Do Not Fear the King of Babylon

When we think of the conquest of Judah, and the destruction of Jerusalem, we tend to think of the exiles taken into captivity, hauled off to build a city of their own along the banks of Euphrates, to play their songs for those who will never truly appreciate those songs, and to weep and mourn and remember the loss.

But there was another remnant of Judah whose lives were also changed by the war that laid waste to Jerusalem:

9 Then Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, carried into exile to Babylon the rest of the people who were left in the city, those who had deserted to him, and the people who remained. 10 Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time. (Jeremiah 39:9-10 ESV)

The elites have been carried into exile. The people who keep and preserve the stories, rituals, and myths of Israel, who tend the temple, who count the coins in the treasury, who determine and manage the affairs of the court and the nation — they are gone. The city is broken and burnt, as wasteland, a shell of what it once was.

But only the elite have gone into exile. Judah is still full of Judeans, who are still God’s people, people with a language and culture and customs, and they have inherited the land from its dispossessed elite. The occupiers have doled out some of that which they have taken from the people they have conquered, and given it to the poor, to those “who owned nothing.”

It is interesting to note how this distribution of land comes about. As a result of the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah’s elite. I wonder how many of those who “owned nothing” were actually debtors who had been dispossessed, for whom this is something of a redemption as outlined in Leviticus 25. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers [תוֹשָׁבִ֛ים] and sojourners [גֵרִ֧ים] with me. And in all the country that you possess, you shall allow redemption of the land,” God tells Israel through Moses in Leviticus 25:23-24.

So, this land doesn’t belong to Israel. It belongs to God. Any talk of promised land and title deed needs to remember that. And even as Babylon has taken possession, it is still God’s land. Nebuzaradan, the Babylonian captain of the guard who with his own hands packed Israel off into exile, speaks to Jeremiah with the voice and authority of God — “The Lord your [singular] God pronounced this disaster against this place. The Lord has brought it about, and has done as he said. Because you [plural] sinned against the Lord and sis not about his voice, this thing has come upon you [plural].” (Jeremiah 40:2-3) He appoints a governor, Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan, to rule the remnant in Judah.

And Gedaliah speaks to the conquered remnant of Judah: “Do not be afraid to serve the Chaldeans. Dwell in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you [plural].” (Jeremiah 40:9) And many refugees return to Judah, all but the elites of Jerusalem, and “they gathered wine and summer fruits in great abundance.” (Jeremiah 40:12)

So, perhaps it makes some sense that in the wake of the disaster, the land that had belonged to the elites — who sit in carts and trudge in long caravans on their way to far-off exile — gets doled out to “the poor people who owned nothing.” They are still the people of God, these poor who own nothing, still inheritors of the promise, even as their elites have been carted off into exile.

There are two remnants here. Those in Babylon, who would found the settlement of Tel Aviv along the banks of the Euphrates, who would wonder what the promise of God meant given the disaster that transpired, and what the promise of God to dwell among his people meant given that God’s house has been reduced to rubble and is, to boot, so far away. And those is Judah, who have inherited the land, who are left to work it.

Of course, there is chaos. Gedaliah, the leader of the Judean remnant, is murdered by a member of the dispossessed royal family. And his murderers eventually flee with Jeremiah and many of the other remnant of Judah to Egypt, even after Jeremiah warns them not to. Jeremiah pronounces doom on those who flee to Egypt, and says few will return to Judah. Those who go to Egypt will be tempted by its gods, and that remnant will be consumed by sword and fire and famine.

And they are. Again, this is no abstract if-then, else-then.

But it’s worth it to remember Jeremiah’s words to the remnant in Judah, as they pondered their fates following the assassination of Gedaliah. While Israel did not heed Jeremiah’s words, it is worth remembering God’s promise to a conquered and occupied people:

10 If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I relent of the disaster that I did to you. 11 Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. Do not fear him, declares the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. 12 I will grant you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and let you remain in your own land. (Jeremiah 42:10-12 ESV)

Don’t Vote for Nebuchadnezzar

Conservative pastor, theologian, and biblical scholar Wayne Grudem has gotten some heartburn over his most recent post at Townhall.com:

I do not think that voting for Donald Trump is a morally evil choice because there is nothing morally wrong with voting for a flawed candidate if you think he will do more good for the nation than his opponent. In fact, it is the morally right thing to do.

