Exodus the Sequel

This morning, anticipation intensifies as we await the reading of our Scripture at the right time and the right place. Call it building suspense. It’s a Scripture passage you’ve all heard, made famous in Handel’s Messiah and read every Christmas and Easter season. But I think it’s important we hear the Scripture in the context it was written.

We’ve been studying the Old Testament prophets. Ever wonder what was it like hearing the prophets live and in person? A few weeks ago, I had a great epiphany of what it must have been like living seven centuries ago receiving the words of the doom and gloom prophets. Where did this sacred epiphany occur you ask? At Marcus Theaters. There I was, enduring in 3D doom and gloom movie trailers. There was Transformers—for the autobots to live, humanity must become extinct. Bladerunner 2049—society is hanging on the edge of chaos. The Mummy—an ancient princess wants to reclaim the world. Justice League—the planet has to be saved from catastrophic destruction. War for the Planet of the Apes—basically the same story told in Exodus but the apes represent the Israelites and the humans represent the Egyptian empire.

Hollywood prophets seem to think we like seeing humanity come to the brink of existence. We’ve made them profitable prophets. Maybe you’ve seen the trailer for the battle over ocean supremacy—Michael Phelps will race against a great white shark to kick off this week’s shark week. And while all of that is entertainment, probably the one trailer that most echoes the role of the prophets is not for an action science fiction movie, but a documentary—An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. The main message—the earth is our home and we, not some alien, are the destroyers.

There was a time I thought a single doctrine or theology held the entire narrative of the Bible together. But what if we look at the Bible as a cosmic library containing a bunch of different books that tell assorted stories deriving from different time periods, different cultures, different histories? What if the Bible reflects various understandings of diverse people’s relationship with God the Creator? And our learning comes in reading about their response to God?

Think about how long people have been on the planet. Great civilizations lived 12,000 years before the birth of Christ. Most of these civilizations lived in the Fertile Crescent, known as the Ancient Near East region, in the area we know today as Egypt, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Persian Gulf region. Tons of people, numerous civilizations with their own cultures.

It is within this time period that a vastly smaller civilization lived, the people we know as the Israelites. Historians are perplexed how the great civilizations of the Near East did not completely consume the small and insignificant group occupying Canaan.

Think about today how many cultures we know of and don’t know of that died—lost languages, lost religion, lost writings, extinct tribes? Somehow, Judaism and Jews survived.
Exile, or forced migration, is a huge theme for the people of the Israelites. And last week as the youth were sharing their experiences at Pine Ridge, I kept thinking how the Lakota people truly are like the energizer bunny. They keep going. Why? As one youth pointed out, they have a shared pain. A shared pain brought on by exile.

Brief summary of the Jewish exile story beginning with Genesis: Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden. Abraham is exiled from his people and begins a new people, known as the Israelites. Then the 400-year Egyptian captivity. Exodus. Twelve Tribes. Judges. Kings. King Saul. King David. King Solomon, then a split between the tribes. Ten go north, and two remain in the Jerusalem region. The Assyrian Captivity—the northern kingdom of the ten tribes are taken captive to Assyria (present day Syria and northern Iraq) and disappear from history.

But the captivity which really must be understood to faithfully grasp the Old Testament, in my opinion, is the most defining event in Jewish history because it totally changed Judaism and I don’t think one can truly understand the context of the Bible unless one considers the most generational tremor in all of Old Testament history, the Babylonian Captivity.

If you look at your Announcing, on the back {bottom of page 4}, you will see a timeline. The siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire beginning in 605 BC was awful, which is what the book of Lamentations is about. During the third siege in 586, every day for 18 months the city of Jerusalem was under attack, until defenses could not hold. King Zedekiah and the army fled toward the Jordan River, where they were captured. All of King Zedekiah’s family were murdered as he helplessly watched, and then his eyes pierced so he was blinded. He and all the leaders of the kingdom of Judah were taken alive to Babylon, about 50 miles south of present day Baghdad. Jerusalem was burned. Cherished treasures of history stolen from them Temple, which could have included the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandment Tablets. Then the Temple King Solomon built was destroyed. This is repeated in human history. You conquer a people and destroy their spirit, their will to have any sort of revival.

Being exiled in Babylon was a time of intense spiritual searching. And that brings us to our Scripture passage. Finally! I challenge you to listen to the Scripture as if we were in exile in the fifth century BC. Keep in mind that we believe bad stuff happens because of generational sin—spread over three or four generations. So if we mess up, then our kids, grandkids, great grandkids and great-great grandkids will pay for our sins. We are a people in exile. We don’t know Jesus because Jesus isn’t born for another 500 years.

We know our history—over and over, our people refuse to obey God and it’s been tragedy after tragedy, until complete destruction of our home and captivity. What will break this cycle? Priests have performed atoning sacrifices. Prophets have preached gloom and doom. So a new message:

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

What you heard is the prophet Isaiah’s response to deep spiritual soul searching by a people in exile who yearned to stop a heartbreaking pattern of sin and punishment. A theme of a suffering servant emerges—an innocent servant who will take on the consequence of the community’s sin. This is a totally new way of thinking. The people can’t wait 500 years for Jesus. The cycle has to break now, an alternative plan never before considered. Animals are no longer to be the sacrifice, the people are—but not just anyone, the one close to God. And no other people were close to God like the Israelites.

A new self-awareness takes place. God makes eternal covenant with Israel. What kings, priests, prophets, judges did for Israel, now all of Israel will do for the world.

The Persian Empire destroys the Babylonian Empire, and the Israelites can return home. Exodus Part Two. Isaiah is calling the exiled who have lost their identity to the Babylonian culture to reclaim that identity. The wicked and the unrighteous aren’t the ones who we think are wicked in our current context, but the wicked are those who are caught up in the ways of the Babylonian Empire so much that they have no desire to return back to Israel. They have compromised their faith and found easier and more accommodating ways to live.

It is all about identity. Possibly, when the exiles heard this message from Isaiah, they heard the invitation to claim their unique identity and special role in human history: To be the suffering servant who has a mission to the world.

So how does this apply to us if we are to learn from past stories?

We are in an exodus now—an exodus from institutionalized faith where the fastest growing religion is no religion. The church has to break the pattern of driving people away. During the Babylonian captivity, the Israelite priests had to rethink Jewish traditions in order to keep the faith alive. The center of Jewish relationship with God was sacrifice at the Temple. But the Temple was destroyed and the people were in Babylon. Usually a conquered people was absorbed by the conquering empire, trading in their gods for the victorious god. Assimilation would occur and the people would be lost to history, which is what happened to the ten northern tribes of Israel, but the two tribes of Judah, in the south, survived (Judah and Benjamin). Though their national, political, and religious base was destroyed in 586, they not only survived but their legacy still influences us today. And one could argue that the lasting legacy of the Ancient Near East survives because of the Israelites.

What if we are called to be suffering servants? To come out of Babylon, to depart the consumer culture of our empire and escape the ideology that draws our attention away from God. Bruggemann has a great book, Out of Babylon, where he argues that we need a psychological transformation, shaping a new identity where we don’t need what we think we need—constant WIFI connection, electronic screens, stuff, status. For everything we need God gives.

It’s tough. That’s why the Israelites wanted to return to Egypt. That’s why the Israelites wanted to stay in Babylon. It’s comfortable. No pain and suffering.

We have heard the message of Isaiah that God loves and comforts the suffering, a God who empowers the people and rescues them from exile. God is a God of freedom. If we are called to be a community like Israel, a witness to the world, how do we respond?