Fourth Sunday in Lent 2 Chronicles 36:14-23, Psalm 122, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 6:1-15
Where I grew up, and this may be true here as well, two events loom large in our collective unconscious: The First and Second world wars. Each year on the 11th of November we stop everything we are doing at 11am and observe a two-minute silence. If you explore London, tucked between victorian, Georgian, or Tudor buildings are hulking blocks of concrete and glass, erected almost like bunkers in place of the buildings that were leveled by civilian bombing campaigns. Every hamlet, village, town, and city has a memorial slab on which are carved the names of all the young people whose bodies were never recovered to bury in the local gave yard.
Though the living memories of these events are now fading, the impression these traumas have left on national life still remain. I’m sure those who have grown up here can point to the kinds of national strife that has shaped this culture too.
In the Old Testament several events could be said to dominate the story of the people of God. The Exodus, when they were liberated from slavery in Egypt and the reigns of Kings David and Solomon might be the most notable. But the story of the people of God is a tragic one, as that deliverance from slavery, that foretaste of a new humanity dwelling peacefully in the land of God’s promise under wise and holy kings, is overwhelmed by the sad state of the human heart, mired as it is by deceit and selfishness. The Kingdom falls apart. That justice, equity, goodness, and rest established in God’s Law is neglected. The poor, the foreigner, and the orphan are oppressed. The worship of God alone is muddled with the worship of idols. And despite the warnings of the Prophets both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are overwhelmed by larger kingdoms and the people forcibly migrated from their land to dwell in Babylon.
This series of catastrophic events is usually called the Exile. And the Old Testament understands this as the consequence of the people of God’s failure to live faithfully as his witnesses in the world. The lesson we heard this morning from the end of 2 Chronicles is a somewhat perfunctory summary of this Exile, though it does not quite capture the horrors endured.
The Book of Lamentations is in our Bibles because of the Exile. In it we hear the voices of those who witnesses this misery:
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger.
My eyes are spent with weeping;
my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out to the ground
because of the destruction of the daughter of my people,
because infants and babies faint
in the streets of the city.
They cry to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like a wounded man
in the streets of the city,
as their life is poured out
on their mothers’ bosom.
I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.
Happier were the victims of the sword
than the victims of hunger,
who wasted away, pierced
by lack of the fruits of the field.
The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
during the destruction of the daughter of my people.
We get our bread at the peril of our lives,
because of the sword in the wilderness.
Our skin is hot as an oven
with the burning heat of famine.
Women are raped in Zion,
young women in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
This is the dirge of a people who have live through the siege of their city, witnessed their crops burned and their dwellings destroyed, who have even resorted to cannibalism trapped behind the city walls, surrounded by the enemy, who have been taken off into captivity as slaves and now live as a despised underclass, worked half to death while strangers enjoy the fruits of their homeland.
The book of Psalms might well be a comfort to people in their long loneliness, anticipating that return to Jerusalem “For there the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.” Perhaps they may also draw some hope from Psalm 149: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishments on the peoples” or from Psalm 3: “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.”
For what else could bring the people back from Exile but the mighty hand of the Lord, raising up an army to bring vengeance upon this fearsome people who have so pitilessly oppressed them? Surely the God who parted the red sea, who struck the firstborn of Egypt, who strengthened the hand of David to strike down Goliath, surely God would save his people again by his mighty hand?
By the mouth of Jeremiah God has spoken: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 597 BC, and as things go, Cyrus the Great in 539 BC conquers Babylon. This event might just be another paragraph in the annals of history, but for the people of God living in captivity in Babylon. King Cyrus, upon taking the throne, by the word of his mouth and the stroke of his pen, ends their suffering in a day. No struggle. No blackened skies. No pillar of fire and smoke. This foreign king who owes nothing to the people of God, recognizes their misery, and sends them home. Their 70-year sentence is ended.
I was glad when they said unto me, “We will go into the house of the Lord.”
God’s word is fulfilled. And it is fulfilled by this most strange of vessels. Caught up in the paper-shuffling as one kingdom is absorbed by another, as the wheels of history turn and turn, God’s word is being fulfilled. God’s people are being saved.
God’s power to save is not bound by place, or time, or even by our ability to cooperate and do what he asks. He certainly is not waiting on us to bring about his good purposes, if that were even possible. As St Paul tells us, by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
The people of God are notoriously slow to learn. So often to they seek to enact God’s kingdom by their own devising, or at least they seek to bring about what they suppose is the Kingdom of God in their imaginations. When Jesus had sat down the enormous crowd who had followed him and by his word provided plentiful food for this starving people, they sought to make him king by force.
Now, if we assume the 5000 men mentioned are accompanying women and children, we might imagine 20,000 people gathered at one time around Jesus. It might well have seemed possible that they could march from Galilee to Jerusalem, adding to their numbers on the way, to cast out the Roman occupiers and restore their kingdom, deposing the puppet king Herod and finally enjoying the blessing of a holy King now remembered only in the songs and stories of David.
It is said that an army marches on its stomach, but this presumed the soldiers are all alive. Jesus did not come to feed a hungry people. He came to raise to new life a people who now lie in the grave of sin and death. Jesus walks amongst a people incapable of saving themselves, and no amount of bread and fish will change that. Like Cyrus the salvation he brings will be through his authoritative word, but the bondage from which he will declare liberation is the bondage of wickedness, and the home to which we are being sent is the Church, where now made new the people of God will do those good works for which we were made.
Jeremiah who foretold that the people of God would return to Jerusalem knows that the waywardness which caused their ejection from the land is incurable but for the work of God, who says through the prophet “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” He calls this a new Covenant, a new relationship between God and his people. The former covenant was given through Moses, that by living by the law and offering their sacrifices in the Temple the people would be as priests to all nations, a visible witness to the true God who desires the reconciliation of all people to himself. The promised land is a part of this former covenant, and it was because of their unfaithfulness that they were ejected from it. After a time of discipline God raised up Cyrus to bring them back, but the problem of course remains. That problem is one no amount of discipline or introspection will fix. And so the word of Jeremiah turns out to come true, in the first instance because the people returned from exile, and in the second because there is now a new covenant between God and his people. Those who are in Christ through baptism are raised to new life, and dwell spiritually with Christ in the heavenly realm.
This new covenant is not just for the Hebrew people, but all people. But the story of the Hebrew people is our story too, for we were made in love to dwell with God, and by our sins we were estranged from him and found ourselves far from him. And God has sent his Son, his Living Word, to be the king of all creation, who by his word summons us back from those far-off places, by his word loosens our chains, by his word redeems us from those to whom we had been sold, and gathers us to himself to share in an everlasting feast in which the meagre and paltry offerings we bring will by his word become food enough, with baskets overflowing, plenty for everyone.
Today as we join in the heavenly feast around the Lord’s Table, may our hearts be filled with joy and gladness, thankful for our salvation won by Christ upon the cross. May this story shape us more and more, over and against those stories which seek to claim us. May we pray all the more diligently that those who now dwell in their own deathly exile, may hear the word of Christ and come home, to join in that feast, here in Annapolis and all over the world. And may we give up on trying to save ourselves, trusting that God’s word in Christ is enough, and that he will work out in and through us his good purposes in his good time.