I did not support Trump in the primary season. I even spoke against him at a pastors’ conference in February. But now I plan to vote for him. I do not think it is right to call him an “evil candidate.” I think rather he is a good candidate with flaws.

Grudem goes on to list most of those flaws:

He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages. These are certainly flaws, but I don’t think they are disqualifying flaws in this election.

Grudem is entitled to his opinion, and while I disagree with him (I am likely not voting this fall) because he is more hopeful about Trump than he should be, I’m not going to argue with his case here. He is free to make it, he has made it, and while I believe he naive and somewhat deluded about Trump (because character matters, and Trump has shown he does not keep promises he makes in business or other dealings), I can see why the argument would appeal.

Donald J. Trump, billionaire, has done well among Christian conservatives in the United States. I do think that says something important about conservative American Christians — their nationalism and tribal identities as Americans and Christians are far more important than actually following Jesus.

But no matter. Others have made that point.

Grudem came in for some well-deserved ribbing with this piece, which is really funny if you appreciate Daniel 3 and the story of the fiery furnace:

I do not think that bowing to Nebuchadnezzar is a morally evil choice because there is nothing morally wrong with bowing to a flawed king if you think he will do more good for the nation than the alternative. In fact, it is the morally right thing to do.

I did not support Nebuchadnezzar during the invasion. I even spoke against him at a pastors’ conference in February. Now I plan to bow before him. I do not think it is right to call him “an evil King.” I think rather he is a good king with flaws.

Here’s the problem with Erick Erickson’s satire — Israel is actually commanded to serve Nebuchadnezzar. “Do not listen to them [those who say Israel is coming back from exile soon]; serve the king of Babylon and live.” (Jeremiah 27:17) Much of the first half of the Book of Daniel is about serving Nebuchadnezzar in exile, as officials of the king’s court, as a conquered minority in a strange land. Daniel counsels the Babylonian king about his dreams (the way Joseph did for Pharaoh), and in the survival of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo in the fiery furnace (sent there because they refuse to bow), Nebuchadnezzar praises the God of Israel. God even restores the Babylonian king to his throne after Nebuchadnezzar praises God.

So, there’s little problem with serving the king of Babylon, the king who conquered rebellious Judah, leveled Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried thousands of its best citizens into exile. Erickson made a funny, riffing off Daniel 3, and Israel is commanded in exile to refuse to bow down to those who rule.

But that refusal is not the same as serving them. Even your conquerors.

I don’t think it’s wise or moral to vote for Nebuchadnezzar, but it’s perfectly acceptable to serve him. The logic here is simple — scripture assumes little or no agency on the part of God’s people as to who governs them or how. If we are invited to counsel the king, by all means, do so. Our faithfulness, whether in lions’ dens or fiery furnaces, and our willingness to suffer for our faith (even if our God won’t save us, as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego confess), can affect and change even those who have conquered us.

Grudem wants American democracy and, most likely, American Christendom, to keep working. His idea of church is tied to society and state. He wants to maintain something resembling a Christian social order in the United States and believes Donald J. Trump is the man best likely to help with that. That without Trump, Christians in America are something akin to doomed. He cannot imagine a church conquered by, say, secularism (Babylon?). But Israel’s condition is one of unresolved exile, of being a conquered people who do not get to choose who rules them and how.

Christ resolves this in the New Testament, but we are still an exiled and conquered people in the gospels, realizing our redemption smack in the midst of our exile.

