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)

What a Real Prophet Does

Andrew Perriman, who both says too much and too little, has this to say about the role of the church and social transformation and what it truly means to be prophetic:

The Law of Moses mandated for Israel distinctive patterns of righteous and just behaviour. It was a primary responsibility of judges and kings and other leaders—right down to the chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day—to uphold righteousness and justice. And when things got out of kilter, as they inevitably did, the prophets drew attention to the fact, called Israel to repentance, and warned of national disaster if those responsible failed to put their house in order.

But it can hardly be claimed that the Jews programmatically engaged in—or were encouraged to engage in—social activism outside of Israel. The most that can be said, I think, is that if they had kept the commandments and walked in the ways of the Lord, they would have modelled righteousness and justice for the surrounding nations.

More:

Would we call John the Baptist a social activist? He tells the crowds to share their clothing and food. He tells the tax collectors not to take more than is permitted. He tells soldiers not to “extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations” (Lk. 3:10-14). But this is a call to internal reform, and in any case the basic message is that the axe is already laid to the root of the fruitless trees, that the Lord is coming with his winnowing fork in his hand “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17).

Jesus’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with social transformation. It was too late for that. The “kingdom” message was that unjust Israel was facing destruction. John had been the last of the prophet-servants sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel in search of the fruit of righteousness, and the wicked tenants had killed him. Now God was sending his Son, and they would kill him too. What would the owner of the vineyard do? The chief priests and the elders of the people knew the answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt. 21:41).

In short, we are not called to change the world because by the time a prophetic call is made, it is too late. Reform won’t matter. Even the example Perriman cites of Daniel 4, in which Daniel counsels Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon:

[B]reak off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity. (Daniel 4:27 ESV)

That line, “showing mercy to the oppressed” (literally “be gracious to the humble ones”) is interesting, because as king, the oppressed Nebuchadnezzar would deal with would be people he oppressed himself, as king, as the leader of a government that ruled in his name.

But all Daniel is saying is that maybe, just maybe, God might relent for a season if you change your ways. Temporarily. Maybe.

Because the die is cast. Babylon is done. As was Israel and Judah even before they were formed, before the days Solomon took to bedding and keeping non-Israelite wives and lovers. A good king, like Josiah, might delay the rot a bit, postpone the end, but what is clear in both New and Old Testaments is that the end is coming. Because the end is judgment upon God’s people, and then as Perriman later notes, the pagan empire. Babylon/Empire is the tool of judgment upon Israel/Church, but then God enacts a stern vengeance/justice upon the Empire. It too will be subject to God.

To be a prophet, then, is not to say: The end is coming, change your ways that you may avert the end. Rather, it is to say: the end is coming, change your lives that you may live and survive the end.

I have danced around this for a couple of years now, but I think this understanding of our story as Israel/Church is the only understanding that works. It is why I think a Benedict Option ungrounded in the biblical story of Israel/Church, that understand prophetic judgment even as metaphor, will fail to appreciate the real scope of what is happening to us.

What is happening?

Modernity and enlightenment are Babylon and Rome, the beguiling means God is using to judge the church. Not America. Not Europe. But the church. The people of God. We are being called to change our lives not to save the world, but to save ourselves, to accept defeat and conquest and exile, to be a remnant God will use to resurrect his people in the future. In turn, as the powers of the world are the instruments of God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, upon one too comfortable with and in Empire, God will judge the powers of the world. They have already been found wanting.

SERMON It May or May Not Be Okay, But I Have Hope

A reading from the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29:

1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 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. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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 29:1–14 ESV)

I want to tell you things are going to be okay.

But I can’t. Because I don’t know if they are.

I don’t know what okay means with the election of Donald Trump. I know that many of my queer friends, many of my friends in mixed-race marriages with with mixed-race children, are terrified, and many with disabled kids are as well. They fear for the future, and rightly so. Because it isn’t just Trump himself, it’s many of the people he brings into office with him — Chris Christie, Rudi Giuliani, Newt Gingrich could only best be described as callous and indifferent — who are also short-tempered, petty, vindictive, and intolerant of dissent. Sheriff David Clarke, who may find himself tabbed to head a department like Homeland Security, has for months now called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist movement” and predicted a BLM alliance with the Islamic State to topple the U.S. Government.

