"When the Promise Is Wrecked"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 7/15/2018


II Chronicles 36:15-20
“When the Promise Is Wrecked”
July 15, 2018
            When a sports team takes a championship, the fans start shouting this like, “We did it!  We did it!”  When they calm down just a little bit, they may start singing,
“We are the champions, my friend! 
We’ll keep on fighting ’til the end! 
We are the champions, we are the champions! 
No time for losers,
’cause we are the champions
of the world!”[1]
Of course, when the season ends poorly, what you hear is, “They blew it again,” or, “Game three is where they went wrong.”
            The Chronicler records a national disaster far worse than losing the Stanley Cup.  The Chronicler writes about how Israel was destroyed and how Judah failed to learn any lessons from that disaster.  How did a people who started out with such promise, and to whom God himself had pledged support, end up nothing but a wreck?  It is too much to bear to say, “What happened to us?”  Let’s look, says the Chronicler, at them.  He gives a recap:
“The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling-place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.”
It wasn’t that God broke his promises.  It was that the people broke away from his promises.  God said that he would be with them, but they said they didn’t need his help, thanks.  So he let them go.
“Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand. All the vessels of the house of God, large and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his officials, all these he brought to Babylon. They burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels. He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons…”
Notice here, it is not only the nation that suffers – and that suffering is profound – but God also suffers.  Their homes are destroyed and their children carried away.  So, too, is the Temple, which they understood as the House of God (often in very literal terms) is destroyed and pillaged.  Judah and Jerusalem are leveled and God loses his own people, with those who survive turned into slaves.  This is a massive failure for God himself.
           How do you make sense of that?  If you’re honest, you cannot pretend it didn’t happen.  Jack Miles won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for a book called God: A Biography.  It has a chapter called “Does God Fail?” that opens with the question
“If the rupture of the covenant and the resulting genocide are only too obviously a catastrophe in the life of Israel, what are they in the life of God?”[2]
The Chronicler’s explanation of Israel and Judah’s failure was that God was going back to the start, as he had done with people across the ages.  He looked at the words of Jeremiah, who had seen the trouble coming, and who said something that moved the Chronicler to look beyond what was in front of him, and to break out of the tunnel-vision that comes in the midst of grief.  Jeremiah said:
“Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” [Jeremiah 29:10-11]
That, said the Chronicler, was what was happening.  God was going to let the land lie there as a time that it would be fallow, getting a necessary rest for the new start that was to come.  It was, he said, as if the land were keeping a Sabbath.
            The human heart, too, needs to lie fallow at times.  Everyone’s life is filled with failures of all types, and the pain that comes with them.  We have to live with it to discover what is going on in a larger way.  People who hide from their troubles in substance abuse or in their work or by jumping from relationship to relationship or never looking away from a screen: they never let reality sink in long enough to discover that God is with them in the shadow as well as in the sunlight.
           The story of God and his people, with the shared sense of loss and the changes, for good or for ill, that arise through them, is a shared experience in all respects.   When I was very young I had a friend who was born one month before me and who lived three doors away, so we grew up together.  Every year on his birthday, his sister re-posts something she wrote four years ago.
“July 8th, 1964 was a life changer for me. My mother placed a beautiful baby boy in my arms and from that moment on I understood unconditional love. My parents graced me with being his god mother and I took that role very seriously. My heart broke 4 1/2 years ago when you passed away. I believe with all of my heart that I did everything I could to save you from your addiction. God had a different plan for both of us. He was instilling strength in me for what was to come.  You are forever in my heart and I thank you for all the lessons you taught me.”
I think the Chronicler would have approved of that.  Through suffering, we gain strength, compassion, and wisdom.  I am grateful to say that it is often true, by God’s grace. 
