What would your house be like if you had to walk away from it for a year and live somewhere else? Kay and I faced that prospect several years ago, and it was daunting. Now try to imagine walking away from your house for seventy years – leaving it to the mercies of… whatever… until the year 2091. Do you find that prospect unimaginable? Me too.
In our two-year through-the-Bible reading plan, we’re at the point in the history of God’s people where they’ve returned to Jerusalem and Judea from exile in Babylon. Jerusalem is in the same location, but it’s not the same place at all. It was a wreck, for sure, when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar took captive the third and final wave of Jews in 586BC, but time and circumstance had wrought a destruction uglier and more thorough than all of the enemy’s crazed efforts. As we read about the people’s return in the Bible books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we’re seeing that their souls are as dazed and desolate as the land to which they’re returning.
Nothing tears a house down more thoroughly than no one loving it. Fire or storm or heavy machinery will do the job faster, but absence of love for a place leaves it open to rot and vermin and pestilence. It becomes something far worse than a pile of rubble or smoldering ash – dark and hideous. The returning exiles found Jerusalem more hideous than they could’ve imagined – a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals (Jeremiah 9:11). And like an unloved house, if it were going to be restored, it would have to be by someone who was supposed to be there, someone who loved the place.
Last week we embarked on a journey of undetermined length, a series of these letters we do each week, on the subject of the Three R’s – Receive, Reject, Redeem – and, where faith and culture intersect, which cultural elements go into which R-category. By way of reminder, here’s a repeat of the definitions I offered:
Receive: This thing is all good, really. There’s no hook inside the bait; it’s not a snare to your faith. Even though non-Christians are receiving it too, there’s nothing anti-Christian about it.
Reject: This thing is all bad. It has no positive or even mitigating qualities; it will always be a snare to your faith, every time.
Redeem: This thing is inherently good, but it’s been hijacked and put to bad purposes. Under the smudges and layers of crud, something good and even beautiful waits to thrive, and is well worth whatever effort it takes to set it back on track.
The Jewish exiles returned to a place that had been exposed to more than the elements. Descendants of the same peoples who had been driven out in centuries past had moved back in, bringing the same worship of the same false gods; the hostile northern tribes of Israel were at the same time trying to establish themselves as the dominant influence of the region; speculators were claiming squatters’ rights to the territory; greed and avarice ruled in the land. This was no simple return.
But if you dig down below the obvious – and I hope the Lord has been giving us the ability to do that as we read the history of our people – I think you’ll see that the Jews had a more fundamental issue to settle than those of morals or strategies. They had an identity issue, and unless it was resolved, no other work could last. Were they, indeed, the people of God? Were they supposed to be the ones here for this time, loving their way toward restoration?
If you’re a less than stellar mathematician, like me, you might have trouble keeping track of dates BC, Before Christ. I end up adding when I should subtract, or assigning Third Century to the Fifth, or vice-versa. But let’s get our heads together here, and see if we can find a crucial piece of insight in the dates of the exile. You’ll remember that the final wave of captives was carried off in 586BC, and the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The decree of Cyrus, king of Persia, came in 538BC, and the first wave of returnees were free to set out. But wait, that doesn’t define the seventy years of exile the prophets described. Even if preparations for the return took several years, the math doesn’t work. What, exactly, defines “exile” if not the number of years the people were displaced?
To move forward seventy years, “toward Christ,” you would subtract from when the captivity began, in 586(BC). The key is to understand that the starting point wasn’t the carrying away of the first or second wave of captives, or even the third, but when the temple was destroyed and worship of God among his people ceased. Subtract 70 from 586, and you’ll have 516(BC). Though the exiles began returning after only 48-50 years, it wasn’t until 516BC that worship of God among them was reinstated. Their identity was up in the air, by any measurement at their disposal, until they had reestablished themselves as the distinctive worshipping people of the Lord Almighty. The exile wasn’t defined by the number of years the people were displaced, but by the number of years worship was suspended!
As the people of God right now, our situation is no different. Plunked down wherever-the-heck we are, identity is the fundamental issue to be resolved. Thankfully, there’s a thread running through our history, connecting us now through our New Testament forebears, to their Old Testament forebears and ours. God commissioned and inspired a letter from the apostle Paul to a church in the small city of Colossae, to be read in the churches of surrounding towns. In it, there’s a big bright clue as to who we are, really:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-3).
Christ is our life. Beyond being Lord of our life and light of our life, Christ is our life, actually. That’s who we are. Granted, it’s not a manageable subject, in the way we usually like to manage. There’s mystery and glory involved, which means it warrants more discussion, and I hope you’re willing to do that with me, Church. In the meantime, please hear this: As we’re called, day by day, to make decisions along the Receive/Reject/Redeem lines, we will have no lasting success unless we discover who we are “in Christ” and commit to living as the worshipping people of God. What work needs to be done between you and the Lord for him to cement your identity in your heart and mind?
To follow up on a promise I made last week, it’s time to reveal my favorite from among the Three R’s. (Kay says anyone who knows me at all will already have guessed, without a doubt.) To be honest, I’m having a dickens of a time coming up with very many cultural elements to go into the Receive category, and just as much trouble populating the Reject file. Maybe the trouble stems from the fact that REDEEM is my runaway favorite. The very thought of taking back and restoring what’s been taken away positively thrills me. It’s not that I’m an especially skilled redeemer of cultural elements – it’s only that I know who my Redeemer is, and I love him, and my soul yearns to cooperate in his gloriously relentless work of redemption, to recover from desolation all that’s been lost for too long. I’d say yours does too.
The question to ask ourselves and each other is, “What is Jesus doing, right now, to redeem language, music, marriage, wealth, sex, entertainment, worship, civil government, adventure……..” (the list goes on and on). Whatever he’s doing is what we want to do…
Well, that depends on who you are.
Grace and Peace (and identity),