And what do we do with terrorists? What has Trump said we should do with terrorists? Arrest them. Torture them. Kill them and their families.

These may just be words, but words mean something. Trump’s 2005 boast that he grabs women “by the pussy” has a terrifying resonance given the ministry I do. Words set actions into motion. We’ve had a little taste of what life in Trump’s America looks like, and I suspect Trump and his regime, if they are magnanimous at all in victory, won’t be for very long. We have every reason to believe his government will be a punitive, authoritarian one eager to arrest and brutalize and condemn people.

Alex Jones may yet see FEMA Camps at work.

So no, I have no idea if it will be okay. At best — at best — the American Greatness Trump supporters seek hearkens back to an era which did not welcome and did not include many of the people I love and care about. I have no idea how this will end, whether this will be a bumbling and incompetent government or merciless and brutal. I have no idea. None at all. There is no future to discern here1.

When God spoke through Jeremiah to the exiles of Israel, he didn’t promise them things would be okay either. Consider where Israel was. They had been invaded, subdued, Jerusalem the holy city besieged. Judah was defeated, conquered, and carried into exile, told by their captors to sing and dance and entertain them with their strange new stories. “By the waters of Babylon, there was sat down and wept, and we remembered Zion.” Zion was gone. Not just far away, but reduced to rubble.

There were prophets telling them “soon and very soon now,” that within two years God will break Babylon and the exiles will go home to live and rebuild. And to someone in a strange place, frightened, traumatized by war and conquest and dislocation, living admidst hostile captors and conquerors, that seems good news! Just hang on a few months, all will be reversed! We will be going home! Our defeat will be undone! We can hope again!

But God is having none of it. Because that is not what real hope looks like here.

Build houses and plant gardens, God says. Marry and have children, and give them in marriage. Seek the welfare of the city — this strange city, this foreign city, this enemy city, this home of your conquerors — where I have sent you into exile. Pray for it. It’s success will be your success.

You’re going to be here for a while, God tells exiled Israel, amidst your enemies and your conquerors. So build, plant, beget.

In face of hopelessness and fear, in the face of uncertainty, humiliation, and defeat, God’s command to us is: build, plant, beget.

This is what hope looks like. Not “hang in there, everything is going to be okay,” but: build, plant, beget.

This is not an easy hope. It is not a happy hope. It does not promise quiet, easy, untroubled lives. And it is given to people who will never live to see it realized. It is little different that the promises given to Abraham — descendants, a land of his own, and a blessing to the world — promises he never saw during his lifetime but took hold of tight and believed anyway (though he wasn’t always entirely faithful in that either). We, my sisters and brothers, may never leave this place, this exile, this Tel Aviv — Summertime Hill — that we have cobbled together on the banks of the Euphrates.

We may never see Zion again. We may die here. Our children may die here. And their children may die here too.

None of that matters. We still have hope. We are still called to build, and plant, and beget.

Because we know something else. Babylon is judged. God has promised we will be delivered. We will not be here forever. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope,” God says. “I will bring you back to the place from which I have sent you into exile.”

Seventy years from now. A long fullness.

And so we wait. And live. In hope. We build, and plant, and beget.

Because Babylon has been judged, and she will fall. We have that promise too. Babylon has been judged, and been found wanting, a place of violence and brutality, of lecherous corruption, of immorality and debauchery. “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence and will be found no more … And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slain on the earth.” (Revelation 18:21b, 24)

Babylon has been judged. It has already happened, even as we weep in exile in its midst. Babylon has fallen, even though she stands tall and strong, her armies invisible, her treasury bursting.

