Monday 31 August 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (22/50) – Life in Exile: Peril and Providence

‘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 twenty-second of the fifty emails.

This one written by Mark Coffey. Mark is a teacher of Religion and Philosophy at The Manchester Grammar School and a regular presenter of The Daily Service on BBC Radio 4. An Oxford theology graduate, he has also completed a Master’s degree by research on the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. Mark is linked with the LICC Manchester team, where he has spoken on the theology of work, and has found LICC’s vision to break down the divide between the sacred and secular worlds helpful in his work as a teacher.

Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me… When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.
Esther 4:16

If the God we serve is able to deliver us, then he will deliver us from the blazing furnace and from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.
Daniel 3:17-18

Keeping his head as a young undergraduate enroled in the university of Babylon, Daniel learned quickly when and how the line between integrity and compromise had to be drawn in the sands of exile. Likewise for the young queen Esther, married to the most powerful man in the world (not to mention possessed of a violent temper and a poor track record in married life), there came a time when a stand had to be taken and her identity as one of God’s people declared.

Is it any easier for Christian students today, when parental restraint and church ties can so easily be traded in for the perceived freedom outside the Christian bubble?

And negotiating that line between serving the Lord and Nebuchadnezzar – or Christ and Caesar – doesn’t get easier as life goes on. Workplaces inevitably have their own culture and set of values, where identity can be shaped every bit as overtly and covertly as it was for Daniel and Esther.

Yet with Daniel, ‘They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent’. Even those plotting against him say, ‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God’ (6:4-5). For all their jealously, his detractors know that he’s not some ambitious young careerist hacking his way up the administrative ladder. They have the wit to see that what makes him tick is his central motivation to serve God.

Like other captives, Daniel and Esther had to wrestle with what God was doing with them. Back home, the mandate to be a light to the nations, a kingdom of priests for the sake of the world, could be a distant implication of their calling. Now conquered and carried off into the world beyond, the question was whether they would learn the lessons of exile and trust the God who went before them.

In exile – as in universities, workplaces and homes today – God’s people are not called to a leisure-time faith which might affect their private life but have no impact on the public world. Esther and Daniel were no doubt both tempted to wonder if the God of Israel’s reach extended into the hostile world in which they lived. Yet hundreds of miles from the temple in Jerusalem, they gained a grander vision of their God.

Mark Coffey

For further reflection and action:

1. Imagine: Daniel and his fellow exiles would likely have been marched as captives into the capital city of the Babylonian superpower through the imposing Ishtar Gate (47 feet high and 100 feet wide) and would have been confronted with a city more advanced in architecture and technology than any in the world at that time, with displays of military victory and imperial ideology at every turn. Think about your own context today and where you see what counts as ‘evidence’ of superior values.

2. How did the exile challenge and change Israel’s vision of her covenantal God?

3. If you sense that your friends and colleagues are content in their disinterest in God, or even angry/resolved in their dismissal of him, remember that ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’ (Gerald Manley Hopkins), and as the Psalmist says, ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?’ (Psalm 139:7). So ask God for eyes to see him at work in their lives, and for wisdom to pick up on conversations with the tact and boldness Esther and Daniel possessed.

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