Monday 17 August 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (20/50) – The Judgment of the Exile: Loss and Opportunity

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twentieth of the fifty emails.

The word came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah… ‘Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin… This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. But when the seventy years are fulfilled…’
Jeremiah 25:1, 8-9, 11-12

Destruction of cities, despoilation of land, deportation of people. Then, as now, whole nations are vulnerable to military defeat.

Jeremiah declares the end game of the slow decline of the southern kingdom of Judah (the northern kingdom having been laid waste 150 years earlier), with a series of invasions by Babylon, culminating in the death blow of 586 BC with the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and royal palace, and the forced removal of much of the population.

Aside from the geographical dislocation and political breakdown, the exile was an upheaval that shook the foundations of the very existence of God’s people, calling into question major sources of significance – the land which God had promised Abraham; the throne of David which would last forever; the city of Zion which would never fall; the temple of the Lord, his dwelling-place, along with its priesthood and sacrificial apparatus – all reduced to rubble.

Small wonder that the exile forced deep reflection about matters of identity, grounds of hope, reasons for suffering, symbols of faith. What had gone wrong? Was the Lord too weak? Or had he he given up on his promises? Was there any future for them?

Small wonder, too, that the people responded in ways which disclose the intensity of the grieving experience: shock, anger, denial, guilt, nostalgia, acceptance. In fact, a substantial portion of Old Testament writings flow out of the exile, reflecting different dimensions, articulating different responses – cries of lament, curses against enemies, expressions of doubt, protests of innocence, pleas for forgiveness – all directed to God. And all of which declare that although judgment comes from him, it will not be his last word, that he remains committed to the covenant and his people.

It is sometimes said that churches today find themselves in a situation akin to ‘exile’, largely without privilege, no longer enjoying broad support, in an environment which is indifferent or hostile. But as Israel’s history demonstrates, in God’s providence, a time of exile can prove rich and fertile, where God’s people can live out an alternative lifestyle within the dominant culture, which doesn’t involve abandoning the culture. On the contrary, exiles who ‘seek the welfare of the city’ find their vocation in the here and now of the contemporary world, in the ‘secular’ sphere where the church must necessarily live. Christian identity and mission is forged in the crucible of exile.

For further reflection and action:

1. Read 2 Kings 25, the historical description of what is promised by Jeremiah.

2. ‘Cries of lament, curses against enemies, expressions of doubt, protests of innocence, pleas for forgiveness…’ When things go wrong, which response – if any – is your default mode, and why?

3. How would you assess the view that it is not the ‘monarchy in Jerusalem’ but the ‘exile in Babylon’ which should be the guiding model for contemporary Christians? Does ‘exile’ suggest a way of being the church that is more appropriate to the gospel?

4. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in chapter 29 calls on them to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city’ (29:7) to which they have been carried in exile. What might that look like for ‘exiles’ in the contemporary world? In what concrete ways might you be able do that today?

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