II Chronicles 36:15-20
When a sports team takes a championship, the fans start shouting this like, “We did it! We did it!” When they calm down just a little bit, they may start singing,
“We are the champions, my friend!
We’ll keep on fighting ’til the end!
We are the champions, we are the champions!
No time for losers,
’cause we are the champions
of the world!”
Of course, when the season ends poorly, what you hear is, “They blew it again,” or, “Game three is where they went wrong.”
The Chronicler records a national disaster far worse than losing the Stanley Cup. The Chronicler writes about how Israel was destroyed and how Judah failed to learn any lessons from that disaster. How did a people who started out with such promise, and to whom God himself had pledged support, end up nothing but a wreck? It is too much to bear to say, “What happened to us?” Let’s look, says the Chronicler, at them. He gives a recap:
“The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent persistently to them 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.”
It wasn’t that God broke his promises. It was that the people broke away from his promises. God said that he would be with them, but they said they didn’t need his help, thanks. So he let them go.
“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…”
Notice here, it is not only the nation that suffers – and that suffering is profound – but God also suffers. Their homes are destroyed and their children carried away. So, too, is the Temple, which they understood as the House of God (often in very literal terms) is destroyed and pillaged. Judah and Jerusalem are leveled and God loses his own people, with those who survive turned into slaves. This is a massive failure for God himself.
How do you make sense of that? If you’re honest, you cannot pretend it didn’t happen. Jack Miles won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for a book called God: A Biography. It has a chapter called “Does God Fail?” that opens with the question
“If the rupture of the covenant and the resulting genocide are only too obviously a catastrophe in the life of Israel, what are they in the life of God?”
The Chronicler’s explanation of Israel and Judah’s failure was that God was going back to the start, as he had done with people across the ages. He looked at the words of Jeremiah, who had seen the trouble coming, and who said something that moved the Chronicler to look beyond what was in front of him, and to break out of the tunnel-vision that comes in the midst of grief. Jeremiah said:
“Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” [Jeremiah 29:10-11]
That, said the Chronicler, was what was happening. God was going to let the land lie there as a time that it would be fallow, getting a necessary rest for the new start that was to come. It was, he said, as if the land were keeping a Sabbath.
The human heart, too, needs to lie fallow at times. Everyone’s life is filled with failures of all types, and the pain that comes with them. We have to live with it to discover what is going on in a larger way. People who hide from their troubles in substance abuse or in their work or by jumping from relationship to relationship or never looking away from a screen: they never let reality sink in long enough to discover that God is with them in the shadow as well as in the sunlight.
The story of God and his people, with the shared sense of loss and the changes, for good or for ill, that arise through them, is a shared experience in all respects. When I was very young I had a friend who was born one month before me and who lived three doors away, so we grew up together. Every year on his birthday, his sister re-posts something she wrote four years ago.
“July 8th, 1964 was a life changer for me. My mother placed a beautiful baby boy in my arms and from that moment on I understood unconditional love. My parents graced me with being his god mother and I took that role very seriously. My heart broke 4 1/2 years ago when you passed away. I believe with all of my heart that I did everything I could to save you from your addiction. God had a different plan for both of us. He was instilling strength in me for what was to come. You are forever in my heart and I thank you for all the lessons you taught me.”
I think the Chronicler would have approved of that. Through suffering, we gain strength, compassion, and wisdom. I am grateful to say that it is often true, by God’s grace.
However, there has to be more to it, though, because not everyone comes out of suffering as a better person. Even those who do often bear scars. The exiles did return and they did rebuild Jerusalem, but it was not the same as it was. Nevermore, either, did God work through a nation. Judah became a province of the Persian Empire, and later of the Greeks and the Romans. And anyone who tells you that any nation since then has been chosen by God in the same way as David’s kingdom is lying. No political leader is the Messiah.
God used the time of the exile to let something new spring up, but it would not be a new version of the old nation. It would be something far, far larger. It would be the awareness that real salvation, real wholeness, would come from embracing failure, rather than by anything the world would call greatness or success. Salvation, healing, and hope were all connected to the history of Israel in that it would come, at the right time, in God’s time, through a descendant of David. But he would not be born in any kind of palace and would not hold any formal office. Far from repeating the glories of the kings who sat on the throne of David and Solomon, he would die abandoned and degraded at the hand of the nation’s occupiers and his people’s oppressors. The redemption of all the world’s suffering would come when God himself, in Jesus, would take on all the failure and sin of the entire human race on a cross.
Through that moment of utter failure, not through some grand conquest, he would enter the great exile of death itself to bring back those who lie hopeless, farther even than life, and to gather them once more to himself.
“Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” [Jeremiah 29:12-14]
That promise is not tied to geography. It is not conditional on time or place. Sin is not limited to any ethnic group or nation and neither is salvation. Look at your own life and wherever you and God parted ways, he is waiting there for you.
The invitation is to be part of a people of new life, not looking back to the good old days. They are over. Look ahead, always ahead, walking by faith in the Lord and with trust, and you will find yourself by God’s grace, not only walking but soaring.
 from “We Are the Champions” by Freddie Mercury
 Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 187.