And we have already been redeemed. One who was faithful and true lived and preached and healed and died and rose from the dead, facing down that very power which has carried us off, dying at its hands, and showing us that God’s response to faithfulness is not success, but resurrection. (Just as God’s response to sin is not damnation, but resurrection.) I’m certain in the Garden of Gathsemene, Jesus wanted it to be okay, to know it would be okay, and he realized — it wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be.

This is hard faith. And a difficult hope. It is sometimes a hope of bitter determination. I wish I could say no one will suffer and no one will perish and no one will have to resist great evil. But I don’t. I can’t. I have no idea how terrible things will get. I have no answers except the ones God gave to Israel in exile — build, plant, beget.

Build. Plant. Beget.

In a difficult and uncertain time, that is what hope looks like.


  1. With all the talk of Nazi Germany, Trump reminds me more of Mussolini or Napoleon III (who was the first real modern dictator), and their use of power on opponents and dissidents was real but fairly restrained. Both regimes ended badly, however, in war, conquest, and ruination because of wars they started or joined. Something that should also give pause. ↩︎

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.

The End of Denominationalism

I was chatting with a friend from seminary, somewhat lamenting my situation in life (no formal church home, and no denomination that will accept me and ordain me), when my conversation partner, an up and coming theologian, noted the following:

Denominations are just about over anyway.

He’s right. I should not be so distraught over my failure to find denominational acceptance.

I’ve touched on this subject before. The churches that succeed will build networks, inside and outside confessional boundaries. I don’t have much support right now, but I do have support, and it crosses denominational lines. It even includes some nonbelievers, people who have faith in me and the work I have been called to do.

I can build on this. As soon as I have a proper foundation, I plan to.

There will continue to be a place for denominations, especially in place where church culture is the thickest and the need or desire for immediate cultural competency is the strongest. But that very need – which churches spend an awful lot of time and resources catering to – keeps them too inwardly focused. A lot of denominations, as they slowly decline, will basically become chaplaincies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this (ministering to the dying is one of our callings), and it’s the residue of American Christendom where the culture was expected to do the work of faith and character formation (and the denominations would top it off with a bit of confessional catechesis).

But what this also means is that congregations in denominations don’t really know how to form disciples. And I see nothing in the denominations or even many non-dom churches that tell me they know how to live in exile. They cannot conceive of being Christian in opposition to or alienation from the majority/ruling culture. Without a Caesar of their own to love (as opposed to simply honor), because Caesar is (or must be) one of them. In this, sadly, progressive churches are perpetuating many of the worst elements of American Christendom.

In fact, many American churches won’t know how to survive without a culture they can work with and influence. American Christians and American churches have no idea how to live in exile.

And they seem utterly unwilling to learn.

Something I’ve noticed as I’ve wandered Eastern Washington. There are still a lot of churches here. Downtown Spokane is stuffed to overflowing with mission outreach churches serving the homeless and the poor. Whether they do it well or not, I’ve yet to figure it out.

But there are a lot of churches.

However, the most vibrant churches seem to be non-denominational. And in tiny towns surrounded by wheat fields and scrubland pasture, like Odessa, Washington (founded long ago by proud German immigrants), the churches that in the Midwest or back East would belong to struggling denominations have all been given over to pentecostals, or have become “community” churches, or have been abandoned altogether. Even Catholicism is waning here where there aren’t immigrants from Mexico or Latin America.

I’ve not been in a lot of these churches, not yet, so I have no idea what gets preached in them. From what I have heard so far, though, I suspect a fair amount of cultural despair (hope for national and communal revival intertwined with that odd sense of persecution that conservative Christians have always carried with them) combined with an intensely personal Jesus who saves and an insistent teaching of rules for good behavior — right-wing therapeutic deism — which is not the gospel.

It’s not real hope. It’s a false hope that still yearns for and demands the culture, rather than the church, do the serious work.

LENT Sending to Babylon

11 I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
12 I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13 Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?”
14 Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“For your sake I send to Babylon
and bring them all down as fugitives,
even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice.
15 I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
(Isaiah 43:11-15 ESV)

What goes around, comes around. And as you sow, so shall you reap. My mother told me once she believes these things — that those who do evil in the world are eventually repaid their evil. A kind-of karma, if you will, that evens the world out, and make the world morally comprehensible.

