Sermon - 4 Pentecost
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
In the Name...
A successful businessman was once asked the secret of his success. "Two words", he replied. "Good decisions." When asked how he learned to make those he replied, "Two words - Wrong decisions."
This morning's Old Testament lesson comes from a time with which most of us probably aren't overly familiar. The last days of the Kingdom of Judah and the early days of the Exile in Babylon – almost six hundred years before Christ.
The Exile was an event which challenged the assumptions and presumptions about their place in the world with which the Jews had lived for centuries. They were, after all, God's chosen people living in his promised land and under his special protection. From Goliath on, every enemy would be defeated. From Jericho on, every conquest they undertook would be successful. And, why not? They had the one and only covenant, "you will be my people and I will be your God." No other nation on earth could claim that status.
But, then, everything went wrong. The armies of Babylon easily conquered Jerusalem and tens of thousands of its citizens were deported and forced to live a thousand miles away in the midst of an alien culture. One can imagine the scenes of tragedy and death as men and women, elderly and infants, were herded along the roads during the journey. It was a religious and cultural trauma of...Biblical proportions. What had happened?
Well, as the resettled Jews reflected on the banks of the Euphrates, they considered that what had happened was that they had only remembered half of the covenant - I will be your God. They had forgotten that being a special people meant that they had special responsibilities. They determined that God had withdrawn his protection because they had first withdrawn their obedience.
These were the decades of prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel with their messages of repentance and religious observance. And, in response to this, the Jews in Exile became more Jewish than they had ever been before. They clung to the kosher diet. They were strict in observing the Sabbath. And circumcision took on a new significance. They went out of their way not to assimilate and they stuck out in Babylonian society. They were proud of singing the Lord's song in a strange land.
Not so long ago, when the nations of Europe were building their empires, the people who left their homes to settle in the colonies carried with them, and meticulously observed, the customs of their homelands. Thus, one could find Bavarian-style beer halls in Cameroon, Parisian nightlife in Tahiti, and English cricket matches in Bombay. The point is, that despite the sneers of the locals, the Europeans clung to their cultural customs as representative of what they considered a superior way of life.
But, they forgot, as we Americans also often forget, that we are not just citizens of this world. As the people of Israel were citizens of the Old Covenant, we, who call ourselves Christians, are also citizens of the New.
Each of us has a dual citizenship - this world and the next. Which one we're going to put our efforts into representing is always the question. It's a natural tension. We want to be citizens of our country; we want to be citizens of God; but, the two don't always walk hand in hand. It was Billy Graham who said, "There is no such thing as a Christian society. Only Christians in society." And no one could accuse Billy Graham of being un-patriotic. But, the point he was making is that any society on earth will always be subject to the forces and influences of, as we used to call them, the world, the flesh, and the devil.
There's a story told of a Scottish clergyman who, while visiting Italy, was taken to see a famous painting of the Last Judgment. In it the souls of humans were portrayed torn between angels trying to haul them up to heaven and devils hanging on to their feet pulling downward. Asked his opinion of the painting, the clergyman looked at it carefully and then remarked, "Well, it looks like the devils have gravity on their side."
The ancient Israelites had let gravity overwhelm them. They were supposed to be a city upon a hill, a light unto the nations, but, instead, they became a mirror of the societies around them. They let the influence of their pagan neighbours dictate their relations with God and each other. Yes, they kept the Temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem, but, they also erected hundreds of shrines to other deities because everybody else had them. A society founded on principles of justice and equality degenerated into one practicing injustice and corruption, because that's what went on everywhere else. Even the kings stole other men's wives and property because that's what kings did in other lands.
How many people who call themselves Christians have fallen into the same trap? We know to be on our guard against, to use the old phrase, following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. The trap is when we follow too much the devices and desires of other peoples' hearts. When we let behaviour and values which others practice and which are not consonant with the Gospel determine how we act and make decisions.
Look at how the world shapes us. The fashion houses dictate the sort of clothes we're supposed to be comfortable wearing. The auto makers offer us their choice of vehicles. The health industry determines our diet and exercise. We may believe we don't want to be the same as everybody else, but, when the crunch comes we don't want to be all that different either.
The Jews in Babylon didn't care how weird their pagan neighbours thought they were. They weren't relying on the Babylonian government to enact Yahweh-friendly policies. They took it for granted that the government wouldn't support their beliefs, and they didn't try to force pagans to be Jews or live under Jewish law. Yet, by learning to represent God, they ended up having a greater influence over Babylonian society than they could have imagined.
We live in a world of choices. It goes right back to Eden and it's not going to change. Our responsibility is to live as the Jews in Exile. Making the choices which will, in turn, make us stand out as representatives of a superior way of life. And if we make some wrong ones, that's experience. The point is to strive for, and never lose sight of, the Good.
In the Name...