The Healing of the Nations: From Failure to Hope

  • October 21, 2014

TreeOfLifeLargeVerIsaiah 64:1-52:2
Jeremiah 29:4-11

Last week, Hannah gave all of us who were here a paper leaf with a name of a country on it. She asked each one of us to pray for healing of that country this week. Today I want to build on this theme: “healing of the nations,” beyond just prayer for their dire situation (important as that may be). I want to combine that call for God to heal them with the focus of my own testimony two weeks ago: Healing and guidance during a time of failure. Combining these two leads me to ask: What are the pathways for healing national failure? Hence the sermon title: “The Healing of Nations: From Failure to Hope.”

As noted in the introduction of the Scriptures today, we heard the recounting of two sequential moments in Israel’s experience of catastrophic failure: Isaiah’s blunt admission of national moral failure while the Babylonian army destroyed the city of Jerusalem; followed by Jeremiah’s depiction of the subsequent exile into a foreign land as a pathway to hope. Can you image how this might have been received by the Israelite people?

Israel had lived through both times of trial and times of glory in the past – from slavery in Egypt to the Kingdoms of David and Solomon when they had been a world power in the ancient world. However, by the end of the lives of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, they experienced ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Yet, precisely because they experienced God’s presence through these years of calamity resulting from moral failure, according to Isaiah, they have much to teach us.

To begin to understand the way God worked in the life of this nation, however, we first have to examine one important part of the faith tradition passed down to them for generations and present in many of our Old Testament scriptures. The lament was a prayer in which, first, a complaint was made before God (“They are doing terrible things to us, O Lord”), second, a petition was made to God for protection (“Save us, O Lord, from these terrible atrocities, committed by our enemies”), and third, assurance was given that God hears and acts for justice. The purpose of the lament was to enhance the expression of hurt, loss and grief and, at the same time, to limit vindictive behavior by providing a formalized ritual within a community framework. If they took the lament prayer to heart, they were encouraged to express outrage at what had happened, but not to exact punishment. Instead they were encouraged to let go of the need to retaliate and to give the vengeance over to God. We hear traces of this lament in the passage from Isaiah today. The complaint: “Lord, your sacred cities have become a desert, Jerusalem a desecration. Our holy and glorious temple has been burned with fire and all that we treasured lies in ruin.” The call for protection and justice: “O Lord, that you would come down to make your name know to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you.”

However, what the Israelite people faced in that moment was unlike anything that had occurred in their previous history. The great prophets realized that it was not enough to complain about their enemies. As both prophets, in fact, looked at the gathering clouds of gloom, they amended the prayer of lament. They added a parallel motif that continues to be reflected in the Judeo-Christian tradition which has followed. To the complaint about the actions of other, they added a call for the confession of sin by the Israelite people. Responsibility was no longer solely the responsibility of someone else. Second, they added to the call for protection, a request that God save them from themselves, that God change the hearts of the Israelite people. And finally, to the call for justice, they added a promise that God will bring mercy and forgiveness. Grace, as well as responsibility, was no longer one-sided. Listen to Isaiah: “All of us have become like one who is unclean and all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags… How then can we be saved?… Yet, O lord, you are our father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O lord; do not remember our sins forever.”

What Israel learned very painfully was that, even in situations of great suffering, a people have to look at themselves. In war zones where I have worked I have witnessed many people of faith come to the realization that the ability to examine their own failure/sin is necessary, even crucial for the process of healing. Not just sins of behavior, but also attitudes (“hardness of heart” as the prophets declare); and not just sins of individuals, but of an entire people (“All of us have become unclean” according to Isaiah). Such an awakening forces a people out of simply a victimhood mentality. Victims are real, very real. But victimization is a mentality, a state of mind that adds a particular set of meanings and interpretations to the pain and suffering. At the heart of victimhood is a perspective in which we presume to be innocent and powerless. But God is saying something different to the people of Israel as they are sent into captivity and exile. Not only are they not innocent, they are also not powerless if they still have with them the God of compassion and power.

Jeremiah even has the gall to tell them, “Go and live your normal lives there. In fact, seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon. Pray to the Lord for the well-being of this city which holds you captive. Yes, find your Shalom, the wholeness of the peace that I offer, in the place which has just destroyed your land, your temple, your monarchy (that divinely sanctioned form of government). Yes, you have lost all that you hold sacred, everything that has been central to your identity as a people.” (Even their language changed during the exile; the only books in the Old Testament which are not originally in Hebrew, were written during this period.) Furthermore, a series of prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Ezekiel, and others – make very clear that the reason for these losses is due to their misplaced worship of idols, their misuse of the land through its unfair distribution, their oppression of the needy and mistreatment of the alien. So the people of Israel were stripped of all their prior sense of position and status, all the external trapping of their identity and security. Jeremiah even tells them in Cha. 42 that any attempt to hold onto their land, or even flee to Egypt, would be an act of disobedience to God. As a nation, they were called by God to lose it all, in order to find it all more fully. At the end of today’s reading, when Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord as they are being sent into exile, they hear “…know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The exile marked a critical turning point in Israel’s understanding of the source of its well-being, its security, its identity, and its relationship with other peoples. They learned how to be the people of God while existing under an alien political system, in a place where neither their faith tradition, nor their language, were dominant. Yet they went with Jeremiah’s promise, not only of Shalom in Babylon, but of God’s promise that they would return to their own land after 70 years (in other words, their grandchildren or great-grandchildren would be the beneficiaries).