I don’t believe these things. I haven’t since I was in the Army in Panama, where all sorts of shady and illegal and dangerous things were done by people in power, things that put a lot of people — a lot of soldiers — at risk. Of course, I was primed not to believe in anything resembling karma or just desserts or the coming around of things that go because too many people who have hurt me, who took joy in it and for whom it seemed their purpose, prospered, and probably slept happily, their dreams untroubled by my sorrow and my nightmares.

The same is true, sadly, today. People can hurt me, and they do, and nothing comes of it. They pay no price, suffer no consequences, feel no pangs of sorrow or conscience, lose no sleep. They are not caught and lectured or reprimanded or punished. Indeed, they are probably given medals and told, “Keep up the good work!” Dealing with me is probably akin to a burp or a sneeze, a minor inconvenience to be forgotten as soon as the moment passes.

No, what goes around most definitely does not come around.

God here is delivering Israel from exile. Raising Israel up from the living death that is their sorrow and mourning along the banks of the Tigris. God used Babylon to bring Israel low, the means of God’s wrath upon his faithless and idolatrous people. In the armies of Nebuchadnezzar is all the wrath and rage of God at a people who long before stopped being the grateful and humble recipients of God’s grace.

This is, however, only a temporary privilege, and Babylon too will pay the price for the destruction it has wrought, for carrying Israel into an exile where it could taunt and demand the Israelites sing them songs. Babylon itself faces conquest. And exile. Babylon faces judgment at the hands of the very instruments it once gloried in — armies, strength, power.

But is this what goes around comes around?

There are days I wish God would bring low some of those who have so harshly judged me. Who have cast me out, who have taunted and tormented and abused me. I’m not sure I want their suffering — I am too tenderhearted and kind for that — but I do want to know that somehow I matter enough to God that some kind of vengeance, some kind of price, is paid by a people willing to cast me out, to treat me as someone of no value. I don’t know if I would take joy in seeing that. But I want to know that I matter enough to God, to be worth the kind of recompense that looks like what goes around comes around.

Mostly I just want the casting out undone, though I know it can’t be and it won’t be. I am in exile. On the banks of the river. With a song of sorrow in my heart. Waiting for God’s deliverance. Waiting…

LENT Living in the Promise of God

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
(Psalms 126:1-6 ESV)

Oh, to live in the fulfillment of the promises of God!

To rejoice and know my exile has ended! That I home, in the place of promise, in the land of milk and honey, my land. Where the wadis — the dream streams and rivers that flow only when the seasonal rains come — flow clear and cool and fresh every day! To come back, knowing God has rescued me, redeemed me, given me a full harvest and done great things for me!

So that my sorrow is joy, my grief is celebration, and my nightmares become dreams. So that I can leave behind Springtime Hill (Tel Aviv), my exile home along the rivers of Babylon, and come back to the land — the place, the home — that I was given. That it is well and truly mine again.

Oh, to live in the fulfillment of the promise of God!

I don’t, though. I wake every morning in this אֶרֶץ נוֹד Eretz Nod, this land of wandering, knowing it isn’t my home, knowing I am not going anywhere soon, that the rivers may not flow and the grain may not grow this year because the rains may not come. My mouth may be dry and full of dust. All I have are seeds and sorrow. I weep, still, because I do not have the fulfillment of the promises of God, just the promises. So much warm, still, dry air.

I still have nightmares. And dreams … that are simply dreams.

And yet, I do hold something of the promise of God. I do live something akin to the resurrected life of Christ. Because I share in his life. He shares in mine. I am in him and he is in me. And so, this promise of God is not so empty a promise. It is already fulfilled. In the life of Christ, in his teaching, his healing, his feeding, his casting out of demons, in his proclamation of Good News to Israel and the world, in his life-giving death and in his death-destroying resurrection, I have the promise of God fulfilled.

