers that bright blue day on September 11 when the Twin Towers fell, does that mean we finished learning the lessons we need to learn about humility and forgiveness?
But one very important lesson I hope we are learning is that all those cycles of light and darkness, all those cycles of living and dying are shot through with grace.
In all of our last days events, something new can always be born.
Newness is the Christian Hope, the Gospel, the confidence we have as people of the Christ.
Because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, there is life in every dying. No matter the predictable cycles of living and dying, in Jesus Christ, God has created a new cycle of life that overlays everything else.
Because of what God has accomplished in the Christ, there is now a new reality that will one day completely overpower the regular cycles of death. In the Christ, God has brought a whole new thing into existence – life never ending. And that starts right here, right now.
It is because of the life and death and raised again life of Jesus Christ that we can find the courage to die to ourselves, to lose ourselves in the eternal life and love of the One who is our Beginning and our End.
Death is still inevitable in this mortal life we share, but the question is not: when will we die?
The question is: how shall we live?
We can participate in the downward spirals of self-centeredness and self-destruction or we can step up to the challenges of the reforms and renewals of the faithful Hezekiahs God will surely send our way.
We can give in to the downward spiral of hopelessness and despair or we can share in the revivals of all our various Josiahs.
The question is not: are we in our last days?
But rather: what will we do with the days we have?
The question is:
will we live in hope?
I’m not a predictor of the future but I can say this with some confidence: if history continues long enough, the United States of America will see her last days. Denominations and congregations will see their last days. You and I will certainly see our last days.
But these reflections about our days need not be filled with anxiety and despair.
Whether we do it to ourselves, creating our own painful crises, or whether tragedy and challenge not of our making come to us – either way, hindsight helps us remember that in every hard experience of living, in every last days of dying – something new will be born.
Either way – we can stand with confidence in the big picture of God’s stubborn grace within the sweep of human history.
God has done a new thing in Jesus Christ; God is ever doing a new thing in the Church and in the world; and – no matter what – God will do some surprising new thing in us.
Count on it.
Living in The Story readings for Week 35