Exile

You can almost imagine the state of things in Babylon.  The civil and religious leadership (among others) of a once proud nation (Israel) have been carried off into a foreign land.  Their religious convictions have not kept them from being overwhelmed by the dominant army (and culture) or the day.  Their holy places are in ruin – the promised land is a smudge in the rearview mirror of memory – and there’s Jeremiah, with his ‘I-told-you-so’ prophesying.  It makes for grim reading, if you haven’t been paying attention.

For if you had been paying attention, you’d know that these are God’s people we’re talking about; if you’re keeping track, this is not the first time (nor will it be the last in the last millennia or so before the time of Jesus) that Israel finds itself captive, oppressed and on the ‘wrong side’ of God’s promise.  There is more to this than meets the eye, because in their despair, the people have (once again) misunderstood (or misrepresented) the promises of God.

The wailing from the exiles is predictable; ‘how can we be God’s people in this unholy place?  How can we claim the covenant among these unholy people?’  The promise of God was directly linked (in their minds) to the land promised by God, so surely in exile the promise must be void…but hear (again) what the prophet was led to write to the exiles:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile …Build houses and live in them; plant gardens…take wives…make families…(and most importantly), seek the welfare of the city (where I have sent you into exile), and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29: 4-7)

First of all, consider the implications of serving the one who sent you into exile!  Is exile, then, the will of the Almighty?  Does God cause the misery that leads us to doubt?  There are opinions in both directions, but for the moment, lets us consider that this difficult idea is (also) an assurance that God is sovereign over even the most difficult situations faced by God’s people.  And on those terms, the rest of the advice makes sense; build houses…plant gardens…fall in love and raise families – in short, make yourselves at home in exile.  What radical, transformative advice!

We don’t imagine exile as a comfortable place.  The word has come to mean ‘far from home’,  and once in exile, you might expect to be asked to join the resistance to the new overlords, or to launch a protest, or perhaps stage a revolt against the government that dared bring down the government of God’s choosing – but Jeremiah says no to any of that. God’s people are asked to settle in – to sit tight.  The ‘stay-at-home’ prophet Jeremiah – remember, he is in Jerusalem (29:1) – offers a different word than the ‘so-called’ prophets who are heard from among the people in Babylon; Live faithful, productive lives in this strange, unsettling place – find the blessing of God by seeking the welfare of this new place.  Jeremiah is telling his compatriots that neither they nor the will of God has changed – only their location has changed – and God is not defeated by a change of address, nor a change of government.

This advice brings a different feeling to the attitude of thanksgiving that we celebrate this weekend.  When our usual position is to be grateful for such specifically excellent things – family, friendship, freedom and food – the witness of Scripture asks us to imagine that there is no situation so terrible that it is beyond gratitude.  Find yourself in a foreign country, with different gods and strange regulations?  Build houses – plant gardens – be God’s fruitful, faithful, grateful people.

Our gospel lesson speaks of ‘thanksgiving’ in what I’ll call the ‘usual manner’ – prayer has been answered and ten “lepers” have been made clean; one returns to ‘say thanks’, and is commended by Jesus – but guess what; even this one (Samaritan) pilgrim must continue to live under the shadow of his identity.  He may be free from leprosy, but he is still a foreigner – still mis-trusted – still the guy that “used to be a leper”…he must live into God’s promise – live into his new identity – from a strange and potentially hostile place.  He is made whole, but still very much in exile.  This makes his gratitude all the more special.

Can we identify with this ancient advice?  Some will observe that as congregations we have been driven to exile by a society hostile to our values, our habits and our ideals; as Christians our influence over society has diminished in the last fifty years; these are the songs of lament that we sing.   And if these observations are correct – if this is yet another exile for God’s people, how should we respond?

Build houses – plant gardens – raise families – and “seek the welfare…” of the society that seems like a foreign land to us, for there will our welfare be found.  This would mean being less easily insulted by those who don’t take matters of faith seriously; praying for those who persecute us (though our “persecution” barely merits the term) – still, those who do not, will not or can not see the value in our habit of worship, or the manner of our devotion need not be ridiculed or written off as troublesome, hateful or somehow beyond our compassion.

Christianity has been described as a ‘counter-cultural’ movement – one that runs against the regular currents of secular society – and I believe this is true.  That does not give us permission to live in isolation, as though we were prisoners in exile.  This is the place we must live; these are the people to whom we must witness – we can be strangers and still “seek the welfare of the city.”; we can proclaim God’s faithfulness in a world that seems not to understand the language of faith, because God’s promises are not annulled by the changing moods of changing times.  Those who serve as a witness to the resurrection will always be exiles in this world; that doesn’t mean we can’t make ourselves at home.

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