           However, there has to be more to it, though, because not everyone comes out of suffering as a better person.  Even those who do often bear scars.  The exiles did return and they did rebuild Jerusalem, but it was not the same as it was.  Nevermore, either, did God work through a nation.  Judah became a province of the Persian Empire, and later of the Greeks and the Romans.  And anyone who tells you that any nation since then has been chosen by God in the same way as David’s kingdom is lying.  No political leader is the Messiah.
           God used the time of the exile to let something new spring up, but it would not be a new version of the old nation.  It would be something far, far larger.  It would be the awareness that real salvation, real wholeness, would come from embracing failure, rather than by anything the world would call greatness or success.  Salvation, healing, and hope were all connected to the history of Israel in that it would come, at the right time, in God’s time, through a descendant of David.  But he would not be born in any kind of palace and would not hold any formal office. Far from repeating the glories of the kings who sat on the throne of David and Solomon, he would die abandoned and degraded at the hand of the nation’s occupiers and his people’s oppressors.  The redemption of all the world’s suffering would come when God himself, in Jesus, would take on all the failure and sin of the entire human race on a cross. 
           Through that moment of utter failure, not through some grand conquest, he would enter the great exile of death itself to bring back those who lie hopeless, farther even than life, and to gather them once more to himself.
“Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” [Jeremiah 29:12-14]
That promise is not tied to geography.  It is not conditional on time or place.  Sin is not limited to any ethnic group or nation and neither is salvation.  Look at your own life and wherever you and God parted ways, he is waiting there for you.
            The invitation is to be part of a people of new life, not looking back to the good old days.  They are over.  Look ahead, always ahead, walking by faith in the Lord and with trust, and you will find yourself by God’s grace, not only walking but soaring.

[1] from “We Are the Champions” by Freddie Mercury
[2] Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 187.
"Bureaucracy and Blessing"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 7/8/2018



I Chronicles 18:14-17, 29:26-30
“Bureaucracy and Blessing”
July 8, 2018
            So we continue this summer’s sermon series on the books of the Bible that are most overlooked, and we come to I Chronicles.  I and II Chronicles tend to take a back seat to I and II Kings because they cover a lot of the same territory, but the books of the Kings tell the story of Israel with a focus on – obviously enough – the kings and queens, the movers and shakers, the generals and armies.  The Chronicles include those folks, of course, but are not exclusively focused on them.  The Chronicles remind us that governments and military are made up of people, each of whom plays a part in the histories, and each of whom has a life, even if it doesn’t make headlines.
            At the end of I Chronicles there is an appreciation of King David, appropriate and well-earned.
“Thus David son of Jesse reigned over all Israel. The period that he reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned for seven years in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. He died at a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor; and his son Solomon succeeded him.” [I Chronicles 29:26-28]
One thing you pick up as you read the historical books of the Bible is that you cannot count on a king dying peacefully, nor on a smooth succession, nor that whoever steps up to the throne will be competent to rule.
            Earlier in the book, though, we read about one of the things about David’s rule that left a good feeling about this period for the people of God was that David paid attention to the organization of his kingdom, put capable administrators in place, and made sure that it was a multigenerational project with on-the-job training for younger folks.
“Joab son of Zeruiah was over the army; Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder; Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests; Shavsha was secretary; Benaiah son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and David’s sons were the chief officials in the service of the king.” [I Chronicles 18:15-17]
            All of us have had to deal with incompetent or stupid bureaucrats from time to time.  I can still remember a woman who worked for the city of Philadelphia when I submitted a form to reimburse the Frankford Group Ministry for some paint we provided for a neighborhood mural.  The receipt I submitted had a “Sold to” line.  I’d picked it up at the factory and that line read, “Showroom Counter Sale” because it was not on account and they weren’t delivering it.  She would not refund the money to us because the city had agreed to pay the Frankford Group Ministry and obviously this paint was sold to someone named “Showroom Counter Sale”.  There was no arguing with this woman, no reasoning was possible.  I ended up driving back to the factory and having a completely new receipt issued to the Frankford Group Ministry, and then the same woman was suspicious of the date, because the same paint seemed to have been sold to Showroom Counter Sale.  On that one she had to give way, though, because the paper had the right wording.  That’s the kind of stupidity you cannot make up.
