We are now in week 4 of the Advent season. Advent is the four weeks before Christmas; more precisely it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas. Advent is a season of darkness; the general, pervasive darkness of a world in waiting for its long-promised Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a couple of weeks.
During this season, what we usually do around here is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks. This year, we are talking about exile because it is a timely thing to talk about, with that Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts which made it possible, and many other things which are happening in the world today. It is abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did.
Exile was God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry. For them it meant actual exile as the Babylonians invaded, sacked Jerusalem, and resettled the majority of the Israelite population in Babylon. We as the present-day Church face nothing of the sort, yet all the same we find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries which followed. In this series we are unpacking what exile looked like for Israel and what it looks like for us, how we got here, and how we are to adjust to this new reality and carry on as the people of God.
In previous weeks we saw Israel’s story as a cycle of obedience/blessing followed by disobedience/judgment followed by eventual redemption and restoration. We saw that, as noted above, exile was God’s ultimate judgment on Israel’s disobedience. We saw that Israel’s story is our story as the Church, and that we face conquest and exile, in a manner of speaking, because of our systemic capitulation to the false gods of Enlightenment-based modernity. Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state, economics, the social sciences, progress, the sexual revolution, moral progress, reason, romanticism, and historical idealism are all woven deeply into the very DNA of Western Christianity, and now it has come too far and the invading Babylonians are at the gates, as it were. At this point the wise thing to do is to surrender or flee the city altogether.
Last week we looked at Jeremiah’s words to the Israelite exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29, and came around the idea that we should live and work peaceably in the world we find ourselves in, working for the good of our neighbors and our society at large while recognizing that we will probably not get any say in how things are run in society at large. We cannot and should not try to “save” ourselves from the reality of our present situation–i. e. try to bring back the American Christendom of the 1940s and 1950s (for example); any such efforts cannot and will not end well.
Now we come to some practical, down-to-earth ideas as to how this plays out.
First, an example of how NOT to live in the new reality we are discussing here.
You may have seen or heard this story; a megachurch up in New Jersey is attempting to capitalize on the current Star Wars buzz by doing a Star Wars-themed Christmas service, complete with a live nativity in which you get to hold a lightsaber and take your place with Luke, Leia, Han Solo, R2-D2, and other Star Wars characters. Here is the link to the promo page on their website, where you can see it all for yourself.
This is just like so many of evangelicalism’s attempts to engage the culture. It takes something which is getting lots of buzz right now and screams out loud to the entire watching world, “LOOK!!!!! OVER HERE!!!!! BEHIND THE POTTED PALM!!!!! WE GOT JESUS, DON’T YOU WANNA COME SEE?!?!?!?”
What I’m talking about here is something completely different. Here are some things TO do:
–First, be intensely and intentionally relational. Modernity says that human beings are no more than things to be managed; used and then discarded when they have outlived their usefulness. It is not to be so among us.
We must reclaim the value of Christian friendship. Celebrate the Church as the family of God–as an alternative to the biological family. This means conservative evangelicalism will have to give up its incessant fixation with the biological family.
Evangelicals have conflated faithfulness to God with faithfulness to the notion of family, as if the forces of evil are those godless liberals who are attacking the traditional family and traditional family values, and we are called upon to defend God and the Christian faith by defending the traditional family. And yet, despite all the culture war rhetoric about queers and godless liberals run amok and other threats to the family, our society places a very high premium on family life. It is increasingly difficult to live as a family of one in a world made for two. There are many places in town where I could not live–would not want to live–because it is nothing but families with children who live there. If I were to live in any such places as a single person, and especially as one who is getting on in years, I would be considered significantly out of place, and even creepy. It is hard to eat out as a party of one when all the restaurants in the city are filled with parties of two or more, though I don’t let that stop me.
And the church has played right into this cultural idolatry of the biological family, even while claiming that the family is under attack. People are confused about our message, to the point that many think the Gospel is synonymous with family values. Much of the programming in churches is directed toward families and children, and churches are all trying to outdo each other in terms of what they can provide for YOUR family. (Note that the Star Wars Christmas service mentioned above is promoted as a family-friendly event.)
To be sure, the institution of the family holds a high place in the economy of God. Throughout the Bible God’s love for His people is described in terms of family relationships–husband and wife, father and child, etc. Large portions of the New Testament are dedicated to how we are to live in our family relationships. Yet a lot of what Jesus says in the Gospels is about commitment to him in spite of family expectations. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53) “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)
The Church is an alternative family, united in friendship and common love, where the unloved, abandoned, and unwanted, those who come from broken families, and yes, those who, like me, are families of one, can find home, belonging, community, and acceptance. Let us reclaim this vision of the Church as the family of God, as an alternative to the biological family.
–Do not care about the world’s political arrangements. We won’t get a say in that. We still work to seek the welfare of the city, and that includes voting and holding office in places where we have the freedom and opportunity to do so, but we do so knowing that it is our conquerors’ city and not ours. We will have little if any say in its governance. We are subjects of the present world order, not participants in crafting it.
This means we are to be non-ideological. Ideologies are incomplete truths. They are useful in limited ways, but they always pretend to be more than what they really are. Don’t be conservative or liberal, progressive or reactionary. Instead, as followers of Jesus, we are to show the world that there is another way to live, grounded in the true story of a God who sacrificed Himself for us rather than demanding that we sacrifice for Him.
Power is being taken from us. Why not lay it down freely, of our own accord?
–Embrace liturgy. Accept the craziness of what we believe. Stay grounded in the liturgy of the historic Church. It is a time-tested means of keeping the main thing the main thing, of keeping the Christian story and message in front of us at all times. It is a drama and story that connects us to God and to each other. It forms us as a people who are waiting faithfully for our Redeemer who has come and is coming again.
If your church doesn’t do anything with the liturgy, then nip out the back door every once in a while and find one that does. Evangelicals have historically been averse to liturgy, largely because of a general aversion to anything that looks, feels, or smells Catholic, but that is starting to change. There are a lot of churches out there nowadays that are doing good things with the liturgy, and you won’t have to go too far to find one.
–Finally, live with hope. The captivity of the Church to Enlightenment-based modernity is God’s judgment upon us, but our children will be redeemed. Babylon was conquered by Persia, which was conquered by Greece and then Rome, which was conquered by the Church. The lies and empty promises of Enlightenment-based modernity and secularization will be judged and will eventually fall.
Exile means living purposefully in the world and with each other. Let us plant trees, have children, love our neighbors, and wish the best for our enemies. What is truly important all belongs to God and will all come back to God no matter what.