“By the rivers of Babylon,” the old Psalm goes, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (137:1). It is one of the saddest (and angriest) songs of lament recorded in scripture, depicting the people of God as a defeated group of exiles commiserating on the outskirts of Babylon, complaining, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (137:4)
But, for all their weeping and wailing, the Bible says this was God’s will for Israel. Centuries earlier, the prophet Amos had warned, “Israel will surely go into exile” (Amos 7:11). Similarly, the Spirit spoke through other prophets: “They will not stay in the land of the Lord” (Hosea 9:3), “Your children will go from you into exile” (Micah 1:16), “My people will go into exile” (Isaiah 5:13), and “They shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:11).
And, as it turns out, this exile would end up being for the good of Israel. In his famous letter to the exiles, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11). It wasn’t all bad news. Israel would grow and prosper, albeit in a different way. They would plant gardens and build households, instead of building temples. They would adapt, promote the welfare of the cities they inhabited, and spread their way of life and faith around the world. Some of the best of biblical literature would come out of their painful experience in exile: including the books of Esther, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and many of the Psalms.
In the Bible’s treatment of Israel’s exile, I am finding rich spiritual resources for thinking, preaching, praying, and working through our life together here in Hemet today. In some ways, exile speaks to the present and apparent future of our local church. We really are in a time of transition and disequilibrium, rather than stability–a time for moving forward, if possible, but not for standing still. We continue to try to move forward on the sale of our property, for example, with the awareness that our situation is likely soon to change. In any case, it could take some time before we feel at home again.
But, exile also speaks in a wider way to the situation of the church and Christianity in our culture. Church is no longer the only show in town on Sunday mornings. Competing with all sorts of other special interest groups for people’s time, resources, and attention.
Evangelicals have lost and are still losing their dominant “market share” in the American economy. So it’s not just us; it seems like Evangelicals everywhere, and the Church of the Nazarene in particular, has a long way to go if we will ever feel at home in our communities again.
Insofar as exile describes and speaks to our situation as Christians in the world today, I take some comfort in knowing that we, as the people of God, have been here before. Nobody goes into exile whistling and smiling, but at least we can do so with our heads and hopes held high if we know we are still within God’s will to give us new hope and a future. Recently, I challenged our church board to start reading Scott Daniels’ newer book, Embracing Exile, with me. My hope is that, by embracing rather than avoiding the subject of our contemporary “exile” spiritually, like the Hebrew prophets, we might be all the more resilient and free to overcome, with our Lord’s help, whatever challenges we may face tomorrow–to live and grow to preach the gospel to another generation.
To be sure, God’s people have grown in Spirit through difficult days of exile before. And we may have a lot to learn from carrying our cross in these challenging times, singing the Lord’s song in what can seem sometimes like a foreign land. But we must remember, nothing compares to the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus, who “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).
Bearing patiently with us in the great wilderness of our human exile from Eden, making a way for us back to paradise through his death and resurrection. Considering Jesus, the Nazarene, and his perfect love revealed for us, my prayer for our church in these times is that our “momentary, light affliction” will prepare us all the more for an “eternal kind of glory” beyond our greatest expectations (2 Corinthians 4:17). After all, the good news is: God is with us!