During this time in exile, the prophet Ezekiel had a more detailed vision regarding the nature of this return to the promised land. He tells them that each of the twelve tribes of Israel will be given back its own land, but with a twist. There are other people now living in that land (the people we come to know later as the Samaritans). Ezekiel tells the Israelites, still in exile, that when they return they are to consider these foreigners as part of their own people. They are also to be given inheritances among the tribes of Israel. Quite a contrast with their first entry to the promised land, when they believed God had called them to kill all the prior inhabitants who lived there. Yet Ezekiel was proclaiming, loud and clear, what earlier Prophets had also said, that there was to be no possession of the land without justice for all. The new twist was that this mandate included the Samaritans.

Prior to the exile, Israel believed that the greatest danger to its identity was domination by pagan peoples. Now, God was telling them, not only to grant the Samaritans a rightful place among them. In addition, God was using a pagan king, Cyrus of Persia (who subsequently conquered the Babylonians during the exile), to allow the Israelites to return. In fact King Cyrus, whom God calls his own anointed one, ordered the rebuilding of the Israelite temple in Jerusalem. Through this whole process, God was transforming the status of the Israelite people once again.

Israel would never be the same as it had been. It would not rule itself for a couple thousand years. A tradition of greater inclusivity had begun, one which Jesus would later build upon, but one with which the Israelite people continued to struggle. The realty of post-exilic life set in pretty quickly. Sharing their land with the Samaritans proved difficult. The rebuilding of the temple was more complicated than expected, with local opposition parties attempting to stop the process. King Artexerxes, who by now had succeeded King Cyrus, sided with the opposition and ordered construction of the temple to stop. Suddenly the reality sunk in for real. They were not an independent nation anymore. They were now a small colony within a vast empire which might tolerate some expression of their faith, but not always in the way they wanted. And certainly Persia would not tolerate any nationalistic ambition, something the Israelites still harbored through to New Testament times. During this period, Nehemiah even writes saying that “We are slaves today; slaves in the land you gave to our forefathers. Because of our sins, the abundant harvest of our land goes to the kings that you, o Lord, have placed over us. They rule us as they please…We are in great distress.”

They were, indeed, a small player in political terms. Yet God had an important role for Israel to play as a faith community within this vast empire which included much of their known world. That new role had, in fact, been envisioned by Isaiah. They were to show the way of salvation for all nations. In the vision Isaiah proclaims in cha. 19, God says, “Blessed be my people Egypt and Assyria the work of my hands and Israel my heritage.” The vision of Isaiah is not just that Israel will have to accept its place as a small unit in a great empire. It was that Israel was to be a leaven in the whole loaf, the loaf in which Egypt, Assyria and even the Persian king would be allies in bringing God’s plan to fruition. Israel, you’ve come a long way, baby, in understanding God’s call: Lesser status, but greater impact.

The tremendous enormity of this new vision and call to God’s people can be found in a famous passage in Isaiah, cha. 2: “The law will go out from Zion; the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation; nor will they train for war anymore.” Isaiah is envisioning, here, the world that God wanted to create after the exile, where one’s identity as God’s people is expanded to include former enemies. It was a grand vision of a world where disputes would not be settled by violence, but by re-perceiving the community to which one belongs. Israel could win, but not through defeat of its enemies. Assyria may be punished, but for its intolerable pride and crimes against all people, not simply because it was Israel’s enemy. Totally exclusive claims to be Gods people were over, at least in the prophetic understanding of God’s vision and call. Real life continued to be far more difficult, with continuing bouts of failure that would constantly follow, not only the Israelite people, but every human society.

We could ask any nation – past, present, or future – how open they are to embracing Isaiah’s vision. Some nations that have made significant strides. Australia now has a “Sorry day” during which the whole nation acknowledges, often with letters being written on that day, the crimes committed against the Aborigine peoples. When I was in Germany last summer, my students and I visited the many memorials the German nation has built to remind themselves, and let the descendants of former victims know, that Germany acknowledges the crimes committed during WWII., not only against the Jews, but against gay people, gypsies and many others. These acts do not make these nations perfect examples of justice, but such acts do indicate that an important transformation has begun, one which is essential for the healing of a nation.

What about our nation? What would happen to our sense of security if we, as a nation, were to live through a crisis like the Israelite exile? Would we be able to deepen our understanding of our identity as people of God? Or would such an experience shatter a sense of well-being defined too much by that which is finite — our comfortable standard of living, our self-determined social structures, our shared cultural values? The extent of our collective anxiety over national security since 9/11 indicates, I believe, that we are ill prepared for any changes in our national standing or fortune – even ones much less traumatic than the Israelite exile. What could we do to better prepare ourselves? I believe the answer lies in asking how we understand our position in the world and our part in God’s vision Are we able to allow our preconceived notions of national exceptionalism to be transformed by God’s vision of greater inclusivity, where we play a role alongside other nations in helping to usher in a fuller rendition of Isaiah’s vision of healing, justice and peace? Are we able, ultimately, to place our security, and find our identity, as fellow travelers on the often unpredictable and unsettling pathway of healing in the hands of the living God? Fortunately God’s plan still includes redemption for nations, including ours, along with any other on this planet. As wounded healer nations (perhaps like Germany after WWII) we have the chance to become a leaven in the loaf, co-creators of God’s good purposes for all peoples, friend and enemy. May we perceive rightly God’s assessment of our failures, and God’s affirmation of our role in bringing hope to the nations. Amen

~David Steele