If you look in your bulletin or up on the screen, you can see that I titled this brief message “Arrogance Judged,” because that’s what our passages this morning are about—God’s judgment on the arrogance of Babylon. I might have called this message “The Other Side of the Coin,” because that too is what it’s about: the other side of the coin to God’s promise of deliverance. For God’s people to return to Israel, they must first leave Babylon; after the Babylonians went to all the trouble to drag them away from Israel to begin with, they aren’t going to say, “Sorry about that, never mind, we shouldn’t have done that, we’ll just send you all back home now.” Babylon is arrogant in its power, confident in its mastery, and sees no reason to accommodate the wishes of one of its subject peoples. The Jews existed to accommodate them, not the other way around. Daniel and his friends had an effect on Nebuchadnezzar, but not enough to change that mindset. As such, Israel’s deliverance wasn’t going to come as part of a win-win situation—it was going to come together with God’s judgment on Babylon their oppressor.
And isn’t that usually the way it goes? The oppressor, the abuser, the manipulator, the evil people and movements and governments of this world, don’t generally stop doing what they do and start doing what’s right just because somebody says “pretty please.” Most of the time, his deliverance of the oppressed means his judgment on the oppressor; his love requires his wrath. There are those who complain about the book of Revelation, or about the Old Testament prophets, because they use the language of war and blood and fire; but the truth is, the prophets are just realistic. They know that God’s deliverance isn’t going to come at no cost to anybody—and they know that it shouldn’t; those on whom God’s judgment falls have earned that judgment by their actions and attitudes. The message of the prophets is that the judgment the wicked have earned is coming—not necessarily quickly, for God shows his mercy and his patience even with the worst of us, but it is coming, as sure as sunrise and as utterly unstoppable.
There is in this both a warning and a promise. The warning is that we aren’t exempt; and indeed, it may be that the more sure we become that we have nothing to worry about, the more reason we have in truth to be concerned. After all, part of the indictment against Babylon was that Babylon was oblivious to the judgment she was storing up by her actions; her leaders and her people thought they’d earned their success and that it would continue indefinitely. The problem was, they’d built their nation and their culture on the wrong foundation, and put their faith in gods of their own invention, gods who could not save; their confidence in themselves was misplaced, because it lacked the necessary support to hold up. They thought judgment would never come, that they would never pay the price for their actions; but it came anyway, and Babylon fell.
The promise is that God’s justice will come. It may not come as swiftly as we wish—after all, we want God to show his mercy and patience to us, while we’re usually not as keen for him to do so to those who make our lives miserable—but it will come. It may come as it came upon Babylon, or it may come in other ways; it’s instructive that in the Psalms, when David is praying that God would take care of his enemies, he tends to ask God to destroy them either by killing them or by bringing them to repentance. Sometimes that’s the result of God’s patience with our enemies—sometimes they bring themselves to their knees and come to ask our forgiveness. That can be a hard thing for us to think about; it’s easy to be like Jonah and really want God to blast our enemies and the people who do us wrong. But as we see in Jonah and as we see in the words of Christ on the cross, even the Ninevites, even the Babylonians, even the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus, are not beyond his love and redemption; even for them, Christ died. It’s his desire to destroy his enemies by making them his children; it’s his desire to destroy the evildoer and the wicked by humbling their pride in repentance. But if they will not, then the time will come when they will reap the whirlwind they have sown, as Babylon did.
This means, finally, that we must be careful; this is why the warning comes in Revelation 18:4: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.” The Israelites of the exile had been dragged into captivity, but they weren’t in prison; they were part of Babylonian society, and they had the very real option to go native, if you will, to just become Babylonians themselves. This can be a powerful temptation, even in extreme situations—the most extreme form of this is what we call “Stockholm syndrome,” which some of you may remember from the case of Patty Hearst, who went from terrorized kidnapping victim of the SLA to an active participant in their crimes. Under more normal circumstances, we see it in the temptation to go along to get along, to go with the flow, to compromise with the world; it’s easier to just not fight it. This is a temptation we need to resist. This isn’t to say that we need to separate ourselves from the world—I don’t say that no one’s called to that, but most people aren’t; rather, we need to differentiate ourselves from the world even as we live in it. We need to separate ourselves from the ways of the world and to live the Jesus way in the midst of everything the world is doing.