I know Israel did not vote for Nebuchadnezzar. And would never have voted for him, had they been allowed. But Israel was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, and Israelites in exile did serve him. I’m not sure what guidance there is in this for us today, except that we have yet — as Christians — to really figure out that we are a people in exile. And that we always have been.

Receiving a Babylonian Pension

I was perusing the last few chapters of Jeremiah the other day (because I do that), and noticed that the very last chapter of Jeremiah — chapter 52, the chapter after all the all the curses against the nations, especially the long two chapter judgment of Babylon — is a fairly straight forward narrative. And it ends with this description of deposed King Jehoiachin’s life in Babylonian exile:

31 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-fifth day of the month, Evil-merodach (אֱוִ֣יל מְרֹדַךְ֩) king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah and brought him out of prison. 32 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 33 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 34 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, until the day of his death, as long as he lived. (Jeremiah 52:31–34 ESV)

Compare that with the end of 2 Kings 25:

27 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, Evil-merodach (אֱוִיל מְרֹדַךְ֩)king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. 28 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 30 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived. (2 Kings 25:27–30 ESV)

These are virtually identical passages. The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, who rebelled against Babylonian rule and brought this final destruction upon Judah and Jerusalem, suffers a particularly awful fate — both Jeremiah and 2 Kings relate that he is forced to watch the Babylonians slaughter his sons (with Jeremiah adding that the Babylonians kill all the officials of Judah), at which point the Babylonians gouge Zedekiah’s eyes out and haul him in chains back to Babylon, where he dies a miserable death in one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dungeons.

There’s no hope in this.

Which is why this last bit, about Jehoiachin finding room at Evil-merodach’s table, is so interesting. Chronicles ends with the conquest of Babylon at the hands of Persia — forecast by Jeremiah at the end of his book — and the proclamation of Cyrus that the exiles of Judah can go home to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. But 2 Kings and Jeremiah end with defeat and destruction. A burnt city, a destroyed temple, and a bloody and eyeless king cuffed and manacled and led to his death.

This is death. And nothing of the promise of God to restore his people can come of this. There’s nothing of David left.

But there is. Jehoiachin, king before Zedekiah, whose brief reign was marked by war and siege:

8 Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned three months in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Nehushta the daughter of Elnathan of Jerusalem. 9 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father had done. (2 Kings 24:8–9 ESV)

Jehoiachin (יְהֹויָכִין also known as Jeconiah) and his family surrender to the Babylonians, who carry them off — along with the spoils of the city — and Nebuchadnezzar makes his uncle Zedekiah king in his place.

Jehoiachin “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” He was an idolatrous king — by the point, idolatry has become the way Israel does business, so lost has the worship of the Lord become. Even with an intact temple in place in the center of the city. Jehoiachin follows the revelation of God given through Jeremiah to the people of Judah: “he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war.” (Jeremiah 21:9)

He surrenders. And saves his life. His wicked, godless, immoral life.

And yet here he is, later in life, dealing with a successor to Nebuchadnezzar, released, paroled, pensioned. He now has a place at the king’s table. And no doubt he enjoys all the king of Babylon has to offer him. I doubt he has changed his idolatrous and likely lustful and lascivious ways. After all, the king of Babylon probably lots of beautiful young women at his disposal for the use of “guests” like Jehoiachin/Jeconiah.

Jehoiachin the captive. The sinner. Not Zedekiah’s dismal, eyeless end. But not the thing of hope either.

Except … Jehoiachin shows up as Jeconiah in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:11–12). Viewed by itself, his is a sinful, dissolute, and probably somewhat pointless life. But viewed as part of the whole story, he is the bearer of the promise of God. A distant bearer of that promise, to be sure, but without Jehoiachin/Jeconiah, there will be no Joseph to be the husband of Mary and foster father to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and to Israel through the prophets.

It’s a reminder as we view lives we consider pointless, empty, and dissolute (our own, or the lives of others), that we may not live to see the promises they will bear, the hope they will give life to. That if we live with hope, then we must live with that hope too.

