Searching for a Biblical Christmas 2/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 12th, 2017
So we are in this series of talking about how we get to Christmas. And we’ve started talking about Christmas eight weeks out. That was last week. It’s seven weeks to go. Hey; oy vey; Amazon, here I come.
We’re looking at the oldest mention in scripture of the coming Messiah. It is from the book of Jeremiah. About 600 years before the birth of Jesus, there was a prophetic voice, the prophet, Jeremiah. And last week we talked about the desolate one. You heard it in our text today, the desolate one. That’s who Jeremiah is talking to, the desolate one, who dresses in crimson while his people are suffering.
We talked about King Jehoiakim last week, about God’s nine complaints against him, using wealth as identify, committing fraud, using sexual aggression whenever he so pleased, cronyism, nepotism, bluster, quick to violence, changing allegiances when it suited him, lying, having tantrums and creating a culture of money and accumulation. God complained and God said, I’m going to do something about this – I’m going to bring a new king and this king shall be called righteousness. So we talked about that last week. I thought we were done. And then I went back and continued reading in Jeremiah. We’re not done or maybe I should say Jeremiah isn’t done.
We happen to have the privilege of living in a very large landlocked secure nation that is, for the most part, self-reliant; most of the time, that’s a gift. In other ways, one of the things that we’ve missed out on is having to cooperate to survive. Israel is a very small nation; it has to cooperate to survive. Israel is and always has been stuck in the middle.
Six hundred years ago, when Jeremiah was writing, there was this power fight going on. To the North, it was King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. To the South, it was King Necho of Egypt. And it was just this shifting power fight. Israel was a small nation and survival of a small nation always had to do with covenants, allegiances and tribute money.
Jesus picks up on this when he tells that parable about the master who is leaving and gives one servant ten talents and the next servant five talents and then one servant one talent. And I’ve heard this story preached many, many, many times. It’s hardly at all about the talents and it’s hardly at all about the count. The question of this parable that Jesus tells is where do your allegiances lie as the winds of power shift around you? Who do you believe is the king? Who do you believe has real authority? That’s the point of the parable.
In other words, will you put up the picture of the king, your king, on the wall and be loyal, no matter what happens? Or do you hide in the back alley and do stuff on the sly and only after the new king is declared, then you put up that king’s picture? Where do your allegiances lie? That’s the question of that parable. And remember, the master returns and is praising the servant who turned ten talents into ten more and praising the servant who turned five talents into five more, because they were doing business in the name of the master, even though the master wasn’t visibly present. They were busy, evidently, quite clearly busy, because ten became ten and five became five.
Now, last week we also talked about the word righteousness, that Greek and Hebrew, the two words, dikaiosýnē and tsadik, the gift of access to the king. We’ve been gifted, we have received access to the king and now we must act accordingly. We must walk different. We must talk different. We must respond to the world different because we see ourselves; because we are now representatives; emissaries; for our master, for our king. Our loyalty we must wear on our sleeve.
It’s a little bit funny to read the story of Jehoiakim because it becomes apparent really quickly that he thought he was the man. He thought he was the negotiator, he was the smooth-talking king of kings between the kings and he was sure that when all the kings gathered he would be lifted up and made high. He thought he could walk tall, he would strut big, and he was playing the powers like the pawns on the chess board.
And what makes it funny – and I’m going to tell you this up front – in the end, he is so played. They pull his levers like you wouldn’t believe. The kings of Egypt and Babylon play him like a cheap guitar. So any conversation about Jehoiakim is not over until we ponder how we handle when we feel stuck in the middle, between two unconquerable powers.
Maybe that’s how you feel – stuck between your mom and your sister. Maybe that’s how you feel every time you go to work – you are in middle management, some people who started the same time you started have been bumped higher, faster. You’re stuck in middle management. How do you cope? What do you do? You’re stuck. We may strategize, we may make a plan, we may formulate commitments but we can’t control how other people are going to act and react. We’re stuck in the middle. We’ve all had that boss, the one who it doesn’t really matter what you do, it doesn’t really matter how great it is – they get what they need, a sense of power and authority, through attack. You’re stuck. You’re stuck.
And there is only so much we can control. And how are we going to cope with those feelings of powerlessness? Do you come home and take it out on the kids? Do you smack your employees around verbally? Are you rude to the wait staff at the restaurant? Are you obnoxious to the checkout person at Home Depot? Do you come home and retreat to your favorite porn sites where you’re in charge? Or do you take the bottle and start in with your alcohol? Or do you just double down and God bless them, I’m going to stiffen my lip and I’m going to control my way out of feeling powerless? Oh, you’re a real beauty to be around, let me tell you.
