The Universe is a Story. It is the Story of God, His Creation, and His plans for that Creation. Those plans include two parts, although these are two sides of the one “coin”: the redemption of all that is of God, and the destruction of everything else.
You are part of that Story. Which part, though?
That was the question, when King Cyrus of Persia came to power and declared that the Jews could go back to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple: Are you going to be part of the ongoing Story of Redemption, being lived-out by the People of God, or… ?
This is adapted from a sermon I preached earlier this year.
2 Chronicles 36:15-23
Millions of Australians have grandparents, or great-grandparents, who once called another country home.
Many of those grandparents were forced to flee from warfare, or the economic fallout from war. These families have worked hard to establish businesses, families, and homes. They are pursuing “the Great Australian Dream”. What would it be like after having made a life here, buying property, having children, and building businesses, if the family was suddenly asked to go back to the homeland to rebuild it from war-torn rubble?
This is just a little bit like the Israelites in Babylon, about 500 years before Jesus’ time, when the Chronicler sat and wrote this passage of Scripture to call them home.
The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent persistently to [the Israelites] by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling-place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.
Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand. All the vessels of the house of God, large and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his officials, all these he brought to Babylon. They burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels.
He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfil seventy years.
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfilment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict:
‘Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.’
– 2 Chronicles 36:15-23
I want to talk about three groups of people who are called into God’s story by this passage of scripture: First, the original hearers; second, the people of Jesus time; and third, those who came afterwards.
What it meant to those who first received this message
The whole 65 chapters of 1-2 Chronicles combine simply to drive home the purpose of this small passage at the end: to call the people of God out of comfortable Babylon, and back to rebuild the Holy Land, which had been destroyed in warfare, so that they would be part of God’s ongoing story.
Let’s look at our passage to see what that call meant to them:
Verses 15-16: The Exile happened because people ignored God’s prophets
Do you see the emphasis on God sending messengers, and the people failing to respond? That is important.
Verses 17-19: The invasion was a tragic blood-bath
What a terrifying account! Imagine hearing that, when it was your own grandparents who were slain. Can you imagine how shocking and graphic that would be?
Verses 20-21: Rest for the Land
Ahhhh! The Land is at peace, and the people are settled in nice, comfortable Babylon. That’s the current situation, as the people are hearing this message.
Verses 22-23: The Edict of King Cyrus
Wow! That’s quite a newsflash, isn’t it? We can go home if we want!
Notice how the passage talks about ignoring God’s messengers, and how that caused the destruction of Israel. That’s not just a history lesson. Did you notice that “the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus” to proclaim this message? That means Cyrus’ words are no different from the ones earlier, which the people ignored to their peril. So ignoring them now is certainly not an option. In this way the seeming “invitation” of the final verse is not really a choice; The hearers were being charged with the responsibility to get up and go.
Let me paraphrase this section of Scripture, so that we can boil it down:
God sent prophets to instruct the Israelites in the past, and the people ignored the prophets. The people were destroyed. God has now sent Cyrus as a prophet to instruct the people to go home…
In fact, the entire two-volume work of 1-2 Chronicles, rehearsing the identity and history of the nation, has the one role: to prepare the hearer to receive the decree of Cyrus, so that they can understand that only if they “go up” to Jerusalem, will they remain part of God’s great story.
An Illustration from Life
I’ll show you how it works: Consider a statement like, “your room is messy”.
It is structured as an isolated statement, but it actually carries a lot more meaning, doesn’t it? It implicitly places an obligation on the hearer to do something: “Clean your room” (especially when Mum says it…).
Other examples of this kind of speech are, “we never go out anymore”, or “I’m hungry”. Such sayings contain an implicit request which remains unspoken.
When my kids were very young, they tried this on. Take the example, “I’m hungry”: If one of my kids said that, I would respond, “are you?”, and just go on with what I was doing. I’m sure that was frustrating for them, but I wanted them to learn to be more direct. The happy news is that they very quickly did learn to be more direct, and began asking precisely for what they wanted.
So here’s a tip: when your partner says, “we never go out anymore”, you can be quite certain that this is not an idle observation. Plan a date night!
