Sermon at Raysville Friends Meeting
Reading: Isaiah 49:13-23
Isaiah 49 is amazing in that it tells the people of Judah that there is good news for them. The first 39 chapters were pretty negative to say the least. Isaiah made it clear that there would no longer be a kingdom left, and that their land would become desolate. It is no wonder that “Zion said: `The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.'” Clearly, if God remembered, things would be different.
The Hebrew people’s holy history was one where God was always involved. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were promised that his descendants would be a great nation, and a blessing to all other nations. Moses brought the descendants of Jacob (later named Israel) into the land that God promised them. God promised David that his throne would be established forever. After several centuries, these promises seem to have ended. God promised, but, the promises seem to have failed.
One thing that you notice when you read the Old Testament story of Israel is that God is far more faithful to the children of Israel than they are to God. We very often remember that Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, but we might not remember that according to 1 Kings 11, Solomon was a great builder of temples to other gods as well. He married hundreds of foreign wives, and built temples for all their gods.
The kings who followed Solomon followed his polytheistic example. Just as Solomon built temples to many different God’s, the kings of Judah worshiped many different gods. One way of understanding the system that developed is that Jehovah God was the highest of a pantheon. In a very real way, the kings hedged their bets. Eventually, they turned away from God altogether. While Isaiah was prophet, the temple to God was even re-purposed as a temple to Ba’al and Asherah. Perhaps people might say that God abandoned them — but, clearly they symbolically put other gods in God’s place.
In spite of all of this, God finds ways of blessing his people. They disobey Torah, they pick and choose which gods of their neighbors to serve, and yet God promises them salvation — yet, this salvation is a rather strange one: The salvation that the people of Israel need is captivity — the promised land and the God-sanctioned government didn’t work out. One might say that the children of Israel suffered from living in an abusive household — God needed to put them into foster care.
Thus, God remembers by making kings into foster fathers. This is a strangely optimistic way of looking at the Babylonian captivity! Nebuchadnezzar was not a Godly man, nor were those who followed him. Babylon had no real desire to give the Hebrews any special privileges — they were concerned with their own empire. It is remarkable that Isaiah calls on them to regard these kings as foster parents — though, the relationship was also remarkable.
Daniel rose in power to the point that he was the chief adviser to the Babylonian king — and then, when the Persian empire replaced the Babylonian empire, he served Darius the Mede. Neither the Babylonians nor the Persians killed off the royal family, nor did they absorb the Jews, so that they were no longer a people. If anything, the people of Israel came out of captivity with a stronger identity than they had going in.
Abraham was promised that his descendants would be a blessing to the nations of the world — and, this time was a time when they lived up to the promise. Children of Israel served in the royal court, having the ears of emperors in both the Babylonian and the Persian empire.
When we think of Jews — we think of customs, a deep knowledge and respect for Torah, synagogues, and a people who remain set apart, no matter what culture they are in. We think of Jews as being so connected with their scriptures that part of becoming an adult is learning to read Hebrew so that one can read Torah in the language it was written in. When we think of Jews, we think of the development of the Talmud, and a system of which requires “half a lifetime of study” to become a Rabbi. We also think of theologians who can apply the most obscure phrases in scripture to just about any situation.
The funny thing is that we never see a Rabbi nor a synagogue mentioned in the Old Testament — while they are common enough in the New Testament. Rabbis came out of a need to reinterpret Torah as something other than the legal basis of their kingdom. Rabbis came out of a need to move the religion behind a theocracy into the faith that binds a people in a strange land together. The Rabbis are not priests, and most often did not come from the tribe of Levi. They are simply people devoted to studying Torah, and asking “How do we best live out God’s law now?” They are Bible-lawyer and teachers. From captivity onward, people outside the tribe of Levi have taken on the responsibility of figuring out how best to follow God.
When the Persian empire came, they had Hebrew’s among the household-staff. Esther takes place during the time of the Persian rule — so, not only would there be Hebrews as staff-members, but even in the royal household itself. These were people who were in positions where they could ask favors, and when they asked favors — these favors were granted; and these favors both saved the people from genocide, and it allowed them to return to Judah and rebuild the temple.
The Persian empire appointed the “prince of Judah” to govern the province of Judah, and financed the rebuilding of the temple. One cannot say that Zerubbabel became king of Judah, because they were a very small part of a great empire; nor can we say that the repatriated Jews managed to live up to Torah — but, after 70 years of captivity, there are a couple things that we can say: The no longer sought after the gods of their neighbors — and Torah became something that was on the lips and hearts of the common people. The prince of Judah was merely a servant to the Persians, but the Jews finally knew that no matter who is King, God is God.
What I find truly amazing is that this lesson has endured amazingly well. When reforms were required, because the high priest became corrupt and embezzled the tithes, the faith in God that was built up in Babylon survived the scandal. There was a faith in God that transcended the government when the high-priest was merged with the role of the governor — and for a brief period of independence, priest and king were the same position. (This king, by the way, was not of the line of David.) The faith even endured Roman rule, whether under a Roman governor, or the puppet-king Herod (who was `Jewish’ by faith, but not by blood.) We are looking at a faith that survived being used for power, and it survived the destruction of those who used the faith in such a way.
We Christians believe that, in a real way, we are connected to this story. The Church has always, at least in a symbolic way, felt that it is made up of adopted children of Abraham. Christians believe that it is a continuation of the story of God’s people — and in many ways an expansion. We believe that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God — God with us. There is a bit of a progression: At first, God’s will is a discussion between prophets and leaders. When Jesus came, people who earned (rather than inherited) their position are already discussing the best way to live out God’s law. Finally, God himself comes to teach God’s people, in the person of Jesus Christ — and God invites all of humanity into the new kingdom.
For all of the hope that there would be a messiah to get rid of the occupying forces, Jesus continues a lesson that is already being learned: that God’s people can follow God no matter who is in power. Christianity, from its very beginning, attempted to do what the Jews had to learn to do — to be faithful followers of God in a political environment that cared nothing for our God.
When I identify with Israel, I identify most with the period where they had “kings as foster fathers.” I live in a nation that was built on modern principles of the “enlightenment”. Some of our nations founding fathers were Anglicans, some Baptist, and some Deist — but all were moderns, and none wanted to form a Christian nation in the sense that England was a Christian nation with a Christian king and a state church. They wanted to form a modern secular nation, with ideals built on the ideas of enlightenment philosophers. My nation is a modern secular nation that happens to be pretty friendly to Christians, to the point that faith influences policy — and sometimes politics become confused with faith. I’m thankful for the freedom that my earthly government gives us — but, like Israel in captivity, I have to find ways of honoring the revelation that we received from God while under another kingdom.
Of course, there is one major difference between where I believe I am, and where Israel believed themselves to be in captivity: They looked for restoration of David’s line. They hoped for a time when they would be God’s people under God’s government, under the rule of the dynasty that God’s prophet anointed. The Persians were not overthrown to re-establish David’s throne. When the Greeks were driven out of Jerusalem, a different Dynasty was formed, and the Roman’s puppet-king was yet another dynasty. All three of the synoptic gospels refer to Jesus as the Son of David, and the ruler of an eternal Kingdom — this kingdom was something different than Rome, and something different than Herod’s kingdom. It is something that exists independently of their permission, and something that outlasts every empire it encounters. We believe that we are part of this kingdom — I believe, as Augustine did, that I live in two cities. I live in “New Babylon”, the city of the world — but, I also live in “New Jerusalem”, the city of God. I want to be as good a citizen of both cities as I can — but, I know that in the end, only one will last.