What Exile Looks Like

A few weeks ago, a reader of this blog asked,

Charles, what would exile look like today (or in the future). Can you sketch out what exile would (will?) look like?

I think I can, and I would like this to be my contribution (such as it is) to the conversation on The Benedict Option — the talk about what preserving the church from an age of “barbarism” might look like.

First, let me say this: I don’t like the term “Benedict Option.” I don’t like the term because, while it draws from church history — specifically from the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman state — it doesn’t draw enough (or at all) on the biblical story. It sees the situation the church is in as something potentially preventable (in the ways that the collapse of Roman civilization could have possibly been better managed), and thus the product of bad policies. It doesn’t diagnose the problem, the situation the church finds itself in, properly. It is, sadly, little surprise to me that the Benedict Option was concocted largely by Catholics more interested in the teaching and history of the church than the story of God’s people in scripture. Because the Bible isn’t so much a story of a people and their encounter with the divine, but the foundation for a series of moral and philosophical precepts.

Exile, however, draws upon a rich and deeply meaningful biblical story. It tells us who we are, who God is, and how to cope and have faith in the promises of our God in the midst of our inevitable and inescapable failure. It also helps we know how that story ends. So we do not need to to worry in the interim about our clear and apparent defeat. It is not a permanent thing. We know that our redeemer lives. And that we are redeemed.

GOD’S JUDGMENT ON GOD’S FAITHLESS PEOPLE

What follows is a sketch, and the product of roughly eight years of thinking about this on my part. This isn’t as systematic as I would like, nor as thoroughly researched. I don’t have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

The most important thing to remember is that exile is the end result of God’s judgment upon Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. Israel, through it’s worship and service of false, foreign gods, will suffer God’s brutal and violent judgment. This is laid out in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28–30, again in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In each of these, Israel’s future is laid out, blessings for Israel’s obedience and curses for Israel’s disobedience. In both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28–30, the curses are far more detailed (war, death, destruction, deprivation, suffering, slavery, expulsion from the land), with Deuteronomy contained both/and language — that Israel will be both blessed and cursed but after all is done, Israel will be redeemed. This is not, as it first seems, an if/then set of promises. Rather, it is a forecast of the entirety of Israel’s coming future. Blessings AND curses, not blessings OR curses.

So, the coming judgment of God on Israel’s faithlessness cannot be escaped. And it will manifest itself in history as Israel is conquered, plundered and ruled by its enemies (Deut 28:45–51). It begins during the conquest of Canaan under Joshua and the period of the Judges as Israel refuses to fully drive out the Canaanites (whatever that might mean, anything from expulsion to extermination) and instead simply enslave them (Joshua 16:10). (Actually, God promised to do the work if Israel made the effort. Israel stopped trying after a bit.) The failure to expel or exterminate the Canaanites mean their presence in the land will be a constant distraction for Israel — including that of their gods (Judges 2:1–5). Thus, Israel falls into a pattern of serving Canaanite gods, יהוה gives Israel over to its enemies, and then after a time, יהוה hears Israel’s suffering and raises a redeemer to rescue Israel. This is the pattern for Israel’s history and ours — God gives, Israel eventually responds faithlessly, God imposes judgement and consequence, and then hears Israel’s groaning and redeems Israel, frequently violently judging those who were the very agents of God’s own violent judgment upon Israel.

This is the history that matters. And it is the only history that matters. Jesus altered how this works, bringing it to a final end, and I will get to that. But when we who are Christians look at history, we need to remember that this is the only history that contains any meaning. It is the only history that has any real moral value for us. Everything else might be a good story, but no other history truthfully tells us who we are, whose we are, what we are promised, or where we are going. If we fail to read the history of the church in light of this story — in light of the truth — then ST. Benedict doesn’t have much to tell us.

