2 Chronicles 36:22-23
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
6 June 2021
Let’s back up.
A generation before this moment we just read about, the armies of the Babylonian Empire, under the infamous King Nebuchadnezzar, invaded the Kingdom of Judah, conquered it’s people, and took control of Jerusalem. The Babylonians took the Jewish King Jeconiah hostage and along with a significant portion of the nation’s elite, carried them away into exile. into the Babylonian heartland of Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq.
Nebuchadnezzar appointed a puppet government over Judea. Eventually the puppet king Zedekiah rebelled and the Babylonian armies returned. After a long siege of the city of Jerusalem, the Babylonians defeated the Jews. Then they tore down the city walls, burned the Temple, executed the king’s family, blinded him and carried him off to prison where he died. More people were taken to Babylon, and only a small, poor remnant of people remained in the land, which was reduced to a province of the great empire.
Meanwhile, in exile in Babylon, Jewish culture seized the moment of trauma and in a bold act of resilience their culture thrived. Ezekiel had visions of the bones of the defeated Jews being brought back to life by God’s Spirit. He imagined a new temple, restored and glorious. The poet Second Isaiah dreamed of a day when all the nations of the world would stream to a new Jerusalem, a city of peace.
Poets, songwriters, historians, religious scholars, prophets all began to dream and to tell stories and to write. They looked back on the ancient stories of Abraham’s journeys, of the Exodus from Egypt, of David’s establishment of the kingdom. And in those stories they found hope and tools to survive and ideas for the future.
And they waited for the day when they might return again to the land and rebuild their society and worship God in freedom.
In rather shocking, quick order that day came. Babylon, the once great empire that had commanded most of the near east, collapsed quickly before the armies of the Persian emperor Cyrus. Nabonidus, the last of the Babylonian kings, was so disliked by his own people, that they did welcome the Persians.
And Cyrus was something of a messianic figure, honored as such even by the Book of Isaiah. For Cyrus took a different approach than the empire builders before him. The old Assyrian Empire had built itself through ethnic cleansing and genocide. When they conquered a nation, they removed most of its people and spread them through the empire and moved new people into the homes and cities of the defeated nations. In doing so they wiped from history many of the ancient peoples, including the northern kingdom of Israel and its lost ten tribes. The Babylonians were not quite as fierce, but kept something of the same idea in their kidnapping of a country’s elites.
But Cyrus, he and the Persians took a different approach. They respected the diversity of their empire’s peoples, their cultures and faiths. They left people groups intact and allowed them to continue their religious practices and granted some autonomy in how they organized themselves. And, so, one way Cyrus gained favor over his new subjects was to allow those who were in exile to return to their homelands and re-establish themselves. And, thus, the Hebrew Scriptures honor Cyrus as an agent of God, creating the opportunity for the people to return home.
And so, after a generation, they were able to Go up to Jerusalem once again. But the Jews of Babylon didn’t all rush to return. In fact, they never all left. The Jewish community of Babylon and eventually Baghdad was one of the centers of Jewish intellectual life well into the Middle Ages and a remnant of that community remained well into the modern age.
The first group to return to Judea was led by Shesh-bazzar and probably included the bravest, the most daring, and those with little to lose. It took many years and multiple waves of return under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah before the new Jerusalem and the new Judea began to take shape. It is this story of restoration which we explore this summer in our worship.
A few years ago we followed the first part of this story—the conquests of Israel and Judah, the people being led into Exile, the formation of a new people through resilience after trauma. At the time we always intended to tell the second part of the story, and this year seems fitting, as we too have gone through our own collective traumas with the global pandemic, the racial uprising and reckoning, the insurrection. We are also in a time of restoration, taking our first stumbles out into a new normal, some of us with eager fascination and some with great anxiety and trepidation. All of this while the dangers are still present, and we aren’t quite sure what the new normal will look like. Or whether our society will muster the political and cultural will to heal and rebuild and restore, creating something better than what we’ve known before. So, we turn to these ancient stories looking for tools and ideas and spiritual connection.
Healing from trauma begins with the ability to tell our story and have it listened to by a compassionate person. And so the stories of ancient Judea are their attempts at this process of healing and resilience.
According to Serene Jones, healing from trauma involves three stages—first, establishing our safety; secondly, remembering and mourning; and finally, reconnecting with ordinary life. We will encounter each of these in the ancient stories. And all of us have been moving through those stages, and we are at different places along the journey.
One of the more popular writers and spiritual guides of our time is Brené Brown. In her bestselling book Rising Strong she writes about how we go up again. She says, “Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.” She says that it is this process which tests our courage and forges our values.
In her research, Brown has identified a three stage process involved in rising strong from a fall. It begins with a reckoning, particularly a reckoning with our emotions. She writes, “Recognize emotion, and get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave.”
This first step can be a difficult and tricky process, because we have so often been trained to suppress or ignore our emotions. Which is why often this work requires professional help.
This stage also involves listening to our bodies, which teach us so much about what we are feeling. Even when we are trying to ignore an emotion, it will often manifest itself as an ache or a pain within our bodies. Being aware of our physicality and the ways our bodies keep the score, is an important part of emotional maturity and wholehearted living.
As we read these stories this summer, listen for the ways they deal with emotions. Today’s brief passage, for instance, exults with joy and celebration. Let’s also be aware of our own emotions and pay attention to our bodies and what they are telling us, as we begin to move into this new normal.
According to Brown, the second stage of the rising strong process is to rumble with our stories. Here’s what she says about that fun word “rumble”—“By rumble, I mean they get honest about the stories they’ve made up about their struggles and they are willing to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives as they dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness.”
So, step two isn’t easy either! Learning to rumble well with topics like shame and resentment and forgiveness can take a lifetime of spiritual work. In another of her books, she writes, “When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending. And when we don’t own our stories of failure, setbacks, and hurts—they own us.” So, yes, it’s not easy work, but it is vital work.
And remember: we are beloved children of God, with amazing minds and souls, empowered by the Holy Spirit, filled with amazing grace, and radiant with glory. We are capable of growing into our best selves.
Our ancient forebears had to do the serious spiritual work of rumbling with their stories. They didn’t always succeed at creating something better, as we will see. Sometimes they failed and created more trauma. Let’s learn from that as we rumble with our stories.
The final stage of the rising strong process, according to Brené Brown, is the revolution. She describes it as writing “a new ending to our story based on the key learnings from our rumble.” And that we then “use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live, love, parent, and lead.”
And it is this ability to rise strong from failure that leads to wholehearted lives.
That’s our goal, isn’t it? How to rise up from our pandemic experience better, whole, joyful, and glorious?
In ancient Babylon a few, brave, intrepid souls heard the call of God in the proclamation of the emperor Cyrus to “Go up.” They traveled to a place that required vision and hard work if it was to be transformed and restored.
In our own lives, may we too rise strong and hear God’s call to go up, to be restored, to become our best selves.