Wherever I may be, I am home from Springtime Hill, from my mourning along side the rivers of Babylon, from my tireless roaming in the Land of Wandering. Whatever the climate, living waters drench the desert. Grain ripens in the fields, full stalks, golden underneath the late summer sun. There is no drought or famine or war here. The harvest is bountiful. My seeds have grown, and my sorrow is joy.

In Christ, I have a home. I am a blessing. I have descendants more than the stars in the sky. I have an abundance, more to share with all who come. The Lord has done great things for me.

In Christ, the Lord has done great things for me.

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.

The Bitter, the Angry, and the Discontented

I’m procrastinating. I do have an essay in mind to write about the events of last Friday, but I’ve been deliberately avoiding it. I’ll get around to it.

This morning, something else came to mind, one of my favorite passages from 1 Samuel. About David, who is probably my favorite character in the whole Bible.

1 David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. 2 And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander [לְשָׂ֑ר, literally “captain”] over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.

3 And David went from there to Mizpeh of Moab. And he said to the king of Moab, “Please let my father and my mother stay with you, till I know what God will do for me.” 4 And he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold. 5 Then the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not remain in the stronghold; depart, and go into the land of Judah.” So David departed and went into the forest of Hereth. (1 Samuel 22:1-5 ESV)

It is hard to overstate just how difficult David’s situation is here. He has been anointed king, Saul having lost the “mandate of heaven” with his refusal to give to God what God demanded of the plunder from Amalek. David has fought for Saul, killed Goliath, becomes BFF with Saul’s son Jonathan, “took the lyre and played it with his hand” whenever Saul was troubled and tormented (as Saul often was) with an evil spirit, and has fled Saul after the king tries to kill him.

He is now in the wilderness, southwest of Jerusalem in what is now Israel “proper” (the 1949 armistice lines). He is on the run. At this point, it looks for all the world that David has no future. All he has is the anointing of God, and nothing else. Saul is still king, still commands an army.

But David has an army too. In his reduced circumstances — a long way from the court of Saul, where he plucked the lyre, carried Saul’s armor, and fought Israel’s enemies so successfully that Saul “stood in fearful awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them.” (1 Sam 18:15) It may not seem like much of an army — the distressed, the indebted, the embittered (or discontented) — but it’s an army David will use to great effect, to fight off the Philistines, to fight for the Philistines, to battle and defeat Amalek and eventually, as the core of the army that will defeat the House of Saul and re-unite the kingdom.

They come to David. He doesn’t come to them. They join him. He doesn’t join them. They hear of him, know he’s someone who can lead them, and they gather around him. This army of discontents come to Adullam to follow David.

I like David. The more I read of scripture, the more I like him. I want to say he’s not reflective, but in all those psalms he wrote, David clearly praises and thanks and pleads and laments. He thinks. He considers. He contemplates. But he also acts.

And all he has, right now, in this cave with this bands of misfits and rejects, is the blessing of God.

13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:13 ESV)

So we know where the Spirit led David. Into a kind-of exile, as a fugitive and sometimes mercenary leader fighting for the very Philistines he had battled (1 Samuel 27:8-12) and would later battle again. It’s hard, David’s exile life. But one he lives fully.

Because David knows God has not abandoned him. He trusts in God’s time. In God’s anointing. And in the Spirit which “rushed upon” him, and never left.

You Must First Learn to Live With Others

From my sporadic reading of The Sayings of The Desert Fathers:

One day Abba Longinus questioned Abba Lucius about three thoughts saying first, “I want to go into exile.” The old man said to him, “If you cannot control your tongue, you not be an exile anywhere. Therefore control your tongue here, and you will be an exile.”

Next, he said to him, “I wish to fast.” The old man replied, “Isaiah said, ‘If you bend your neck like a rope or a bullish that is not the fast I will accept [Isaiah 58]; but rather, control your evil thoughts.”’

He said to him the third time, “I wish to flee from men.” The old man replied, “If you have not first of all lived rightly with men, you will not be able to live rightly in solitude.”