Eventually, after the united Kingdom of Israel collapses in rebellion and civil war, God adds a rejection of David and his patrimony — through which the promise of final redemption of Israel (and eventually the world) is made — to the things that will curse Israel. The northern kingdom, formed by the rebel Jeroboam, rejects David utterly (1 Kings 12:16), and goes its own ways, worshiping false gods in much the same way Israel did in the wilderness while Moses was atop the mountain engulfed by the Glory of the Lord. Kings of Israel and Judah were frequently faithless, sometimes faithful, and their conduct could determine the fate of the nation for a generation or two. Eventually, Israel succumbs to the Assyrians, and disappears from history.

7 And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods 8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. … 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day. (2 Kings 17:7–9, 22–23 ESV)

Exile and annihilation are the direct consequence of Israel’s idolatry.

Judah eventually suffers this consequence at the hands of Babylon, a promise God swears for Judah despite the faithfulness of King Josiah, who cannot — despite his efforts — undo the faithlessness and idolatry of a previous king, Manasseh:

And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (2 Kings 23:27 ESV)

2 Kings ends with the conquest and exile of Judah’s elites (the poor were allowed to remain to till the land) after Babylon successfully besieges, captures, loots, and destroys Jerusalem. It is this long war against Babylon that several of the prophets — particularly Jeremiah — address. And I will get to that in a bit.

Israel’s story is our story, the story of the church. If we are facing conquest and exile — and I believe we are — it is because we are dealing with the consequences of our idolatry. Nothing can be done to escape this.

What do I mean? Enlightenment and modernity are false gods, idols to which the church has committed itself to serve. I don’t mean just some portion of the Enlightenment or modernity — I mean the whole damn thing, from the nation-state to economics to the social sciences to progress to the sexual revolution. The church could no more accommodate modernity, or come to terms with it, than Israel could successfully defeat Assyria and Babylon. As church, we grew comfortable with our wealth and power in Christendom, and like Solomon, we modern Christians were careless and promiscuous in who we “married,” allowing and accepting false worship (of science, of moral progress, or reason — name your idol) of gods who could do nothing for us but demanded much bloody sacrifice on our part.

There is no saving the church. Not now. Babylon is at the gates, surrounding the city. Like Jeremiah told the people of Jerusalem, and as Jesus repeated, anyone with any sense will flee. Will surrender. Because there will be nothing left when the Babylonians are done with their siege. Resistance is futile.

Now, at this point, I need to say that this reading of our history is purely metaphorical. It’s a metaphor because I think history — in the sense I’ve outlined it here, as the story of God’s redeeming acts in history — came to an end with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are no new redeeming acts to follow. Everything was accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb. We await the promised new heaven and new earth, but in this long moment between the ascension and the parousia, nothing else can or will happen. No judge will redeem us. No king will rule us in justice and mercy. Human history is fun and interesting and effectively meaningless.

Nonetheless, I do believe the crushing forces of modernity and enlightenment on the church do represent God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church. We will, at some point, stand powerless before our conquerors, and we will be sent into exile. This is has been long coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

THE CHARACTER OF EXILE

This realization frees us, I think, from thinking we need to save ourselves. That somehow we can. There are several ways to approach what living in exile means, and I think all of them will and should work.

The first is contained in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in their Babylonian settlement of Tel Aviv in Jeremiah 29:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4–7 ESV)

This letter comes a response to false prophets who are predicting a quick return. That everything will soon be as it was. God, speaking through Jeremiah, says it will not. Do not live like a people waiting. Wait like a people living. Because even as an exiled people, God tells Israel:

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11–14 ESV)

Patience. In the meantime, live like this place of exile is your home.

This is not a small thing. When God calls upon exiled Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” God is asking Israel to seek the welfare of the very people who have captured and enslaved Israel, who taunt and demand songs! (Psalm 137) Seek the welfare of your enemies, your conquerors, your captors, your tormentors. Not for their good (we are asking God to bless their conquerors, remember?), but for ours. And our posterity. Because our children may inherit our captivity, but their children (or some descendant of ours) will be redeemed. Will go home.

