Much has been made in recent years of the Church’s recent history as a time of Exile. Drawing inspiration from Israel’s 70-year sojourn in Babylon — and from other Biblical images of exile — we see the christian faith in the West taking a similar path. Where once we stood on familiar ground, we now feel we are strangers. The culture has moved on at such a pace that those who assume a christian worldview, particularly in areas of personal and social moral choices, now feel lost and at sea. We are homesick for our once-loved Jerusalem.
Setting aside for a moment the clear evidence that the past we long for never was the cosy comfort-club of our nostalgic longings — just as the Jerusalem the Hebrews pined for was never quite the perfect life their memories painted — there are good reasons to take this metaphor seriously. A lot has changed in the past 100 years for the churches of the west. We are faced with a whole new landscape.
It’s like playing Monopoly on a board you haven’t designed, and don’t know, with rules that favour others more than you. The shock is deep in Europe where we, the churches, made the old board. We invented the game. We fixed the rules in our favour. How dare the other players change things now?
In such a circumstance time spent complaining is time wasted. Yes the board was different yesterday. Yes we liked it more, or some of us did. But it is not the board we are now playing on. Only two choice face us. We can withdraw completely from the game, or we can get on and play by the rules now given to us. There are several good reasons for taking the second option.
The first is respect. Having insisted for so long — certainly 500 years, arguably many more — that others play by our rules, surely we owe our friends and neighbours the return favour of playing for a while by theirs? In real-life gaming it is good for us to be a junior player and to learn how to survive, and yes thrive, in someone else’s world. Could this time of exile be the greatest learning opportunity our churches have had since Jesus first came?
The second reason is engagement. Jesus urged us to love God with all we have and are, but he also told us to love our neighbour — and backing off is not an act of love. As we are often reminded the opposite of love is indifference, and to pull back from our communities because we don’t like their customs is a movement of flagrant indifference. The words of Jeremiah, prophet of exile and the actions of Daniel and Esther stand witness against us if we choose this path. Is it not for such a time as this — a time of exile — that God has gifted us?
The third and most compelling reason for staying in the game is faith. The great discovery of the Hebrew exiles is that God is bigger than Babylon. Their first reaction to exile is the horrific realisation is that Babylon is so much bigger than Jerusalem — their very kingdom has been swallowed by its greed. If their God is contained within the confines of their experience to date then he too, by definition, has been eaten — but this is not the end of their story. If they can surrender their small vision; if God is bigger than Jerusalem and Babylon, bigger in fact than all the world can throw at them, then there is hope. The exiles lose their grip on a Holy-land God, imprisoned in Jerusalem’s temple, but they find themselves holding to a whole-earth God: a God whose promises and purpose will not fail. It is no coincidence that the term Kingdom of God, the very cornerstone of the ministry of Jesus, is first used in Babylon. Nor that Jesus calls his first followers to give up their small ambitions for Jerusalem and look outwards — to Judea, Samaria and the very ends of the earth. Mission means surrendering our focus on the familiar to embrace the adventure of the world beyond our walls.
We owe to our neighbours the respect of continuing to love and serve in a context in which we no longer control the agenda; our call to engagement won’t allow us to throw in our hand and give up, and above all our faith calls us to risk another roll of the dice. If the season we are passing through is indeed one of exile, and if the exile history of Israel can serve as our guide, then we are living in exciting times for the church. Can we give up the small God of our experience, for whom Christendom was not so much a prize as a prison, to follow the God of the whole earth, who is so much more? Can we dream, with Daniel, of a Kingdom that will not be shaken? Rejoice — the loss and limitation of exile is a birth canal for the limitless promises of God.