It’s been a while, but I am very excited about this new series entitled Far from Home. The dictionary defines home as where we live, but we know that our concept of home does much deeper than that. It’s said that “Home isn’t easy to define, but you know when you’re there”. When I think about home I think of the house where I grew up or the place where we have made home as a family here in Southampton. I also think about places where we feel like home such as churches I have been a part of, or Elvheim, our home from home in Norway. There is something about all of them that is special and not replicated elsewhere! This series is about the theme of exile. The dictionary defines exile as “The state or a period of forced (or voluntary) absence from one’s country or home.” Over these past few months it is has been fun getting to know some people who have been forced to leave their homes, their countries and seek asylum far from home. It is hard for me to imagine what it would be like to seek refuge in a country many miles away from home away from friends and family.
1. The Nature of Exile: Away from Home
From beginning to end, the Bible is a story of exile. Adam & Eve were banished from the garden, Abraham was called to leave his home and travel to Canaan, Jacob fled from his brother Esau, Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, David fled to the land of the Philistines, Paul spent three years in Arabia, the early church were scattered as a result of persecution and even Jesus left His place at His Father’s side to make His dwelling among us. It’s extraordinary to think about all these people through history who God took far from home.
For God’s people the idea of living in God’s place was always central to the story. God promises to Abraham involved him and his descendants being God’s People, experiencing His Blessing and enjoying being in His place. For Israel this was primarily about the land God promised to them as their home, but continuing to live there was always conditional upon their continued obedience to Him. Inevitably however, they continually failed to keep God’s covenant and reaped the consequences as a result.
There are two senses in which we too are exiles. Firstly, as a result of the fall (Genesis 3), all humanity was plunged into physical exile (banished from the Garden) and spiritual exile (alienation from God). We were made for intimacy with God, but sin has driven a wedge between us and God. His big Story is one of redemption which climaxes at the cross. Jesus’ death and resurrection mean we can have a restored relationship with God.
Secondly, there is also the tension of the Not Yet. We have reconciliation with God, but things are not yet as they should be – neither for us or for Creation as a whole. For all who follow Jesus, this second sense of exile means that we cannot feel entirely at home with the world as it is, because we long for the Kingdom of God. We have a new citizenship which Paul says is in Heaven. This is not our true home.
20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.Philippians 3:20-21
2. The Story of Exile: Journey to Babylon
The exile of God’s people from the Promised Land was a hugely significant moment for God’s people. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) were exiled to Assyria but did not return. But it is the exile of the Southern Kingdom (Judah) to Babylon which seems to hold particular significance. Interestingly, Babylon is regularly in focus throughout the Bible. After banishment from the Garden of Eden, people built a city with a tower in Shinar which was in Babylonia. They were trying to reach the heavens and make a name for themselves (Genesis 11). This was known as the tower of Babel (meaning Babylon) and God brought their building to a halt, confused their language and scattered them over the earth. In the next chapter (Genesis 12), we read of Abram who lived in Babylonia. God called Him to leave his people, his family and his country and go to a place he would show him (12:1). Specifically, this was the Promised Land and is a hint here for Judah who would also make that journey back also.
The fact that a remnant from Judah was taken into exile was in itself a mercy because many also perished. God had promised them back in Deuteronomy 28:64-68, that however far they got scattered, God would bring them back into the Land! Exile was in a sense always inevitable, God foresaw it and it was part of His plan for His people. The Prophets repeatedly called on God’s people to return to God, but they failed to listen. As a direct consequence, God summoned the Babylonians to destroy them and turn the country into a desert wasteland. Those taken into exile would serve the Babylonians for 70 years. The process of exile happened in three waves and essentially they were part of a massive repatriation programme. In Babylon they lived in their own settlements, were free to build houses, earn money and observe their own customs. But they were not free to return home. Some took on important roles in public service. Many in fact became so settled in Babylon that they were later unwilling to return home at all.
As promised, after 70 years in Babylon God’s faithful remnant does get to return to the Promised Land. This return again happens gradually in three waves. But though home, it still wasn’t home. Their prophets said that their exile wasn’t really over – they were still “exiles” in the sense that they were still under spiritual bondage to sin and they were still living under political bondage to foreign powers. The curses of the covenant still weighed on them and none of the promises about a restored kingdom had yet come to pass. So, the Babylonian exile became an image of their longing for something more. Despite being ‘home’ there was this sense in which their exile continued!
8 “But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. 9 Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.