In the same way, our passage cannot ultimately be understood just to be a dispassionate report about what king Cyrus decided to announce, one sunny afternoon. The Chronicler puts 65 chapters of context in front of it so that its full force is unmistakable: God is saying, “go up to Jerusalem”, because that’s where the story leads. That’s where the People of God will be found…
What it meant to the people of Jesus’ day
Consider this question put to Jesus by his followers in Acts Chapter 1:
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’
– Acts 1:6
The Jews of Jesus’ day had figured out that they were still in the spiritual dimension of the Exile, even though they were physically returned to the Holy Land under Cyrus, some 500 years earlier. So they were waiting for a Messiah in order that they finally could “go up” to restore the kingdom!
There are a number of reasons, which all combine to a very powerful focus on these people and this time in history.
For example, this passage, as far as we can tell, was the very last word, and the closing thought, of the Hebrew Bible at that time. Consider that for a moment…
This invitation to “go up” to restore the kingdom, was the stepping-off point of God’s story for the Jews of that day.
It’s a cliff-hanger.
Another factor was the Book of Daniel, which interpreted the 70 “years” of Jeremiah’s prophecy, (which is referenced in our passage), as 70 “Sevens”, which meant 70 x 7 years = 490 years. That timing of 490 years, depending where you start the counting from, placed the fulfilment right at Jesus’ time in history (no surprise for us, of course, but the people at that time were trying to figure out what it would mean!)
This expectation fuelled countless minor, and several very major, bloody uprisings against the Romans around Jesus’ time in history, led by various messianic figures, who thought that was the appropriate action in fulfilment of this prophecy.
Jesus, of course, taught that his kingdom was “not of this world”. I’ll talk more about that later.
But this ancient passage put an obligation on the people of Jesus’ time and they knew it. They thought it would involve warfare, but it was actually an obligation to recognise the Son of God, and to follow Him into His kingdom.
An Illustration from Life
Is it fair to take a meaning from an old document and apply it to a later situation?
The Australian Constitution was written at a particular time, for a specific purpose, for a certain audience in 1901: to federate the various States and Territories of the land into a Nation.
But in 1975 there was a political crisis! The Governor-General, rightly or wrongly, decided to dismiss the government and call an election, using provisions that had been placed in the Constitution for precisely such an occasion.
So the Constitution was still speaking 74 years after it was written! And it still speaks today, through the operation of the High Court.
Scripture does this too.
The Bible is a collection of documents which we, the faith community, hold to be authoritative for all time. Scripture speaks to us a little bit like a Constitution does, guiding us and ensuring that we remain true to the original vision, purpose, and values.
It was clear from their Scriptures that this particular passage in 2 Chronicles 36 would represent an obligation for the people of Jesus’ time; it just wasn’t quite clear to them what that obligation would be. It was so difficult for them to grasp that even as he was about to ascend to heaven, Jesus followers were asking when Israel would be liberated as a kingdom!
Let’s not make the same mistake as those early followers. They failed, until after he had gone, to grasp Jesus’ message about what this passage was saying. It was not saying, “go to war against the Romans”. It was saying, recognise God’s son, so that they could be included in the continuing story of the people of God.
What it means to us today
So what do you think our obligation might be today, arising from this passage of Scripture? Something? Nothing…?
It does call to us today.
At Pentecost, when Jesus had accomplished his great mission, and the church received the promised Holy Spirit, Peter said this about it, “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:39).
Just as the Israelites had been promised a physical return to the promised land, and in Jesus’s time had been promised a spiritual return to God, we also have a promise: that when we do return to God, we will have the Holy Spirit of God as our companion.
Let me explain this within the big picture: the biggest one possible!
Israel’s physical Exile was merely an echo of a grand mega- theme of human history: The exile of humanity from Eden. That Exile was declared to be finished, in Christ. Pentecost was the sign that we now live in the Last Days, in which we can re-enter “Eden”, which means a reconciled relationship with God.
When God speaks we understand his meaning not only in the immediate dimension of the situation He addresses, but also in the Big Story of Redemption. Consider this, then: it is not merely the Israelite Exiles who are the intended audience of this passage, nor just the Jewish believers of Jesus’ day. It is us, too, just as Peter preached!
… because we now live in the times that follow the “end of the Exile” of all humanity from Eden.
