Going on a Trip and Coming Home

Section 1: Opening Prayer

Almighty God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to yourself. We praise and bless you for those whom you have sent in the power of the Spirit to preach the gospel to all nations. We thank you that in all parts of the earth a community of love has been gathered together by their prayers and labors, and that in every place your servants call upon your name; for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.

Section 2: Bye! Bye! Bye! (for some people, at least)

The story of Israel’s division into two kingdoms ultimately leads to the conquering of both kingdoms by foreign powers. The Northern Kingdom, also known as Israel or Ephraim, was conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. The Southern Kingdom, referred to as Judah, fell to the Babylonian Empire around 587 BCE.  The Biblical version of this story begins in 1 Kings 15:29 and continues through the rest of the book. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom, they took away many of the people that had value to an empire: the wealthy, the intelligent, the artists, the woodworkers and masons, the politicians, and the like. Anyone who might have value to the emperor was taken to Assyria, most likely to the cities of Assur and Ninevah (yes, the same place where Jonah went). When the Babylonians came and conquered the Southern Kingdom, the same thing happened. Those considered most important by the Babylonians were taken into exile. In other words:

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Yet, this also left many people in war torn countries without their political, economic, or social leaders. The common people of Israel, already the poorer of society, were left in a country for forty years to fend for themselves. These people became known as Samaritans (yes, the same Samaritans that Jesus encounters in the Gospels). If you want to read more about that dynamic, give this a read.

But the exile wasn’t forever. Eventually, another empire conquered the lands once controlled by the Assyrians and Babylonians: the Persians. To read about that, we go to Ezra and Nehemiah, where we find King Cyrus of Persia.

Section 3: We’re BAAAAAAAACK!

When you give Ezra and Nehemiah a read (you really should), you’ll find that King Cyrus decides to rebuild Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. He sends Zerubbabel, along with a number of other Israelites, to begin by rebuilding the temple of YHWH. I imagine all those Israelites returning felt something like this:

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For a brief overview of how the return of God’s people to Israel happened, check out this video:

What you see in there is a strategic rebuilding of Jerusalem. Start with the temple, which gives the identity of God’s people something to rally around. King Cyrus of Persia commissioned Zerubbabel to rebuild the temple. After a long while, King Artaxerxes of Persia (King Cyrus had since died) sent Ezra to teach the Torah, God’s Law, to the people in Israel. Artaxerxes later empowers Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

On the surface, this is an entirely different way to rule an empire. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians before them all tried to force a singular identity on the lands they conquered and to control the people by imprisoning their most important leaders in exile. The Persians approach instead encouraged conquered peoples to retain or redevelop their own identities, as long as they remained committed to the Persian empire. When the kings of Persia send the Israelites to rebuild their capital city, they see a wise political move that strengthens the empire while allowing individual peoples to keep their ethnicity in tact.

You might remember that many of the prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah chief among them, foretold that God’s faithfulness would lead to the Israelites return to the land. The Bible doesn’t just see this as an interesting approach to pacifying an empire. Scripture sees the Persian interest in rebuilding Jerusalem as God’s hand at work through Gentile rulers. God’s kept God’s promise in the most unexpected of ways: working through people that Israelites would have otherwise seen as enemies.

That’s why this section appears in the section on prophets rather than history. The fall of Israel and the exile of God’s people into foreign lands was a major prophetic theme prior even to the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. The prophets saw people avoiding the justice inherent to the Torah, which we call the Law, which God gave to the Hebrew slaves as they fled Egypt. The prophets further saw that the consequences of abandoning God’s ways and warned the people to return to God. Instead, the continued to exploit the poor, take advantage of widows and orphans, ignore the plight of the sick, and ignore the struggles of refugees among them. Soon, their lack of compassion led to the destruction of their homeland. To get a sense of this dynamic, read Amos 8.

Yet, prophets also declared that God’s faithfulness was eternally stronger than the people’s unfaithfulness. Though the people abandon God, God would not forever abandon the people. Prophets foretold the eventual return of the people from exile and the rise of a new kingdom of Israel, centered upon a restored temple. We see this fulfilled in Ezra and Nehemiah. To see this at work, read Amos 9. While it continues the theme of potential destruction, it eventually turns to the promise of restoration. For an abbreviated version of this story, check out this video:

Section 4: What Does This Mean?

Answer these questions:

An engraving of the prophet Elijah
  1. Why is this history important?
  2. What’s the main role of a prophet?
  3. What does God’s faithfulness look like in the face of our unfaithfulness?

If you’re not a person who enjoys historical data or stories, getting into biblical history can seem like a slog through the mud. Even so, there’s something important about knowing history in general, and in particular, this history. When we look at the ways that God’s been active in the past, preserving the people of Israel during the exile and then bringing them back to Jerusalem through the influence of a foreign king, we get a sense of just how vast God’s care is for God’s people. We can see that God’s going to allow us to choose our own actions and deal with the consequences of them, just as the people of Israel suffered the fate of abandoning justice and embracing idols over the Lord. We also see that the prophets trust in God’s faithfulness was well placed, for God didn’t abandon us to our sin forever. Instead, God returned blessing to us, first through the restoration of the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem, and eventually, through Jesus.

This helps us to see the role of the prophets more clearly. Sometimes people reduce prophets to the role of fortune tellers. Yet, while they did prophecy a general caution of consequences for unfaithfulness and a resounding trust that God would graciously return favor to Gods’ people, their main role wasn’t telling the future. It was reminding people who God is and who they were called to be as God’s people. The Israelites went on a trip because they forgot who God was, and during their exile, they returned to worshiping the Lord as the true God who created the universe. They came home as recipients of God’s love and commitment to working through the Israelites in order to bless the whole world.

Perhaps the most important thing to take from these stories for our current lives of faith is that there are consequences to our unfaithfulness, and that God’s grace will eventually overcome even our sinfulness. Even after the people of God abandoned God’s Law and worshiped other gods, God didn’t let people suffer forever. Instead, God’s desire to make things right with them led to the Lord working through some of the most unexpected people: gentile kings.

For our lives, when we seem to have completely failed, that doesn’t mean that we’ve lost God’s love. We may have to live with the consequences of our actions, but that’s not the end of the story. God’s committed to bringing all of us back into right relationship. God doesn’t desire our suffering or our exile, but deeply desires to bring us home. So ask yourself, where are the unexpected places that God might be working to make things right with you? Who are the unexpected people that God might be using to bring blessing into your life?

Section 5: Closing Prayer

Draw your church together, O God, into one great company of disciples, together following our teacher Jesus Christ into every walk of life, together serving in Christ’s mission to the world, and together witnessing to your love wherever you will send us; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Opening and Closing Prayers from Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2016 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #25165.