36 “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37 Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.Ezra 9:8-9 & Nehemiah 9:36-37
Arguably God’s people were still in the same position at the start of the New Testament. The ultimate end of the story comes in the life of Jesus. He went into exile to live among us in order to show us the true way home. As believers we continue to live as exiles waiting for the day when Jesus returns to transform this world into our true and forever home. Peter addresses his letters to exiles, strangers & foreigners.
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia…17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear… 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.1 Peter 1:1, 1:17 & 2:11
3. The Implications of Exile – Spiritual Dynamics
I’ve been reading a number of authors on this topic who make the case that the experience faced by the Jewish exiles mirrors the Church’s experience today. Walter Brueggemann speaks about the usefulness of the metaphor of exile to describe our situation. His writings focus on the marginalisation of faith for those living in an increasingly post-Christian context. After all, the data suggests that in the UK Church attendance has been falling over a sustained period while the average age of believers has been rising. Michael Frost and Paul Williams both write about exile as a metaphor for the marginalisation of Christianity:
“I suspect that the increasing marginalisation of the Christian movement in the West is the very thing that will wake us up to the marvellously exciting, dangerous, and confronting message of Jesus. If we are exiles on foreign soil – post-Christendom, postmodern, postliterate, and so on – then maybe it’s time to start living like exiles, as a pesky fringe-dwelling alternative to the dominant forces of our times. As the saying goes, ‘Way out people know the way out’.”Michael Frost, ‘Exiles: Living missionally in a Post-Christian Culture’, pg. 9
“We live in a generation in which our elders at least can remember a time when Christianity was still a major force in our Western…societies. Thus we feel its declining influence more acutely. Our faith is increasingly marginalised and subjected to ridicule, mockery, and disdain. Our society is dominated by cultural stories and beliefs that seem impervious to Christian faith, even a threat of it. Our science and technology, economic growth, and political processes all seem to exist and develop without need for God. Jesus seems an embarrassment to many of us in the corporate office, school, hospital, or café, most of our neighbours seem ignorant of the gospel and uninterested in finding out more.”Paul Williams writes, Exiles on Mission, pg. 35-36
A study of the exile, thus, has huge relevance for us. Walter Brueggemann in Cadences of Home says the most remarkable thing about Exile is that it didn’t lead to them abandoning their faith, falling into despair or retreating to private religion. We are going to try get our heads around some of the material that arose from this period of exile. We will think about people like Daniel and Esther who resolved to remain faithful to God and not compromise on their faith. We will think about some of the necessary grieving that takes place in books like Lamentations over what they had lost. We will think about how Isaiah 40-55 speaks powerfully into the danger of despair. We will think about the letter Jeremiah sent to the exiles encouraging them to settle down and be a blessing to their new culture. He promised them a hope and a future, but for 70 years they were to live out their calling to be blessed and to be a blessing in a foreign culture.
This metaphor of exile is rich, deep & far reaching. We’ve already thought about how Peter understands that the church is in exile amongst a pagan world. We are citizens of Heaven, in exile from our true home as we wait for the Kingdom of God to be fully revealed. Peter also sees exile as an opportunity to witness through our lives to those around us (1 Peter 2:12): to live such good lives that those around us might see our good deeds and glorify God.
Paul Williams argues that while we all experience exile, there is a choice about how we respond as one of three kinds of stranger:
- – Aliens: Such people resent the differences between cultures. They feel trapped in a foreign land and as a result are unable to be themselves.
- – Visitors: Such people live in denial and treat exile as a merely temporary arrangement. Exile is no excuse for disengagement or to avoid our calling.
- – Ambassadors: Such people miss home, but they are not resentful. They do not act as if they are trapped or disengaged. Ambassadors know their job – the seek to understand culture but are secure in their own. Paul speaks quite clearly about us being ambassadors for Christ:
19 …and he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.2 Cor 5:19b-20a
Earlier in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul speaks about the contrast between being home in the body and being home with the Lord. He knows what he would prefer, but he says that he makes it his goal to please God either way. He says that we should live by faith and not by sight. He also reminds us that one day we will all appear before the judgement seat of Christ. It matters what we do with our time in exile. It matters what kind of stranger we are. The choices we make here are critical and include opportunities to live out our faith distinctively and missionally.
Questions for Further thought and/or Discussion
- How would you contrast what it’s like to be home with what it’s like to live in exile?
- What is your response to the two senses in which we are in exile?
- What would you say is the significance of exile and how might it be applicable to us today?
- Which of the three kinds of stranger do you think that you tend to operate like (Alien, Visitor or Ambassador)?
See other Posts from this series – Far From Home