Just as in Babylon, people were wondering whether to leave their good life in Babylon to go up to the holy land, today there are people wondering whether they really want to “go up” from the comforts of this world, to God’s promise. But we are now, today, obliged to hear God speaking in this passage, saying, “go up”. It means go up to reconciliation with God.
An Illustration from Life
Let me tell you a story.
As we know, Jesus lived, taught, died under Pontius Pilate, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. After he was gone, Jesus’ followers formed communities of worship, of selfless love, and of generous sharing. They placed themselves in humble service to their neighbours, and generally shone out as model citizens in everything except one thing: they would not pray to the Emperor as a god.
The Romans punished them, putting them to death for the refusal to pray to the Emperor. But this strident refusal, even at the cost of their very lives, made other people want to know more about Christianity. The more they persecuted, the more Christianity thrived. This is an excerpt from a letter written by Tertullian, the Bishop of Carthage, to a Roman Governor:
We spring up in greater numbers as often as we are mown down by you : the blood of the Christians is a source of new life
– Apologeticus Ch50
But let’s fast-forward a couple of hundred years…
It’s 325AD and Jesus is long gone by now, and so are the original apostles. But the Christian community still keeps growing and thriving in His Spirit, despite various levels of persecution from what has become their Great Enemy, the Roman Empire. The Romans are perplexed by this odd little sect but they just can’t stamp it out. Suddenly, the Roman Emperor Constantine becomes a Christian! He then declares Christianity to be legal, paving the way for Theodosius to later make it the only legal religion of the Empire.
Fast-forward another 1700 years or so, to the turn of the 20th Century…
Christianity has 2 billion members, but the last traces of the Roman Empire’s existence finally disappear in a puff of political wrangling in a series of negotiations between Italy and the Vatican. That was over a hundred years ago. The Roman Empire, that old enemy of the Church, is now long gone, overcome and dismantled by the community of faith and love in Jesus’ name. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (Zech 4:6).
Why? Because, as Isaiah announces,
“Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isa 40:7-8)!
Are you catching this? Can you see it? God’s purposes are inevitable.
The Roman Empire, the only viable superpower in Jesus’ day, was no obstacle for the Spirit of God, no obstacle for love, patience, and forgiveness in Jesus’ name. It’s gone, and the church stands! Jesus was right to teach love, patience, self-sacrifice, and endurance under persecution. Paul was right to call such things, “the wisdom of God”.
What can we now make of that exchange between Jesus and his followers?
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
– Acts 1:6-8
Have I got everyone on board yet?
From our vantage point in world history, it is absolutely clear that God takes control of global politics for his own purposes, and that Jesus truly is Lord. He said that the Church would prevail and it has, and it is prevailing. Nations may rise and fall, trends and denominations may come and go, but the Church can not fail. It is powered by God.
Can you see that the “Bible story” is still happening today? The kingdom is still advancing, just as at every other time in history. What is your part in that story?
What are you making available for the future generations in the faith to celebrate and draw inspiration from?
God calls his people home. He has announced it through gentile kings, the prophets, the angels, the Scriptures, the preachers, and even His own Son. I’m here today to announce it again, in Jesus name, and to implore you to act on it. God has proved it in ancient and in modern history, so that you will hear his voice clearly in my message today, saying “go up”.
“Go up” to the kingdom of God. Include your story in the story of God’s people. Don’t just fade like the grass, become part of God’s story, and make a mark in eternity!
The Conclusion of the Matter
Now, to “go up”, this is what you do:
Turn away from the “economic gain” world that we have created for ourselves, and go up to the “seek first God’s righteousness“, kingdom of God.
Turn away from the “comfortable” world we have created for ourselves, and go up to the “his grace is sufficient for you“, life in the Holy Spirit.
Turn away from the “justify your existence” world we have created for ourselves, and go up to the “I died for you” kingdom of Jesus Christ!
That means: trust in Jesus as your king, your leader, your example, your Captain, your Saviour, your friend; learn the sound of his voice. Above all, “Go up”, means take up your part in this, the greatest of all stories. Now is the time! The time for living according to this crazy, upside down world, is over. Your father is calling you home. Will you come home today?
Will your story be written in eternity? Will you “go up” to your God?