            On the other hand, consider (for all the times that it drives any of us crazy) all that PennDOT, for example, gets right.  I had my license renewed a few weeks ago, and went to the Malvern office expecting the usual three-hour experience.  They had reworked their system since I was there, and I was in and out in fifteen minutes even though there were people all over the place, taking drivers’ tests and filing registrations and who knows what-all.  The woman at the front desk was handing out the right forms and sending people to the right counters, and everything functioned well.  Maybe I just hit the right time on the right day, but I had a sense of order and productivity that isn’t always associated with government offices.
            Things go well when people understand their work, and when there are clear guidelines.
“Joab son of Zeruiah was over the army; Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder; Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests; Shavsha was secretary; Benaiah son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and David’s sons were the chief officials in the service of the king.”
Recorders and secretaries are important, right there beside the generals and the priests.  We have no idea what Benaiah son of Jehoiada did when he was overseeing those Cherethites and Pelethites, but we can be pretty sure that Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud made sure that they were paid and that Shavsha kept track of the laws they worked under.
            Church administration echoes the work done by those ancient administrators, and always has, and buried in the petty details are both long periods of boredom and moments of heroism.  Last Sunday afternoon, I finished reading a fascinating book called Voices of Morebath.[1]  The title sounds like it would be science fiction, but it’s actually an historian’s analysis of the account books of St. George’s church in the village of Morebath in southwestern England over a period of fifty-four years, beginning in 1520, when Henry VIII was still friends with the pope and ending when Shakespeare was ten years old.  Throughout those decades, the place had one priest who audited the books twice a year and made notes about how much wool the church sheep had produced and what it cost to repair the roof and who was in charge of the parish beef-and-beer each summer.  (Don’t even go there…)  He also noted, when royal officials began to confiscate church property, where various items were quietly distributed for safekeeping, and when they were returned years later and in what condition.  Most of it, however, reads like a memorial book, which it was, with thanks for people who left gifts to the church in their wills and notes certifying that the gifts were used for the purposes they were given.
            One other thing that happened in both David’s Israel and in that distant corner of Henry VIII’s England was that younger leaders were consciously paired up with older leaders, so that nobody would feel that they had to re-invent the wheel or go into anything unsupported, nor would anybody get stuck in the awful position of holding a job beyond when it was someone else’s turn. 
            So here is your chance to be part of that long chain of unsung and sometimes thankless ministry without which nothing worthwhile would ever happen.  This week our Nominations Committee is going to begin its annual duty of matching people’s gifts and graces to jobs that need to be done.  Around the sanctuary are the names of some of the ministries we depend on, with a short description of what they do and space to sign up.  Please do not put your spouse’s name on any of these sheets unless you are prepared to let them know before we contact them.  We are not responsible for what happens in such a case.
            Do take a look at them, though, because there are names there already of people whose activities in these areas are recorded in the Bible, so that you know you would be in good company.  Find which one your name belongs on, or talk to me and we will see if we can ask the Lord together about it.
            And let me add one more name to past contributors: that of C. Howard Peters.  He headed up a committee that wrote and published a book in 1926 that was called The Story of One Hundred Years of Methodism in Phoenixville, in which he says,
“What the future has in store for this society, we may not record.  But to say this is in the hands of God would not be the whole truth.  As God works through the agency of man, His purposes and plans concerning this church will be wrought, according to the obedience, fidelity, and loyalty of those who shall read these lines, and of the generations which shall follow.  …May God be the more honored in the days that are to come, and may their ministry be even more blessed, and their history yet more glorious than thine!”[2]

[1] Eamon Duffy, Voices of Morebath (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
[2] Op. cit., p. 175, 176.
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