II Chronicles – “His love endures” in Auschwitz (for Holocaust Memorial) – Alan Strange – II Chronicles 20:1-22
26/1/20 Centre and CHS 2 Chron 20:5-22, Mat 5:14-20, Ps 146
Every child knows what it is to be faithful. Not that every child is faithful, but you don’t have to look after a child for long before you’ll hear the child say, “But you said…..” They just know what faithfulness is. And they know that you haven’t been faithful. So they are kindly reminding you.
If there were a motto over this sermon, it would be just that child’s reaction. “You said”.
Let’s review the very neat structure of our reading today. We’re in the reign of King Jehoshaphat of the Southern Kingdom, centred upon Jerusalem. The days of David and Solomon, and the building of the one Temple for the one people, are 60 years long gone: the South has known Kings Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa and now Jehoshaphat. There has been conflict with the northern kingdom, where idolatry and false gods seem to be in charge.
But now there is a new conflict. In order to gain entrance into the Promised Land, God’s people came up the Eastern side, through or around the lands of Edom, Moab and Ammon, and then into Canaan. There had been no great war with those territories, but David had kept them subdued.
Now, they take advantage of the north-south stresses and they invade. The Moabites and the Ammonites and the Edomites come and they have planted themselves at Engedi. They have come from “beyond the sea” – not the Mediterranean, but what we’d call the Dead Sea (bigger then) and the language of chaos and threat. It is not surprising that, with these three as enemies, Jehoshaphat is, as v.3 says, “alarmed”. In the chapter just passed, Jehoshaphat has already tried warfare as the solution to conflict and threat. But not this time. This time, he gets it right.
First, he “resolved to enquire of the Lord”. Read Chronicles, and you’ll come across that phrase again and again: it’s the secret of success for the Chronicler. When in distress, resolve to enquire of the Lord, lit. “set your face [or your heart] to seek the Lord”. And, as he does so, he proclaims, not a fight, but a fast: he takes the issue to God. And he assembles all Judah. That matters. The people come from “every town in Judah” (v.4): the whole people are represented, the men, the women, and there’s a mention of “the children and little ones”, not because the writer is sentimental at v.13, but because these are the future of the people. Whatever is going on, it will be about the whole people of God, gathered to reflect God’s intentions to have a people for himself.
That’s his response, but, when all are assembled, he then offers this prayer, from v.6-12. And it’s a quite extraordinary prayer.
He speaks to Yahweh, the Lord, beginning with “you’re God in heaven”, but then “king over the nations”; then, “lord over this house in Jerusalem that we’ve built”, then, “lord over the ungrateful nations threatening us”, then “Lord of judgement when we ourselves are powerless”. He takes the people on a king of “tour” of all the ways in which God is in charge, and ends with this deeply trusting verse: we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.
And, through the prophet Jahaziel, God responds, “Because you have not taken matters into your own hands, but have trusted me, then you will not need to do anything. Just go where the battle would be, and hold a worship service, and watch me work, for the battle is mine.
Which they do. They bow down, to recognise that God has spoken, and they organise their singers and instrumentalists to praise the Lord. Jehoshaphat and the people go out the next day, offer worship to God, proclaim his covenant love, and God defeats the enemies, setting them against one another.
It is an extraordinary display of God calling his people to trust in him, and then them doing it. Quite rare. Beautiful.
What principle does it set before us? Simply this – that God is on the side of his chosen people, and will defeat their enemies. A principle that has come up for us in the reading. But it has done so the day before the commemoration of 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the day before International Holocaust Memorial Day. Walk 450m from this building towards the Hermitage museum, and you will find these plates [SHOW] in the sidewalk of Amstel, just next to a dental hygienist.
Of what use can it be to read II Chronicles, with its happy memorial of what it means to trust God for the defeat of your enemies, when the same people of God did not see their enemies defeated in the C20? What can it mean to “Believe in Yahweh your God and you will be established; in his prophets and you will succeed”, when the “children” were taken away from the Boys Orphanage where the Stopera stands, and none returned? What can it mean that “we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you”, when those eyes would be closed by the gas chambers?
We cannot cheerfully press on with II Chronicles without paying attention to the context that our weekend sets before us.
And, if that weren’t already enough, we have in v.7 [READ] exactly the same justification for occupation of the land as has been used by the state of Israel since the end of the British Mandate in 1948.
