What the Church Can Do During ExileJune 10th, 2015
One of the most remarkable, and often overlooked, passages in the Old Testament is the letter Jeremiah wrote to his fellow Israelites who had been carried off into Babylonian exile (See Jeremiah 29). He told them (contra the false prophets of his day) to settle down, accept the judgment of God, plant crops, have children and hope for a better day – which will be 70 years down the road when they will be restored to their land.
They were now captives in a foreign land. The Babylonians were as cruel then as ISIS is today. It would be difficult to erase from your mind the picture of your enemy coming and ripping open the wombs of mothers, destroying your homes, stripping the gold off of the Temple and then burning it to the ground. The anguish and pain is beyond description. This is why it is astonishing when Jeremiah goes on to say something which is unprecedented in the ancient world: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it” (Jeremiah 29:7). This is the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). When Jesus said, “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemies” he was not quoting the Old Testament, but the popular distorted ethic of his time. When Jesus said, “love your enemies” he was actually re-stating what Jeremiah had said in his letter centuries earlier. This is because the same God who revealed himself to Jeremiah was walking among us in Jesus Christ.
We are all indebted to N. T. Wright for his tremendous work in helping us to reframe our perspective from “those who have passed through the Red Sea and are dwelling in the Promised Land” to “those who have been taken into exile and are awaiting our future promises.” We all grew up singing songs like “I’m dwelling in Beulah Land!” and “We’re marching to Zion!” We are still awaiting the new songs of lament which will guide us as we dwell in our own version of Babylonian exile. Our captors will demand that we “sing the songs of joy; sing for us one of the songs of Zion” (Psalm 137:3). But, we cannot sing the songs of Zion when we are in exile.
But Jeremiah reminds us that we do not respond with hatred or anger to those who have plotted our demise. We pray for the peace and prosperity of the country. We pray for the well-being of a church which celebrates false prophets (Jeremiah 28). We realize – and this is the real lesson of Jeremiah – that judgement is actually a “means of grace.” The historic churches in the western world are under God’s judgment. I do not want to add to anyone’s weariness by repeating all the signs of this. But I do think we need to remember that Jeremiah promised that in 70 years their exile would come to an end and that God would, once again, bless them.
In other words, sometimes we have to trust God to do his work in the lives of our grandchildren. We may not see it in our lifetime. But, in time, God will show us that even this time of judgment was because of His love for us. He purges us and prunes us so we will, once again, bear fruit. I am now preparing for exile. I am asking God to help me to settle down and even prosper during this time. I want to learn new songs of lament. In the process, we will be deepened in our love, enlivened in our witness, and fruitful in our faith.
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