The Apostle Paul was going to pick up on this same problem later on. It’s a different set of leaders then. He’s writing to the early church and the frustration they’re feeling under the boot heel of the Roman Empire, the powerlessness that they felt and the hostility that it caused in the church. Paul writes, there’s always a lot of things about your life you can’t control. And sometimes, life is pretty awful. But you can control you and you can control how you act. You can always be intentional about where your allegiances are placed and how that is displayed in your life. What are you wearing on your sleeve? Because when someone knows where your temper buttons are, you’re going to be played. And just in case you think all you need to do is get yourself together and put enough positive motivational stickers on the mirror so you’re talking to yourself good in the morning, master of the universe, if you could just get this together.
We have this story of a small nation king who is played like a cheap guitar because arrogance always leads to the same outcome. People suffer. People celebrate when the arrogant person dies and there is laughter at foolishness. Wise people watch. Wise people become students when arrogant people become footnotes of history.
We have a few people like that, that if I say their name, you’re going to go, oh yes. The first one that comes to mind is Napoleon Bonaparte. Everybody things small man’s complex but if you look at the history books, Napoleon was 5’8” – that’s not small. It doesn’t matter, does it, because of how we know him. He’s a fool who let arrogance get the betterment of him and he invaded Russia. And he thought he could overpower the Russian army and beat the winter. And he was wrong on both accounts.
In 1862, Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg let an exaggerated sense of self-confidence take the moment and arrogance won the day. In 1876, General George Armstrong Custer let arrogance and racism and hostility lead him to underestimate his opponent. In 1941, Adolf Hitler thought he could invade Russia and beat the Russian army and the Russian winter. And it didn’t work out any better for him. Racism and hostility and arrogance. In 1954, Henri Navarre at Dien Bien Phu – racism and hostility caused this French General to underestimate the Vietnamese army.
That is Jehoiakim. We’ve lost this sense of what a historical footnote he was to be learned from, because arrogance always brings the same result. And Jesus seems to be a very good student. Jesus knows and understands the writing by the prophet Jeremiah. He also seems to know the small print between the lines because he studied the rabbinic history. The rabbis have a lot to say about Jehoiakim and his place in tradition.
And Jesus quotes Jeremiah. Jesus interprets Jeremiah. He uses Jeremiah’s calling out of Jehoiakim to pass judgment when Jesus talks about true honor versus false honor, when he comes down hard on anybody who hires workers to do a job and then doesn’t pay them an appropriate wage and when Jesus says: is the temple a house of prayer or a den of robbers. There is another time when Jesus refers to Jehoiakim. Last week, I shared with you the nine complaints that God brought against Jehoiakim through the prophet Jeremiah. Wealth his identify, fraud, sexual aggression, nepotism and cronyism, using bluster, quick to violence, changing allegiances, lying, having tantrums, money and accumulation as an identify in the nation.
There is a number ten. It comes to us in the book of Second Kings, the 23rd and the 24th chapter. The book of Kings is about military movement – a lot of military positioning and strategy mentioned in Second Kings. And Second Kings records the name of the king and refers to his army or his soldiers as his servants.
So the book of Second Kings would say, King Nebuchadnezzar and his servants moved here. King Jehoiakim and his servants moved here. Chapters 23 and 24 in the book of Second Kings talk about Jehoiakim, his indifference to the suffering of his servants and their families. Identifies it as evil in the eyes of the Lord for the nation to neglect its veterans. Very clearly take care of the servants of the king.
Well, there’s more story here and I feel compelled to share it with you. What happened was that Jehoiakim was installed as king under the approval of King Nebuchadnezzar, because King Nebuchadnezzar was in Babylon and King Necho was in Egypt and Israel and Judah and Jerusalem were the two nations in the middle. And so Jehoiakim got the approval of Nebuchadnezzar. He promised to be a good neighbor, promised to pay his tribute money for protection from the Egyptians.
Then Jehoiakim, about a year into his term, decided he didn’t like that arrangement and so he marched down and started talking to the Egyptian king, Necho and said: I tell you what, I’ll pay you the tribute money – you protect me from the Babylonians.
Jehoiakim was big on bluster and bravado and he was good at feeding his own ego. He called it patriotism. Love of the nation, he called that. He booted out all of the experienced military and government officials who told him what he did not want to hear. And he elevated his friends and the sons of his biggest contributor far beyond their skill set. He effectively destabilized the military and the government by doing this. And then he shifted allegiances again and he stopped paying tribute to Egypt and he marched to the North and said, I’ll pay tribute to you, oh Nebuchadnezzar. Then he turned and with lots of bluster he made threats against the Egyptians and thinking he was safe under the protection of King Nebuchadnezzar in the North.
And King Necho of Egypt saw him for what he was and said, you are a dishonorable king, I challenge you to battle, bring your soldiers. And Jehoiakim had to go. And remember, Jehoiakim had elevated his friends into leadership based on their loyalty to him not on their skill set. Combine that with inexperience and his poor leadership and you know exactly what happened on the battlefield. It was a disaster.