Perhaps I feel it deeply because one of my predecessors here, Charles Simeon, came here to assist the plight of the Jews after the Napoleonic wars. With others at the start of the C19, he was at the forefront of asking the European powers on biblical grounds to grant land to the Jews, so that they could return to their ancient homeland. It was a praiseworthy and noble idea, but it has had far-reaching consequences for the Palestinians, the “inhabitants of this land”.
Suddenly, a beautiful, elegant and simple text of God’s victory seems complicated and deeply challenging. Of this we can be certain: if we try to pass from II Chronicles directly to the Holocaust, without passing through Jesus, we will fail. We no doubt have our political sympathies in different directions, but nothing that we think has anything important to say unless it passes through the words we shall proclaim in a moment – “I believe in Jesus Christ…” First, then, what can we say about him?
In the garden of Gethsemane, asking that the cup pass from him, Jesus faces his own moment when “we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you”. He says, “take this from me; nonetheless, not my will but yours be done”. It is his own ultimate surrender to the recognition that God’s will must take priority, and it is his ultimate moment when he places his trust in that will. At that moment, supremely (although it happens at other times), he “sets his face to seek the Lord”. It is his Jehoshaphat moment, and he faces it as the Son of God and Son of Man, for all who will follow.
And the battle that follows is the battle in which, more than any human battle ever faced, God rescues the victory from a situation of powerlessness and helplessness. Christ goes further into desperation – into death itself – than Jehoshaphat and his people were ever called upon to do, and God springs the ambush prepared for all the forces of sin, evil and death that stand against his goodness.
It is as though the record takes the story of II Chronicles 20 and makes it, in the story of Jesus, deeper, vaster, wider, sharper, so that there is a life after death, when it still becomes possible to say, more than ever before, from 20:21. “Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever”. Not just in battle, but over the boundary of death itself.
But notice what this does not mean we have to say. We do not have to say, “….and therefore II Chronicles becomes irrelevant”. On the contrary, these stories are there to show what normal life is like for God’s people until the ultimate man of God comes along: II Chronicles is what Jesus “is greater than”. So Jesus himself insists in Matthew that he is not here to abolish the law, but to fulfil it, to take it to its ultimate expression.
And, ironically, even some of the Auschwitz experience comes surprisingly close to saying the same. Surprisingly, but in no way exactly the same: in the light of the horror of what was done, it is never for us to co-opt the Jewish experience and claim it says more than it does.
But this is from Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, one of the more remarkable memoirs of the camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Those in the camp have been forced to watch the hanging of three so-called offenders, one of them a child who took longer to die, being so light. A voice behind Wiesel said, “Where is God now?” And Wiesel says, “I heard a voice within me answer him, ‘Where is he?’ Here he is – he is hanging on this gallows”. Wiesel in his own way came to appreciate that the greatest battle God would win was the one he appeared to lose. And our Christ tells us that the greatest victory is won, not on the battleground near Engedi, but on the battleground of Calvary, where even beyond death itself, the Word of God is found to stand, “for his love endures for ever”. And that means hope for all who suffer death, and no-one is beyond that need.
I’ve been trying to think how to end this, how to find a way of saying, “What is this a bit like?”, because this is hard going. Let me try this.
As a Christian parent, I was once advised to tell small children the mystery of where they come from by saying, “An angel came and placed you under your mother’s heart, to keep you safe until you came into the world.” The idea of this is that it is not the scientific truth – and that’s OK, because that’s not what most, say, 4 year-olds are asking. They want to know, instead, where they belong, and how they relate to the “before” of existence. This story can then be updated as the child grows, with less mystery and more fact, but there will always be that core, so that it knows it was wanted and safe.
The simplicity of II Chronicles is not wrong to believe in – it is truth in its own confident way. “Sing and praise, and fast and pray, and trust in God, and all will be well”. But, as the story and the people mature, there are more layers added, until, finally, it becomes possible to see that, still, “trust in God, and all will be well”, but now through darker and more terrible experiences than ever were in our minds when first we read the earliest Scriptures. And Auschwitz and Westerbork and Buchenwald tell us that our species will do such terrible things that a fuller picture than II Chronicles will be needed. Still, at the heart of it, even at the heart of seeming emptiness, God is. And God loves. And God can be trusted. And even praised. Because, we can call on God and make the claim: “You said….”.