The Road to the Kingdom Runs through Babylon

[The prophet Jeremiah said,] “This is what the LORD says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine, and plague, but whoever surrenders to the Chaldeans will live. He will keep his life like the spoils of war and will live.’ This is what the LORD says: ‘This city will most certainly be handed over to the king of Babylon’s army, and he will capture it.'” (Jeremiah 38:2-3)

A military chaplain who did what the prophet Jeremiah did, who encouraged his people to surrender to the enemy, would be in grave trouble. American soldiers never accept defeat. I can only imagine what the old man might say if I announced our impending destruction on the eve of battle, and then proclaimed that it was God’s will for our people to run away, surrender and survive. Not only would my commander be furious beyond measure, it’s quite likely that I would be charged with a capital crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

King Zedekiah’s officers seem to have felt the same about Jeremiah.

The officials then said to the king, “This man ought to die, because he is weakening the morale of the warriors who remain in this city and of all the people by speaking to them in this way. This man is not seeking the well-being of this people, but disaster.” (Jeremiah 38:4)

The irony is that Jeremiah actually was seeking the well-being of the people, placing their survival over the survival of the Jerusalem, the temple and the Davidic monarchy. But how could God ever allow these things to be threatened, and what would become of the people without them? God chose Jerusalem as the place for his name to dwell. He gave detailed directions in the Torah for the tabernacle’s design, furnishings and priestly functions. He promised king David that his descendants would reign forever.

This was the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants forever. It was the land given to the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt. It was the land settled by divine mandate with the casting of lots during the conquest and occupation. This was the promised land! How could God’s prophet tell God’s people to surrender? If God was on Judah’s side, how could they lose?

Not least, God’s reputation was on the line. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed. Ten of the twelve tribes identified with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been wiped from the face of the earth. If Judah were to disappear, God’s promises to the patriarchs would come to nothing. The name of the Lord would become a byword for mockery and derision. “The God of Judah, what a joke! The gods of Babylon have defeated him and ground him into dust.” Surely no foreign idol-worshipers could drive the last of God’s people from the land of promise.

Even though their situation looked hopeless, the people of Jerusalem had good reason to be optimistic. This was not the first time – or the last – that Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies. In the 8th century BC, the Assyrians besieged Judah’s capital. In that day, the Lord delivered Jerusalem by sending a plague throughout the Assyrian camp, causing the enemy to withdraw from the land of Judah. Why would God not deliver Jerusalem from the Chaldeans (aka Babylonians) as he had from the Assyrians? Alas, said Jeremiah, it was not to be.

Jerusalem was doomed to destruction. Those who stayed within her would die from starvation or disease – as is common in military sieges – or – if they lasted long enough – at the hands of the conquerors who breached her walls.

Jeremiah’s words made no sense to the people of Jerusalem who trusted in God to defend them. They don’t make much sense to God’s people today, either.

Jeremiah’s message to Jerusalem was simply this. The road ahead for God’s people ran through the streets of Babylon. There was hope beyond the hopelessness of their current situation.

God was not abandoning his promise to dwell with his people in his kingdom. The Judeans would just have to trust God. They would have to believe that God could accomplish his purposes beside and beyond the waters of Babylon. It’s almost as if they had to believe that God could raise the nation of Judah from the dead.

And so we come, this Lenten season, to Jesus, whose journey to Jerusalem we recall. Jesus understood the lessons of Jeremiah and the Babylonian exile better than anyone else.

  • Jesus, the son of David, the messiah, the king of Israel.
  • Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, in whom God came to dwell bodily among us.
  • Jesus, the prophet, the sage, the Word of God incarnate.
  • Jesus, who cast out demons, healed the sick and calmed the waves.
  • Jesus, who performed countless signs and wonders as foretastes of the age to come.

Who could ever stand against him? How could he ever suffer defeat?

Jesus, like Jeremiah, knew that the road to the kingdom runs through Babylon. It runs through places where things look hopeless, where it appears as if God’s promises will certainly come to naught. In Jesus’ case, Babylon was a Roman cross and a Jewish grave.

We preachers do a great disservice to God’s people when we tell them, “Trust in God and everything will be OK” if we delude them into believing that the road to victory does not sometimes – perhaps oftentimes – run through Babylon.

God will win his victory, but that doesn’t mean that the cavalry will always show up just in the nick of time. God’s people – Christ’s people – the people of the cross – will sometimes suffer crushing defeats in their personal and collective lives. The surgeon cannot always stop the cancer. The termination letter may still land on your desk. The marriage may still fall apart. The church may still be rent asunder. Poverty and injustice may find yet another way to crush a life. The executioner will still have his way with faithful martyrs condemned for the name of Christ.

The gospel message is not that we can always pray our way out of disaster, but that the god of Jesus Christ is the god who keeps his promises even when it seems impossible. Even after being robbed of the land, the temple and the king God promised you. Even after being robbed of life itself. The gods of Babylon will fail. The God of Israel will emerge victorious. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our crucified and risen savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.