Living in exile: a report of Duncan’s sermon this morning

Exile

Duncan was preaching this morning on Jeremiah 29:1-14. It was, he told us, a very rich passage, and he had chosen to focus on one of its themes.

Duncan quoted a passage from Eugene Peterson’s book As kingfishers catch fire which had inspired him, and which illuminates the prophet Jeremiah’s words:

The life of faith has to do with the best that comes our way; the life of faith has to do with the worst that comes our way; neither cancels out the other; neither takes precedence.

How do we see our life at present, Duncan asked? Are we at a point in life where things are good, or are we facing challenges, finding it hard to come to terms with current realities and to envisage the future.

A faithful prophet in the worst of times

Jeremiah was a prophet remained faithful to God in the worst of times. That he was known as ‘the weeping’ prophet gives some insight into his pain. He didn’t have any choice in regard to the situation and circumstances he faced.

Similarly, we are alive now, at this current point of history, affected by all the challenges facing 21st century people. We have little control over the issues society faces, or over the circumstances we find ourselves in.

The context of Jeremiah 29 is this. Judah (the Southern Kingdom) and Jerusalem had been defeated by the Assyrian army, and many of the leaders from Judah have been taken into exile in Babylon (present-day Iraq.)

The equivalent of this disaster for us would be having to face a situation worse than we could ever have imagined, plunging headlong into an abyss.

The people had believed that Jerusalem and the Temple were inviolable – wasn’t God on their side? They were, surely, utterly secure.

And then – the unthinkable happened. Jerusalem was razed, the Temple plundered and destroyed, many people taken into exile.

This is the context of the plaintive words of Psalm 137 ‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (Jerusalem)

Their previous understanding of God lies in the dust. God had not protected Jerusalem, or the Temple, or the chosen people.

Living as exiles in Babylon

What, as reluctant exiles in Babylon, strangers and immigrants in a foreign land, are they to do? How are they to respond to the traumatic events which have shaken their faith to the core?

This passage speaks powerfully to our world. We hear frequently of crises somewhere in the world leading to huge numbers of people fleeing for their live. The prophet Jeremiah, Duncan told us, has something important to say to the person who finds themselves in exile, and has to build a new life in a new land.

But few if any of us are exiles, few if any of us have been displaced, few if any of us face building a life for ourselves in a foreign land.

So what is the relevance of the passage from Jeremiah to those of us who are not physically in exile from the culture in which we were born?

Cultural exile

Duncan reminded us that it is possible to have a sense of exile without having been uprooted against our will.

When all the world around you seems to be changing, while you remain as you were – that can feel like exile. People have told Duncan that is seems as if the whole neighbourhood they live in has changed. The old neighbours have gone, and there seems now to be no neighbourliness in streets once so friendly.

Do we, Duncan mused, have to have a Facebook account to have a sense of belonging? Or is a Facebook account in fact a self-imposed exile from real life?

A Church in exile?

And then some people describe the experience of the Church at present as being ‘an exile experience.’  Twenty-five years ago, when Duncan became a minister, though the Church of Scotland nationally was in decline, there were over one million members, and an adequate number of ministers.

Now, only somewhere in the region of 250,000 people are part of the Church; their average age is 67; and whereas 17 ministers are retiring every month, less than 17 qualify each year.

It is  as though the Church were stranded on a beach while the river of society has taken another course. Humanist officiants bless more marriages in Scotland than Church of Scotland ministers. In 50 years, the Church has moved from being at the heart of Scottish society to being just one among many voices in a pluralist and increasingly secular culture.

As a Church, as Christians, we are like the Jews in Babylon, having to get our heads round an entirely new landscape.

What is God saying?

‘What is God saying in the midst of this experience of dislocation and uncertainty about the present and the future?’ Duncan asked.

Jeremiah had a powerful message for the exiled Jews, and it’s a message which remains relevant for anyone going through the experience of exile today.

Build houses and settle down: plant gardens and eat what they produce…marry and have sons and daughters…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I carried you, pray to the Lord for it. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Twice, in verses 4 and 7, Jeremiah speaks of the Lord ‘carrying’ the people into exile.  Even in the experience of exile, God wants the people to know that he is not absent – he has been carrying them in their very experience of dislocation.

No room for nostalgia

The people of Judah are not to look back with nostalgic longing, but face the present, and dream the future. They are called to live faithfully for God in unexpected circumstances, and think long term. In speaking of the Exile lasting 70 years (in other words, a lifetimes), Jeremiah is in effect saying to the those who went into exile ‘You will never see Jerusalem again.’

Jeremiah, Duncan continued, is encouraging us all to see our lives and our witness for God on a much bigger canvas. We may never see the fulfilment of the hopes we might have – perhaps that will be left to our children and grandchildren.

A vision of hope

We too have been born into challenging times, but into our present Jeremiah points into a hopeful future.

‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

This is not an individualistic promise, but it is a promise of Jesus to the Church and to us as part of the church. Even in our experience of Exile we have a hope, and a future.

Challenging times invite us, like the exiles in Babylon, to be constantly re-thinking our faith, flexible and open to God leading us in surprising directions.

People in Jeremiah’s time had to completely re-think worship without the Temple – the result was synagogue worship which was much more flexible and dynamic.

Living in the ‘now’ with eyes for the future

We can’t go back in time, said Duncan. We must live in the ‘now’ with our eyes open to see the future fulfilment of God’s plans. We must be confident that if we ‘seek God’ we will find God.

He told us that Shona had been working with the P7-S2 group recently, and had asked them to imagine the church as a lifeboat – a lifeboat which would sink unless some things were chucked out. What might they choose to dispense with? The list of possibilities included church buildings, community work, church committees, church workers, Sunday services, home groups, the minister, hymn books, Inverness Presbytery, the Bible.

Duncan said he was pleased that the minister was over the side long before the end of the exercise.

He had begun the service by asking us to imagine a scenario in which one Sunday we came to church to find nothing there: the building had gone, the ministry team and music group and caretakers and home group leaders were all gone. There were no other churches in the neighbourhood we could attend.  What would we do?

Duncan told us a story about a church planter in India, where there are so many people coming to faith and so few resources that it simply isn’t practical to have a minister leading each church. This person’s philosophy was ‘You have a Bible. You can read? Then you can start a church.’

This isn’t to devalue ministers, but to show a way ahead when they are not available.

Exile requires a completely new mindset. It involved realising that with God’s promises and the presence of the Holy Spirit, all things are possible.

 

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