Then there is the call of Jonah. God sends him to Nineveh, the sprawling capital of Assyria, the enemy of conqueror of Israel, to preach doom. And Nineveh repents! (Nahum lays out the sins of Nineveh in great detail, and it is worth reading his small book.) It is possible that our enemies may hear sweet reason, may understand and take to heart the warning of God, and turn their lives around. Enough so that God will relent. Because God cares even about a corrupt and idolatrous modernity. So, there will be those called to speak words of judgment and impending doom to the modern world — it may be they will listen. (It is likely they will not, but we cannot simply take that for granted.)

Finally, and most intriguing for me, there are the examples of Elijah and Elisha, who as prophetic figures spend most of their time engaging the enemies of Israel rather than Israel itself. This shows me that we can be the faithful presence of God amidst our enemies — people at war with us — and yet still be grace to and for them.

In the call of Jeremiah to live ordinary lives, the preaching of Jonah and Nahum, and the deeds of Elija and Elisha, I see Jesus — we are called to be Jesus in the world. Not a kind, generous, compassionate world of friends, but a world in which we face murderous enemies bent on our destruction, enemies who have conquered us and torment us, enemies who do not share our faith or our understanding. We are not to be defensive, or combative (I know Catholics and Orthodox have Bible books that go beyond Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, to show God present in Maccabean war of liberation against the Seleucids, but I’m not sure that understanding of our fate is all that helpful or hopeful, given that ends up with Roman occupation and the eventually destruction of Jerusalem), but rather hopeful, humble, and faithful. Our attempts to save ourselves through the deeds of our own hands end in failure and tears — our history shows us this. We are to wait upon the redemption of the Lord, knowing we already have both the reality and the assurance of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Toward that end, I see several characteristics of an exile church.

First, we are to lives intensely and intentionally relational lives with each other and with those around us. One of modernity’s great sins — a human failing that mass, industrial modernity amplifies a thousand-fold — is that human beings are mere things to be managed. Objects to be used and discarded. It is not to be so among us. We must be fully human and fully children of God to each other. This will be hard, and we will regularly fail. But in order for this to work, the structures we build must be small, places where we can purposefully engage each other as persons united in and by Christ. It may be we are going to create networks of small churches, communities, businesses — an easy thing to do in any age, but especially in ours. We won’t all like each other, and we won’t always get along. But it is important that we not treat each other or ourselves as things for pleasure or profit.

Which means we need to reclaim Christian friendship. And deal with the tyranny of the erotic that so defines our age by learning to properly restrain our passions. (Note: we will fail.) I think the fictive family that life in Christ creates — “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” — is the place to start with this. Conservative Christians have idealized and focused so much on the biological family that they cannot appreciate the tragic aspect of family life. The fictive family, created by (likely informal) adoption and acclamation, united in friendship and common love, becomes a place where the unwanted, the unloved, the abandoned can find a home and belonging.

Second, we are not to care about the political order of the world. Because our salvation and redemption does not lie in governing arrangements. Partisan politics in the United States has long been a dead end. I personally do not vote, and have not voted for years. I won’t recommend that, but I will suggest it. This does not mean we do not work with government, to seek protection for ourselves and our institutions, but we do so remembering that the city whose welfare we seek is the city of our conquerors, and we have little or no say in its governing arrangements. As Christians, we are free riders on the order of the world — we have no obligations as citizens even as we have obligations as Christians to love our neighbor. We are solely to be subjects of order, and not participants in crafting it. The realities of exile will make this easy and likely make it very clear.

Which means we are called, I believe, to live profoundly non-ideological lives. Ideologies are incomplete truths, and they tell us almost nothing worth knowing about the world. They can be useful — like the other tools of modernity and enlightenment — but they pretend to be truthful ways of explaining how the world does and should work. An exile church should be neither conservative nor liberal, progressive nor reactionary, in any meaningful sense. An exile church should have no partisan political attachments or desire a say in how political or social power is used. Rather, as followers of Jesus, it is our call to show the world there is another way to live, a way of life grounded in the truth of a God who sacrificed himself for us, rather than demanding we sacrifice for him.

