|James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners|
Anyone can write down what happened. It’s another thing entirely to say why. That’s what the Prophets do, and it’s what we find in 2 Chronicles 36. The Chronicler tells of Israel’s growing infidelity. He explains how God tried every correction, sent messengers, tried everything He could to set them back on course. It didn’t work. The cup of God’s wrath became full, and the Exile was the result.
It would be easy to imagine this wrath of God in terms of human emotion: we all know what it’s like to get fed up, even to lose our temper. That would be a mistake. God doesn’t do that; God’s wrath isn’t like that. But I can think of a human analog. When we were little Dad told us not to go too close to the water when we played outside. No other rule equaled this one - it was the first and greatest commandment. It was clear that the punishment for breaking this rule would come upon us with swiftness and severity that we'd never known.
This was wrath. And it was love. It was love that would have stopped at nothing to enforce the Law. Not because the Lawgiver was cruel and demanding, but because the Lawgiver had a broader perspective about lessons that must be learnt at any cost, and the stakes involved in the keeping of the Law.
When we read about God’s wrath in the Bible, that’s the way to understand it. The Lawgiver is working from a greater perspective, and a greater understanding of lessons that must be learnt at any cost, and the stakes involved in the keeping of the Law. Like any good father, He will not punish only out of temper, or more severely than is necessary to impart the essential lesson. But like any good father, He will not abandon His children to darkness. He will not sit idly by as they set their feet on the road to ruin.
As the story continues, the plan of God comes forth in the form of an unexpected hero, the decidedly pagan Cyrus of Persia. The Temple is rebuilt, the nation restored. The awful exile was not punishment by an aggrieved tyrant, but healing by a loving father. It was hard medicine, but it was the right medicine. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but it was one more chapter in the story of how God so loved the world.
The Chronicler and the Prophets were given the grace to understand that. They could say not just what happened, but why. But sometimes we don’t understand. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes not understanding is itself part of the lesson we must learn.
We must be careful - very careful - in claiming the mantle of the Prophet. To say “I’m sick because God is punishing me” or “my friend lost his job because God wants him to have a different one” or “that driver pulled out in front of us because God arranged it” - that's something only the Holy Spirit can give. Careful! But what you do know, what you always know, is that God is working in your life.
You have to take that on faith. The exiles weeping by the waters of Babylon saw nothing but shattered dreams and lost loved ones and a great people reduced to the remnant of a remnant. They could hardly have known that theirs was the story of God redeeming a fallen world. In your moments of tears, and in your moments of joy, and in the moments where life seems to be just sort of happening as the days go uneventfully by… yours is the story of God redeeming a fallen world. God is working in your life. We can talk about how that might be happening, but I won’t tell you for sure; I don't have that particular gift of Prophecy. But it’s happening, believe it. Bet your whole heart on it. God is working in your life.
And what work is He doing? Well, there’s the question. Is He trying to make you wealthy? Comfortable? Is He trying to just barely squeak you into Heaven by the skin of your teeth? You know the answer. You know what God’s project for your life is. God is trying to make you a Saint. And He’s trying to use you to make other people Saints. That’s the project. You might wish God would settle for something less ambitious, but He can’t and He won’t. He loves you too much for that. Wake up tomorrow morning and face the day and remember: “God is going to spend today trying to make me a Saint.” Maybe nothing particularly extraordinary will happen. That’s because Saints find holiness mostly in not particularly extraordinary things.
Ephesians 2:10 says that you are God’s ποίημα. The Greek can be translated ‘workmanship,’ like the King James and RSV, or ‘handiwork,’ like the NIV. I usually read the Jerusalem Bible translation, and I’d like to leave you with that one. Translation is not an exact business; there are always ambiguities. The Jerusalem Bible translates ποίημα just a bit differently, capturing a different but absolutely valid shade of its meaning. It says that you are God’s work of art.