King Jehoiakim’s soldiers were routed on the battlefield. After the war was over and they’d come back, he took some of the widows of the soldiers that had been killed on the battlefield as conquests and he took care of them and their families. The remainder he ignored. He was indifferent to their pleas for things like bread. And so now, we know where Second Kings is coming from.
Not long after that, it was King Nebuchadnezzar from the North who marched south and got into a battle with the Egyptian king, Necho. That didn’t go well for either of them. But King Necho got the better of the day. And on the way, marching back home, King Nebuchadnezzar said, you know what? I am getting tired of this Jehoiakim. And he marched on Jerusalem. Marched through valleys and marched through cities on the way – wiped them out. People fled into the hills, into the rocks, into the shrubs.
As the Babylonian army approached Jerusalem they tried to button down. But many of the inexperienced leaders that had been elevated by Jehoiakim abandoned their posts and fled. They had reason to be afraid. Historian, Josephus recorded — along with the rabbinic literature of the day — that Jehoiakim and the nation of Judah had 10,000 soldiers. Nebuchadnezzar was marching with 20,000 soldiers.
They laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege lasted for about a year. Food ran out in the city. People were starving. They hadn’t stocked up because they had believed the bravado of their king. Finally the Babylonian army is breaking through the wall of the city. They get it broken open. And it’s the night before they’re going to invade the next day. And Jehoiakim and a few of his core people decide to do something really brave. Under the cover of a moonless night, they bravely tried to run away.
Jehoiakim was captured. He was brought before King Nebuchadnezzar, who called him a wicked wretch, a coward and a covenant breaker, who had forgotten his former commitments. Turns out that King Nebuchadnezzar had allowed Jehoiakim to be made king and part of the reason was, Jehoiakim had made a secret covenant that in exchange for being given power over Judah, he would rule the nation in such a way, he would prepare the nation to be handed over peacefully and absorbed as part of the Babylonian empire. This is treason which he tried to get out of through all that finagling he did with King Necho in Egypt.
King Nebuchadnezzar now saw him as dishonorable and marched him in front of his people in fetters, in chains and then forced him to walk, shackled, north into Babylon and then ordered him executed and his body was dumped outside the city walls with no funeral. Nebuchadnezzar said this is the honor deserved by one such as this.
Unfortunately, it’s still not the end of the story. King Nebuchadnezzar also saw the people of Judah had been influenced by rationalizing the perversion of Jehoiakim. He regarded the nation as wicked and ordered its destruction. The population was carried off, enslaved in Babylon for generations and Judah, the nation to the south, existed no more. The nation was destroyed by dishonor.
Here’s why I told you this story. In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is talking about discipleship. And he chooses, Jesus chooses a very unique metaphor to talk about discipleship. He says, what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not first sit down and ponder whether he is able with 10,000 soldiers to meet a king who comes against him with 20,000 soldiers? If not, while the other king is far off he will send a delegation and ask for terms of peace.
Everyone who heard Jesus knew exactly what he was saying. Jesus is mocking Jehoiakim, tongue in cheek. He’s taking that caution about don’t think too highly of yourself or you’ll be embarrassed and he reframes it and adds a reference known by everyone that recalls to mind a dishonorable footnote of history king who simply refused to engage in the realities before him. Jesus defines honorable as seeing things as they really are and not overinflating ourself or our abilities, because arrogance always brings the same result.
In our text today, in this story, we get a very clear view of dishonor in Jehoiakim and a very clear word that dishonor displeases the Lord. And just by recalling the complaints that God brought against Jehoiakim, we can get an equally clear vision of God’s definition of honor. Instead of wealth as our identity, disciples see wealth as a tool for people who put God first. Instead of fraud, disciples find honor in transparency and fairness. Instead of bluster and bravado, disciples crave calm, tranquil conversations where the truth is told.
Instead of sexual aggression which objectifies another person and seeks to possess, disciples see others as having sacred worth and disciples respect appropriate boundaries. Instead of nepotism and cronyism, the hiring of family and friends, disciples seek what is best for the nation and understand that we are great when we are good. Instead of conveniently changing allegiances, depending on where we perceive power to be and a commitment of values as long as they suit our purpose, disciples have one allegiance – God first; God’s values are the standard of our lives.
In place of lying and defending lies, disciples work very hard to tell the truth. In place of throwing tantrums, disciples don’t have to get their way to be content. Instead of a culture of money and accumulation, disciples seek the Kingdom of God – and the promise of the Kingdom of God is there is enough for everyone. And instead of discarding the inconvenient, disciples lean into meeting responsibilities, even when they cost us something.
Jeremiah is the first Old Testament writer to mention the coming of a Messiah. And the prophet Jeremiah proclaims what will become the core message of the Messiah. And that is that we are at our best when we discipline ourselves toward the highest ideals of God’s kingdom. We are representatives of our king. And honor pleases our king. Whether we’re stuck in the middle of an unwinnable situation we can’t control or tempted to play along with the forces of arrogance and greed and power. Jeremiah told us and Jesus showed us; life makes sense when we put God first.