All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: “Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.” In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia....
I was rather sharply reminded lately that many Americans want to hear nothing of "politics" on Sunday morning in church. They could have stayed at home to watch Meet the Press if they wanted more politics. There's a problem with that: politics is life and life has a rude habit of intruding even into our churches.
The Hebrew prophets met similar resistance when they made their dire predictions. In fact, without a basic understanding of the political situation in ancient Jerusalem, the scriptures make little sense. Devout readers can find whatever they want in the cryptic words of the Bible, but without some knowledge of history their interpretations will be nonsense. They might as well read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream and suppose it's about the appearance of fairies and gods in ancient Athens.
Today's first reading from the Second Book of Chronicles recalls Jeremiah's prophecies about the destruction and reappearance of Jerusalem, predictions which had proven remarkably accurate. Jeremiah complained about the "lost Sabbaths," those violated holy days when worship was shorted; merchants went about their business; and widows, orphans and aliens were neglected. That sacred time, he said, must be recovered. And so it was with the desecration and destruction of the entire region. This prophecy is found in the Book of Leviticus:
So devastated will I leave the land that your enemies who come to live there will stand aghast at the sight of it. And I will scatter you among the nations at the point of my drawn sword, leaving your countryside desolate and your cities deserted. Then shall the land, during the time it lies waste, make up its lost Sabbaths, while you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land have rest and make up for its Sabbaths during all the time that it lies desolate, enjoying the rest that you would not let it have on your Sabbaths when you lived there.
After the Babylonian army sacked the city, wasted the countryside, deported every useful person, and razed the temple, the region "rested," unoccupied and uncultivated like a DMZ for seventy years. It was a prolonged jubilee for the land, if not for the people.
The story of Jerusalem's destruction and rebirth informs our reading of Paul's Letter to the Ephesians:
God, who is rich in mercy,
because of the great love he had for us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
brought us to life with Christ....
Without a profound appreciation of our sins and their political consequences of suffering, grief, guilt, shame and humiliation, we cannot begin to appreciate the "Rich Mercy" of Jesus' death and resurrection. Those like the Pharisees who assume a stoic, superior attitude cannot imagine, much less fathom, the depths of grace.
I see our reluctance to know our sins in the VA hospital as combat Veterans speak of their experience. Or, more often, don't speak of their experience. Civilians have noticed this reluctance at least since the Civil War. We might celebrate the return of our "heroes" but many will not tell us what happened. Nor, for that matter, do we want to hear those old war stories. If we were more willing to listen, more Veterans would be willing to speak.
But in one sense, they owe it to us. We should know the consequences of sending our young men and women into war. When we choose to use the sledgehammer of war to drive a political tack men are killed, women are raped, children are slaughtered, homes and villages are razed by our own youth as they fulfill their missions. War is chaotic: goals are confused, plans are sketchy, results are unclear, no one knows exactly what happened; but the memories of what happened and what might have happened haunt survivors and soldiers.
And then, when they come home, they realize we don't want to hear about it. "Save it for the cinema!" We're too busy with other things. We will, however, provide whatever drugs or alcohol they need to cope. Freedom is not free we say, but we don't want to know the costs.
The Gospel reminds us of the costs:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
This is the price God is willing to pay for our freedom.
Does the death of one man seem like a small price to pay for freedom? Caiaphas thought so when he forced his Sanhedrin to move against Jesus. That one death would forestall a Roman response against the unrest in Jerusalem. Crucifixions were common, like death and taxes; no big deal. History would soon forget an incident which few had remarked.
When the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths perhaps we'll be able to forget what happened in Europe one hundred years ago, and eighty years ago; in Vietnam and Cambodia fifty years ago; in Nicaragua and Cuba thirty years ago, in Iraq and Afghanistan even today.
But we must never forget what happened on Calvary. The politics of that crisis will save us.