Sunday November 20, 2016
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Readings: Isaiah 43:16-25
Once upon a time there was a boy named Nathan. Nathan lived with his family in Jerusalem. Nathan’s father was a priest, and Nathan loved to go to the temple with him. Someday Nathan would be a priest as well, so he had to learn to chant the prayers, to know which sacrifices were required on which days, and to tell the stories of his people. Nathan loved to hear those stories. He loved the part where God parted the waters and led the Hebrew people through the Red Sea. His favorite part was when the wicked Pharaoh’s chariots got stuck in the mud so the people could escape. Nathan learned how Solomon built the beautiful temple to the Lord. Nathan could see his reflection in the golden doors, he could feel the texture of the tapestries, he could smell the fragrant incense. Nathan often dreamed of the days when he would be a priest. He could feel the weight of the incense holders as he carried them to the altar. He saw the faces of the children as he taught them the stories of the Lord. Nathan knew that he would serve the Lord in all he did and that because he did this, the people of Judah would have bountiful crops and prosperous times when Nathan was a priest.
But Nathan was born when Zedekiah was king of Judah. Nebuchadrezzar was king of Babylon, and he wanted to conquer the world. As the Babylonians began to take away the people and their treasures, Nathan’s parents kept their worries from their children. When Nathan was eight years old, they could keep the secret no longer. Jerusalem was under siege. Food and water, always hard to find, became truly scarce, and Nathan’s family struggled to stay alive. His baby brother died. Finally, a ten-year-old Nathan and his family watched in horror as the Babylonians came into Jerusalem, burned the temple, and made all who lived in the city pack their things and leave.
It seemed to Nathan and his parents they had been walking forever. The soldiers wouldn’t tell them where they were going, or how much longer they must walk, or what would happen when they got there. They just kept walking. Finally, though, everyone knew where they were. They could see the great wall that surrounded the city. People were talking about the beautiful Hanging Gardens. They were in the great city of Babylon. But the people knew that they would be slaves, just like their ancestors in Egypt. God had saved them once, but surely this time they were doomed. Not even God was greater than Babylon.
For their time, the Babylonians were humane. They let the Judeans stay together. They knew the people would need to worship their God, so they let the priests continue to serve them. Nathan’s father was one of those. But he didn’t know what to do. For the Jews, sacrifices had to be made in Jerusalem, not in Babylon. The Babylonians made the Jews sing songs to the God who hadn’t saved them. Nathan’s father wondered how he could sing the Lord’s song in a new land.
Nathan wondered, too. He wouldn’t swing the incense, and he wouldn’t teach people which sacrifices to bring when. But he could tell the stories. So that is what Nathan and his father did. They told the stories of the Exodus, especially the part about the chariots. But they also told the story of the Golden Calf, about God’s people worshiping other gods. They told that God was angry, but after a very long time, they said, God had helped them break down the walls of Jericho. They told the stories of David, God’s favorite king, but they told about his adultery with Bathsheba, too. They told how God’s people had turned from God, and been punished, but they reminded the people that however much their ancestors had sinned, God still loved them, and God always came back with greater glories.
Nathan and his father weren’t the only ones telling these stories. Sometimes they listened, too. One day, they heard a prophet speak the words that are our text today. They understood the part about the chariot and horse, after all, that was Nathan’s favorite. But when they got to the part about forgetting the things of the past, that was a bit harder to accept. Of course, they knew that their people had not worshiped correctly—they couldn’t bring sacrifices here. But they just didn’t get that “forget the past” thing.
So they wrote down the words and went home and talked about them. As they did, they realized that they had been helping their people live in the past. They had told them about Moses and Pharoah, about Jericho, about David, but somehow they kept believing God couldn’t do that again. They were living in the past. God didn’t need their sacrifices—sacrifices without a broken heart only burdened God. They remembered the words of Micah—What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. Slowly, they began to believe. They helped the people to understand that God was able to do even greater things for them. They taught the people to do as Micah said. They found a way to sing the Lord’s song in a new land.
The years passed, and Nathan’s father died. Nathan had his own sons and taught them the stories. After many years new rumors began to circulate among the exiles. Babylon would soon be history. The Persians were coming. Perhaps this new King Cyrus was more cruel than the Babylonians. But perhaps he was God’s messenger to let the exiles go home.
To Nathan’s joy, Cyrus did let the exiles go home. Many had prospered in the exile and wanted to stay, but some, like Nathan, packed up their families and their belongings and made the trip. It wasn’t any shorter going back. It was still a journey through the desert, with wild animals, and little water or food. Cyrus did tell his people to give them supplies, but only God could take care of the wild animals. As the people got ready to leave, Nathan remembered that God, speaking through the prophet, had promised to do just that. So he went home to build the temple, to return to the new wonders God was making for God’s people.
It wasn’t easy building that temple. For one thing, there were people living in what was once Judah. And no matter how much they pretended, there was no way the Jews had the riches to build a temple anything like Solomon’s. Sometimes they wanted to give up. They did give up, several times. Finally, the day came. When Nathan, over eighty years old by now, saw the finished temple, he wept. Not for joy. Nathan wept when he saw how much this temple fell short of the glory of Solomon’s. He knew that God had promised greater things for his people, but he knew he had not seen them.
Years later, Nathan’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson saw people coming from all over the world to celebrate Passover in the Temple. He thought about the prophet’s words, and he saw that knowledge of God was spreading. Perhaps this was the greater thing of which the prophet had spoken. Another of Nathan’s descendants—a grandson with more greats than I could say—was fishing when a man came and promised to teach Simon Peter to fish for men. He surely saw God do a greater thing. And two millennia later, we, Nathan’s spiritual descendants, are still watching.
Do you ever feel like the teenage Nathan, or his father, wondering how to sing the Lord’s song in a new land? I certainly do. We’ve talked many times about the changes in our world. Most of us don’t like those changes. But we don’t get to decide what the world looks like. We just have to figure out how to be faithful in a new world.
When the Hebrews tried to sing the Lord’s song, they had two choices. They could sing of the old days of glory and mourn their losses, or they could believe that God was still Lord and that even in exile God was working to bring them greater gifts. There’s no doubt about it, mourning is a whole lot easier. It was never convenient or simple to follow this God, so different from the gods of their neighbors. If their God was dead, or impotent, then they could just fade into the scenery, make a little money, settle into the land of their exile, and never face going through that desert again. They wouldn’t have to change.
That is the choice before us. I’ve said it to you many times another way: We can live as those who are dying, or we can live as those who are being saved. So let us today mourn our losses, remember the glories of days past. Then let us remember that our God is faithful, no matter what. So we’ll sing a happy song, even have a bit of a New Orleans Second Line, and then go, like mourners after a funeral, and eat together, and begin a time to heal and to move on.
May God be with us as we do this.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.