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Sermon - 5 Lent

In the Name...

Billy Graham went to see the Pope in Rome. While there, he noticed a golden telephone in the office and asked, "What's the golden phone for?" "That's to talk to God," the Pope replied. "It costs $100,000 a minute, but, it's well worth it." Some weeks later, Billy Graham went to see the Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem and noticed that he, too, had a golden telephone. "I suppose," said Billy, "that this phone is to talk to God." "Yes it is." came the reply. "Pretty expensive, isn't it?" Billy inquired. "Nah," shrugged the Chief Rabbi, "Only twenty-five cents a minute. From here it's just a local call."

The strip of land at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean between the coast and the Jordan River has been called over the centuries by many names - Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land, and sometimes also the Promised Land and this is a theme which recurs not only in the pages of the Bible, but, in the political realities of the present day. The modern state of Israel is founded on the concept that the legal title to a certain piece of real estate has been granted for all time to one group of people regardless of how many other peoples have lived, or do live, there.

There is, perhaps, no precedent or antecedent for the single-minded determination the Jews have for that land. It goes far beyond the nostalgia or loyalty some of us may feel for the ethnic homelands of our ancestors. Indeed, for a thousand years, the annual Passover ritual celebrated by Jews the world over has concluded with the words, "Next year, in Jerusalem."

Given then, this deep psychological and emotional attachment, try to imagine that once upon a time it was even deeper. And it was, 2,500 years ago, which is why the distant historical event we calmly call the Exile was every bit as physically, psychologically, and emotionally wrenching to the Jews of that time as the more modern tragedy we call the Holocaust is to the Jews of our own.

In 568 BC, Jerusalem fell to Babylonian armies and the residents were forcibly removed, not only from their homes, but from the very land they believed God had given them, and transported a thousand miles away to the banks of the Euphrates near Baghdad in modern Iraq to live among a people who didn't share their beliefs, customs, or outlook.

And what did they do? Well, many chose to escape - mentally, that is. They created in their imaginations an idealized past. They drowned their sorrows in the liquor of selective memory. They remembered the splendour of the Royal Palace and Temple, but, they forgot the crippling taxes and forced labour which had built them. They remembered the Davidic Monarchy, but, forgot that many of those kings had led their people into idolatry and apostasy. In short, they indulged themselves in a romanticized past that never was. And since things could never be that good, again, they lost hope that they could have a future different to their present.

Thus it was, that the word of the Lord came to Isaiah - Wake up, people! Stop feeling sorry for yourselves. God has plans for you. Get ready for something as incredible as the Exodus.

And how did the people respond to that? They didn't listen to Isaiah, or rather, they didn't want to listen. Because hope means change and it is the human paradox that of all the creatures on this planet, only we have the power to change anything and everything, and yet we fear nothing so much as change, including change for the better.

Before the Exile, people didn't want to leave the Jordan River. After it happened, they were as reluctant to leave the Euphrates. After seventy years, almost everyone who had been exiled was dead and the new generations born and raised in Babylon had no experience of what Israel had been like. All they had were stories. In the meantime, they'd settled down in their new surroundings, raised families, built businesses, lives, a society. Why disrupt that?

The people, though, should have known better. After all, God had done this before. When his people were in slavery in Egypt, a much worse condition, he had led them out through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Now, God was proposing to make another miracle, to make rivers in the desert, but, not of water, of people. He would turn the dry, dusty roads from Babylon into human rivers streaming to refresh the land of their ancestors.

And, as in Egypt, it would not be by their own doing or because they deserved it. It would be because God willed it so. And, this is where you and I come in to the story.

The Old Testament is what we call a progressive revelation. First, God takes a fellow named Abraham and works with him to build a personal relationship. In the course of this, Abraham becomes less sceptical and anxious and develops trust and faith in God.

And, as the story continues, we see God acting through events. Through, for example, the Exodus and the Exile we see pre-enactments, or dress rehearsals for what God would do in Jesus. Jesus would lead God's people out of slavery and exile in this world into the freedom of a promised land called Heaven. But, the Hebrews and their descendants wouldn't have known that. Which is why they became obsessed with a piece of real estate in this world and think that that is the Promised Land, when, for us who know the full revelation of God in His Son Jesus Christ, the real promised land is a renewed universe.

We, you and I, are in a real sense living in Babylon today. We are in exile in a world that doesn't share our beliefs, customs, or outlook. It is indifferent at best, and hostile at worst, to our religion. And, it offers us lots and lots of things to do. Many have allowed themselves to be captivated by these and the value systems which accompany them. We have settled down and become comfortable. We have surrounded ourselves with familiar things. And, we become uncomfortable when we hear the voice of God telling us that something different is going to happen in the very near future.

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul said that as far as he was concerned everything this world has to offer is rubbish. Actually, he uses another word in Greek meaning "horse- " uh, well, we have to keep things clean in church, so we tweak our translations. But, it shows his passion when he says, "I want to know Christ." This is more important to him than anything else. You can feel the energy in his words, "I press on...for the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." Like the excitement Isaiah felt about the future.

Is that how we're living? Are we looking ahead as if the best is yet to come, or have we settled down in Babylon? Are we ready to get up and move according to God's promise?

God creates opportunities for us to leave Babylon, every day, or rather to see beyond Babylon to the good things he has in store for us. To realize that this is not the promised land, this is not our final destination. "Thus says the Lord...I am about to do a new thing." A new thing? More like lots of new things. Let's be part of them with Him.

In the Name...

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