Advent Week 3: What Does Exile Mean to Us?

advent3We are now in week 3 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.

So now we come to the question:  What does this look like?  What does all this mean for us?

We go to Jeremiah 29:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

…”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

–Jeremiah 29:4-7, 11-14

Here is the context:  The Babylonians had invaded and sacked Jerusalem and carried off most of the Israelite people to Babylon.  At this point there was still a remnant in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, ruled over by Zedekiah who was basically a puppet king.  Jeremiah was with this remnant.  False prophets had been prophesying to the exiles in Babylon, saying basically that it would not be long until the Babylonians were defeated, the exiles returned home, and business as usual would resume.  So Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles in Babylon to tell them that, no, it was going to be a while.  Go ahead and settle down, build houses, plant fields, marry and have children.  This is your home now.  You will live out the rest of your days here, and so will your children.  But their children, or their children’s children, will see deliverance from Babylon.  They will return home, they will experience redemption and restoration.

Be patient.  There will be deliverance.  But in the meantime, act like this place of exile is your home.

For the Israelites in Babylon, this was no small thing.  When Jeremiah was asking the exiles to pray for the city where they settled, he was basically asking them to pray for the people who have enslaved them–their captors, their enemies, their tormentors.  They knew this, and it had to have gone against everything in them to accept this.  Recall that these are the same people about whom the Israelites prayed that they would be repaid for what they had done, that their babies would be dashed against the rocks (Psalm 137).

So how does this apply to us as the Church?

It means that we should be patient and live in the situation we find ourselves in.  This is where we are, and nothing we can do can change it.  There is no bringing back the American Christendom of the 1940’s and 1950’s, no reversing the cultural shifts which have led to its demise.  We should live and work in the world we find ourselves in, recognizing that we will probably not get to have any say in the prevailing ideas and trends of this world, just as the Israelites did not have any say in how things were run over in Babylon.

Occasionally we may be called upon to engage the powers that be in our world with the truth of God, just as Jonah preached to Nineveh to warn them of God’s coming judgment.  And Nineveh repented.  In the same way we may be called upon to speak truth to modernity, and it may be that modernity will listen and repent.

Or we may be called upon to be like Elijah and Elisha, who engaged the enemies of Israel, occasionally in fiery confrontation like Mount Carmel, but mostly grace and healing.

It all adds up to Jesus.  Basically we should be Jesus in a world that is at war with us, even murderously opposed to us.  Don’t be defensive or combative, but instead be hopeful, humble, and faithful.  Don’t attempt to “save” ourselves from the new reality of our present condition; this cannot and will not end well.  Wait upon the redemption of the Lord, knowing that we already have the reality and assurance of this in Christ.

Next week we will look at some practical, down-to-earth ways in which all this plays out.