Power is being taken from us. So, let us lay it down our own accord. And walk away from it.

Third (and I forgot this initially), we need to embrace liturgy and the unreasonable/irrational things our call imposes upon us. And proclaim them. Jesus was God, he died, and he rose from them dead. He will come again. Every claim we make in the Apostles Creed is an absurd faith statement, none of which can be supported by anything remotely resembling reason or evidence. Too many Christians, from argumentative Evangelicals to wanna-be Thomist Catholics believe our faith is rational and reasonable — in fact, Christianity is the definition of what is reasonable. It is not. Nothing we believe is reasonable. And we should revel in that fact.

As part of this, we need to stay grounded in the liturgy of the historic church — that practiced by the church catholic and apostolic. This way of worshiping is as old as the church, and the form keeps us linked to each other in space and time. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, time ceases to exist, we are one with Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, and one with the church triumphant. Again, nothing about this is reasonable, but everything about it is true. Liturgy is a drama and story telling that connects us to God and to each other, a truth we tell every week that forms us as a people who wait like we’re living. Our redeemer has come. And he will come again.

Finally, we live with hope, knowing that if Enlightenment and Modernity are God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, then our descendants will be redeemed. Babylon fell to Persia (it was Persian soldiers bashing the infants of Babylon against rock!), which allowed Israel to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem. Rome, which was God’s judgment on faithless Israel, fell to the church. (This, I have come to believe, is the promise of Revelation.) We have both the promise and the realization of redemption in Christ, and we can know faithfully that modernity, enlightenment and secularism will themselves be judged, and will fall. This is how our history works. Even if Christ brought an end to any meaning in secular history, we still have the story, and we still know that the history that matters is shaped that way.

Exile, as I envision it, means living purposefully in the world and with each other. It means living know we have a redeemer, a future, and hope. We plant trees, beget children, and love our neighbors and wish the best for our enemies knowing that what is really important all belongs to God.

Millstones

There’s an interesting line Jesus speaks in yesterday’s (18th Sunday after Pentecost) gospel reading from Mark 9 that I didn’t preach about:

42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42 ESV)

We’ve all heard it, and even probably seen some neat riffs off that line (a Wizard of Id cartoon comes to mind). The Greem term, μύλος ὀνικὸς here is literally “heavy millstone” or “millstone turned by a donkey.”

This is of no account, accept that I was telling someone last night of the women in the Old Testament who also fight in the cause of Israel. There’s Jael, the wife of Heber, who pounds a tent-peg into the forehead of the sleeping Canaanite General Sisera, who comes to her seeking shelter after the defeat of his army. (Judges 4, just in case you’re interested.)

And there’s the unnamed woman who, later in Judges, drops a millstone upon the head of Abimelech (literally, “My father is king”), the son of Gideon, and the usurper who proclaims himself king of all Israel long before Israel actually asks for one. In Judges 9:53,

53 καὶ ἔρριψεν γυνὴ μία κλάσμα μύλου ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν Αβιμελεχ καὶ συνέθλασεν τὸ κρανίον αὐτοῦ. (LXX)

53 And a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. (ESV)

That millstone μύλος didn’t kill Abimelech. He ordered his armor-bearer to run him through with a sword so no one could say “A woman killed him.” But she did, and she did it with a millstone, and I just found that interesting. A the same word, or a related word (I’m stretching my Greek here), is used in Revelation 18 to describe what will happen to Babylon:

21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone [μύλινον μέγαν] and threw it into the sea, saying,
“So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,
and will be found no more; (ESV)

This even involves tossing into the sea (εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν), the same phrase Jesus uses to describe the fate of those who cause “one of these little ones who believe in me” to sin.

A great weight, a crushing weight, one normally used to grind wheat to make flour, to give life and sustenance, also used to weigh someone down, make them so heavy, they sink to the abyss. And are no more. Gone.