The Babylonian exile was one of the great traumas of God’s people in the Hebrew Bible. Their king and government were overthrown, and all their leaders—whether royalty, or temple priests, or religious scholars—were either killed or sent away into captivity. Their army was disbanded and dispersed. Even their holy places were destroyed: the temple, looted and desecrated, and, along with Jerusalem—Zion, the holy city—burned to the ground. Multitudes were sent into exile, and those who remained lived from that point onward, in occupied territory.
I spent some time this week seeking to understand exactly what happened to the sacred scrolls that contained their scriptures. Remember, at this time, there was no such thing as a personal bible that folks would have had at home. There were some scrolls in the temple, that may have been hidden or may have been destroyed… people have different theories about it. And there were likely some scrolls that went ahead to Babylon some years earlier, when the first wave of priests and scholars were deported. But the stories of creation and covenant in Genesis, the stories of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, the stories of God’s people wandering in the wilderness for 40 years… many of these still existed primarily in a strong, vibrant oral tradition that had been passed down for hundreds of years at least.
And scripture was not stagnant in exile. Some scribes survived, and either copied scrolls for sharing and study, or recreated them from memory. There began an urgent and earnest project to assemble a complete written Torah. And, of course, much of what we know as scripture was actually inspired and written down during the exile—portions of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and, of course, Jeremiah. But it is safe to say it is the memories of those scribes that preserved much of what we think of as the Old Testament.
Try it now. Try to think of scripture you can recite by memory. If you have spent any time in church at all, you may well have passages of scripture held in the treasure of your memory. “For God so loved the world…” [John 3:16]; “Love is patient, love is kind…” [1 Corinthians 13:4]; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” [John 1:1]; And everyone’s favorite, the shortest verse in the bible, and therefore the easiest to remember: “Jesus wept” [John 11:35].
This is where song comes in. Now think of the passages of scripture you have memorized because you have sung them. Sung them a lot. Three pop into my head: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God…” [1 John 4: 7]. “Come, let us sing to the Lord, let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation…” [Psalm 95:1]. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity. The fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control!” [Galatians 5:22-23]
I’m betting a lot of us here can sing this morning’s Beatles selection, the wonderful George Harrison tune, “Here comes the sun,” doo-doo-doo-doo’s and all. “And I said, it’s alright.” Of the vast collection of Beatles hits, this one may be, for me, the song with the most amazing ability to bring joy.
And it was the return of joy that caused Harrison to write it. He certainly hadn’t endured anything like the Babylonian exile, but Harrison had exiled himself from the Beatles, for a brief time. In the winter of 1969 he temporarily quit the band. It was a time that is known for the infighting that had started to plague the group. Harrison himself had had a particularly tough couple of months that included minor surgery with major implications for someone whose voice was a part of his livelihood: he’d had his tonsils out. And Harrison, at 26, was the youngest member of a band that had rocketed to the greatest superstardom of any music group in history. He was increasingly angry and frustrated by the business part of being a professional musician. At times, he just wanted to escape these burdens and responsibilities. In his autobiography, he wrote,
"Here Comes the Sun" was written at the time when Apple (records) was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: 'Sign this' and 'sign that.' Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric's acoustic guitars and wrote "Here Comes the Sun."[i]
At a time of sadness, frustration, and consternation, getting away and getting a new view helped George Harrison to write this wonderful song. But far more importantly: it helped him find his joy again.
After God’s people returned from exile, they were forced to reckon with what had happened, and to try to understand deeply what had caused such pain and loss. Our lectionary passage from Jeremiah points to a failure in their leadership, and calls out the shepherds of God’s people destroying and scattering the flock. It had been a long, cold, lonely winter of the spirit for God’s people.
But then as now, God never leaves us where God finds us. God promises to draw the people together once again, to guide them home to a place of safety and security, and to care for them, as they should have been cared for all along. Here comes the sun.
And yet, about half a millennium later, Jesus’ countrymen and women and children are all still living under the occupation of a vast empire, only now it’s Rome. There is still a Jewish diaspora—many are scattered around the known world—but in Judea, Jerusalem has been restored and the temple, rebuilt. This, the heart of religious life, is home once again to all God’s covenant people.
But, Jesus says, the people are like sheep without a shepherd. He knows this because they are following him around as if he is their shepherd. And no wonder. From him they have received healing. Through him they have been relieved of their personal demons. By him they have been fed.
It’s easy to fall back on nostalgic notions of what the life of a shepherd was like. We’ve all seen the sentimental art depicting Jesus as good shepherd—that blond, blue-eyed Jesus, holding a little lamb in his arms while the sun sets picturesquely behind him. (There goes the sun.) And I have no doubt that real shepherds, then and now, are gifted with the beauty of nature all around them… the glory of sky unobstructed by a cityscape, the beauty of green pastures and mountains and rivers and streams. But it wasn’t all flutes and pipes and harps. Shepherds were, first and foremost, protectors. That staff they carried? Sure, it was helpful in trying to gain secure footing on rocky terrain, or to gently guide or retrieve sheep who were straying. But its first and most important function was as a weapon. The shepherd’s staff was used to fend off and fight predators—and remember, a predator can be a wolf, or a lion, or a human. The shepherd was a provider and a nurturer and a warrior—a fighter on behalf of those sheep.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
Of all passages of scripture committed to memory, Psalm 23 may be the one most universally known, and universally beloved. Just a couple of weeks ago I read it to a roomful of residents at Ideal Living Center, and, without the text in front of them, nearly every single person, no matter their condition, was praying the psalm right along with me. Some of these people have a hard time remembering family, let alone a visiting pastor who comes once a month. But that psalm is a part of them. It is the prayer of their soul, even when all other words have left them. And a change comes over them. Light returns to their eyes. Joy. Here comes the sun.
In the middle of the Babylonian exile, the prophet Jeremiah wrote,
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” ~ Jeremiah 23:5-6
We, as Christians, claim Jesus as that righteous branch raised up from David’s line. But even we have to admit: this version of the world does not yet exist. Some of us will read or hear this passage and feel like we live in a world stuck in the valley of the shadow of death. But this is a word of deep hope and great comfort, and I invite us to find it, and to revel in it. God’s vision for the world has not changed. God still values wisdom and justice and righteousness, and still intends for God’s people to live in such a world. We can take comfort in the compassion of God we see and experience in Jesus. We can remember that God is still, and will always be our loving shepherd, nurturing and protecting us. We never walk through the valley of the shadow of death alone; God is with us.
Even in times of fear and darkness, even in times of uncertainty and conflict, there is joy, because God loves us. God has compassion for us. And God walks with us, every day, every night, whether our hearts are tuned to God’s presence or not. So, turn up the music, and even if only for a brief moment revel in pure joy, and be reminded: Son, Son, Son… here he comes.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Harrison, George, I, Me, Mine (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2002), 144.