Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (2 Chronicles 36:15-21) transports me to one of those Biblical back to the future scenes, where we read something that leaves us with a strange familiarity; haven’t we already seen this story somewhere? Let’s see, the faithless community of faith scorns and rejects the prophets of God. Invaders defile the great city of God and the royal temple falls to ruin. Why does that sound familiar? Oh yeah, that’s what Jesus predicted would soon happen, 600 years after it had already happened. As a great yogi once said, it’s like deja vu all over again. A sacred city on the edge of doom, it was indeed an old story, one that started at the very beginning of life in the land of promise. By the time the liberated slaves shook the wilderness dust off their feet and had bellyfulls of milk and honey, the locus of their faith started shifting from fertile field to majestic municipality, and their sense of blessing or lack thereof came to be associated with the fortunes of their cities, especially their capitol city, Jerusalem. Here in the history of Babylonian conquest, those fortunes turned catastrophic. Perhaps the conquerors humiliated the defeated foes by parodying an old conquest song of their own: Nebby fit the battle of Jerusalem and the walls came tumbling down.
My friend Greg Farless Yost first clued me in to the historic migration of God, that is, people’s perception of God and God’s presence, from country to city, from rustic redneck to urbane sophistication. After all, as I learned from Greg’s sermon, the city slickers are always the ones who formalize official languages and come up with stigmatizing words like heathen, pagan, and vulgar to describe faithless people. All of these derogatory names originated from old Latin words that originally signified common country people. The repulsion of rural values, epitomized by the rejection of the agrarian prophets with their simple messages of justice and kindness and humility, recurs over and over in covenant history. So does the gravitation of the faithful toward sophisticated city religion, followed by the consequential breakdown of faith and destruction of sanctified city, with its buildings and institutions and organizations. As sacred history would have it, just a few short years after Herod the Great’s urban renewal project, centered on the renovation of the sacred temple, along came a rustic hick, hand-calloused and blue-collared and white-socked and red-necked, and he started reversing the magnetic fields. This roving woodworker began drawing masses of city folk back toward the old prophetic ways, using stories of fishing and farming, shepherding and wine-making. These people, whom the sacred city and its organized faith had left injured and oppressed and lost, heard the country preacher recount the various and sundry ways the beloved community forsook fruitful field for capital campaigns, stoning prophets and erecting steepled towers of Babel in doomed city after doomed city. The back to the land preacher paints a word picture of God as a back to the lander, migrating back to live with the so-called heathen, the pagan, the vulgar, the common country people who, when the sun comes up, have cakes on the griddle, knowing that life is a funny, funny riddle.
All this makes me think of Wendell Berry, a contemporary rural poet-prophet, who has these lines in Mad Farmer in the City, one of my favorite poems that speaks of his own migration away from city life: As my first blow against it, I would not stay. As my second, I learned to live without it. As my third, I went back one day and saw that my departure had left a little hole where some of its strength was flowing out, and I heard the earth singing beneath the street. . . I heard it strongest in the presence of women. . . There was one I met who had the music of the ground in her. . . She stood rooted in the music I heard, pliant and proud as a stalk of wheat with the grain heavy. No man with the city thrusting angles in his brain is equal to her. To reach her he must tear it down. Wherever lovely women are the city is undone, its geometry broken in pieces and lifted, its streets and corners fading like mist at sunrise above groves and meadows and planted fields. Or, to put it more simply, as another poet said, Thank God I’m a country boy.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.