Readings from the Scriptures (CEB) 2 Kings 24:8-17, 25:8-11
8 Jehoiachin was 18 years old when he became king, and he ruled for three months in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Nehushta; she was Elnathan’s daughter and was from Jerusalem. 9 He did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes, just as all his ancestors had done. 10 At that time, the officers of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem and laid siege to the city. 11 Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar himself arrived at the city while his officers were blockading it. 12 Judah’s King Jehoiachin, along with his mother, his servants, his officers, and his officials, came out to surrender to the Babylonian king. The Babylonian king took Jehoiachin prisoner in the eighth year of Jehoiachin’s rule. 13 Nebuchadnezzar also took away all the treasures of the Lord’s temple and of the royal palace. He cut into pieces all the gold objects that Israel’s King Solomon had made for the Lord’s temple, which is exactly what the Lord said would happen. 14 Then Nebuchadnezzar exiled all of Jerusalem: all the officials, all the military leaders—ten thousand exiles—as well as all the skilled workers and metalworkers. No one was left behind except the poorest of the land’s people. 15 Nebuchadnezzar exiled Jehoiachin to Babylon; he also exiled the queen mother, the king’s wives, the officials, and the land’s elite leaders from Jerusalem to Babylon. 16 The Babylonian king also exiled seven thousand warriors—each one a hero trained for battle—as well as a thousand skilled workers and metalworkers to Babylon. 17 Then the Babylonian king made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, succeed Jehoiachin as king. Nebuchadnezzar changed Mattaniah’s name to Zedekiah… 25:8 On the seventh day of the fifth month in the nineteenth year of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan arrived at Jerusalem. He was the commander of the guard and an official of the Babylonian king. 9 He burned down the Lord’s temple, the royal palace, and all of Jerusalem’s houses. He burned down every important building. 10 The whole Chaldean army under the commander of the guard tore down the walls surrounding Jerusalem. 11 Then Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard exiled the people who were left in the city, those who had already surrendered to Babylon’s king, and the rest of the population.
Are we lost?
A novice hunter decided he was ready for his first solo hunt. He readied his gear, picked his route, and headed out. But it wasn’t long before he realized he was in over his head. Days passed with nothing. His packed meals depleted. He headed back to where he thought he parked and discovered somehow he became turned around and eventually lost.
He sat down, his head in his hands. When he finally raised his head, he realized that not far from him, someone had lit a fire – he could see the tall sign of smokey hope going up to the heavens. He grabbed his pack, headed off, and after a time, stumbled into a camp.
“Am I glad to see you,” he said. “I’ve been lost for three days.”
“Don’t get too excited, friend,” the other replied. “I’ve been lost for three weeks.”
Being lost makes us question every single decision that led us to that point, especially when we find others just as lost as ourselves.
It’s kind of felt that way for the last two years, and while I might have tried to keep the sermons “on topic,” it’s time we read a section of scripture that I hope speaks to you, as it captures an important part of the identity of Israel (yet rarely factors in our lectionary!)
Over a time period of seventy years, roughly 600 years before Jesus, the Israelites were lost. Leading up things were good, they experienced both the protection of God, and the prosperity of their people – the promises of God had come to fruition. No one remembered the escape from Egypt, or the hardship of wandering, or even reaching the promised land. The stories were still told, though they were barely believable. Outsiders started noticing how arrogant the Israelites had become…their kings began to boast…saying how their God had given them the land…that God protected them…that God desired the best for Israel (and no one else).
Comfort makes us assume that easy times will always stay easy. But the Israelites did not notice the jealous eyes watching them. And so,
On the seventh day of the fifth month in the nineteenth year of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan arrived at Jerusalem. He was the commander of the guard and an official of the Babylonian king. He burned down the Lord’s temple, the royal palace, and all of Jerusalem’s houses. He burned down every important building. The whole Chaldean army under the commander of the guard tore down the walls surrounding Jerusalem. Then Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard exiled the people who were left in the city, those who had already surrendered to Babylon’s king, and the rest of the population.
Religious wars broke out to strike at the very notion of divine protection, which as recorded in second Kings, the Israelites did not come out on top of. They were taken captive, became exiles, and though they struck back and attempted rebellions, they were unable to escape their captors. The Babylonians carried the Israelites off to a foreign land; an act meant to remove them from the land God had promised, to see if like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas: if Whos down in Whoville had their precious possessions taken away from them, would they lose faith?
If protection and prosperity fades – do the promises go with them?
The Babylonians believed they did. They thought that if you remove the ‘Israel’ from the Israelites, you may just remove their faith from them. Break them. Make them new converts and increase your empire. Making Israelites into exiles was to exile them from God.
You’d think that’s what happened to churches across Canada and the U.S., railing against both government and self-imposed restrictions. They’ve wailed about our exile: as we’ve been taken from our holy places, separated from one another, each of us struggling to hold onto faith. They’ve used words like persecution and religious exemption as if they’re the Uyghurs in China (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghur_genocide), or the Jews in World War II. This is isn’t one of those times. In fact, ours (SJR in particular) ours is a little different as we’ve willingly chosen to not meet at this time – but for those who did everything right, who got every booster and still lose out on those things we love – it still feels like things were taken from us. It forces us to question, if protection and prosperity fades – do the promises of God go with them?
If health fades, is that a divine curse? If financials deplete, is that God’s judgment? In the dark night of the soul and deep depression overshadows divine force, is it no longer there?
Many of us have experienced all of those things. We’ve not lived a perfect life. We’ve only made it through those heartbreaking times, able to look back thankfully for all that God did when we were held captive by our worries and fears. So too did the Israelites look back, prompting them to tell the story of exile with a twinge of hope as they told of the deep soul searching. While exile had been a part of their story before (Adam and Eve expelled from the garden, Joseph sold to Egypt) they rediscovered God’s persistent promises even in shadowed moments. God never gave up on the people. In the time of exile, the Israelites heard again their God speak these words of Leviticus:
Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or hate them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God… (Leviticus 26:44)
As a result of the exile, the Israelites redefined their beliefs about blessing and blessedness. They matured in their faith, and rediscovered God’s will for them, even when the world around them did not so obviously reveal blessing and blessedness.
And so, for the next few weeks, we’re going to explore what to do when it feels that all is lost. It feels like we’ve lost time, and people and faith over the months and years of pandemic. It feels like so much has been taken from us. Many of us worry about whether or not we’ll ever make it back.
Let us be deliberate then in finding our way together – because in reading the story of the Israelites, it’s not just stumbling upon another lost soul like the hunter at the campsite. The Israelites discovered the secret of faith in the midst of exile. They became stronger in faith. They learned how God sustains even when life’s worries overwhelm. It all began with the promise found in Leviticus, believing God’s promises that
everything will be okay in the end,
and if it’s not ok, it’s not the end. (Fernando Sabino)
So let us explore the story of the Israelites to sustain us in sorrow, discovering a model for our own faithful living in the midst of our ongoing exile. Because (without giving away the ending), know that as lost as you feel sometimes, exiled from those things you love…God will never break covenant with you, God will never abandon you, and in fact, God calls you to bloom where you’re planted.
Thanks be to God whose protection, prosperity and promises endure all things. Amen