The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      27th September 2020
Exile in Our Time
Andrew Penny

The idea of exile runs through the Old Testament, and it’s the background to the new ideas of the New Testament.  And more than a background, for Jesus says he fulfils those scriptures, so full of exile and longing. Despite that fulfilment and the Gospel sense of rebirth and arrival, most Christians have felt a persistent sense waiting and, even, of absence. Why should that be? The point of Easter is surely that the world has been recreated and at Pentecost we are filed with God’s spirit; what do we lack? I want to explore a few reasons why the sense of exile in the Hebrew Bible still matters to us.

Exile is there right from the start of the story as Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden; ever since, mankind has been trying to get back to that Garden and that Golden Age, and we feel, wrongly, I suggest, that despite the promise of the Resurrection Garden, something is missing.

As the story becomes quasi historical, we read of the wandering Abraham promised a new land and permanence. A more tangible Promised Land is predicted for Moses and his people. The prelude to entry into that new world is a period of wandering and mishap, as the Israelites are led way off course into Egypt, suffering a sort of exile before they have even seen their destination, and then more literally exiled or landless as they wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

These stories were crystallised during an historical exile in Babylon, where Ezekiel is writing and where probably most of the Old Testament as we know it was ordered and edited, if not actually written. It is understandable that the theme of longing for return should be so prominent. Understandable too that the period of exile should be seen as not just longing for home, but preparation for home coming and even definition, or reworking of what “home”- the Promised Land or Eden might be.

Although much of the exile is spent wandering in physically barren country it is not an intellectual wilderness. Under Moses’ tutelage the Israelites work out their relationship with God, and how society and life generally is to be ordered in a land flowing with milk and honey. In the Babylonian exile, they had to work out what religious observance should mean where there was no Temple and no sacrifice.

This idea of exile and wilderness as an intellectually fertile time repeats itself as John the Baptist retreats to the desert, and as Jesus spends 40 days tempted, and working out his mission. Similarly, Paul, after his conversion, spends three years in Arabia, working out his theology.

While not precisely exiled, the Jews of Jesus’ day felt a similar longing for ownership of their homeland. The Romans had not deported them but they had taken control of the country; the longing for a Messiah, and the Golden Age that he would bring was similar to the longing of the physically exiled.

Ezekiel came from a priestly family and the experience of exile in Babylon, far from a destroyed Temple would have been especially testing for him. His prophecy responds with some vivid and wild imagery; the most famous, the valley of the dry bones, comes just before tonight’s reading. He shares with Isaiah a vision of the return to the mountains of Palestine where the people will gather like a flock of disparate sheep. For Ezekiel, the Promised land is resuscitation and reunion; here their divisions will be mended and Judah and Israel will be unified in a society governed by righteousness and equity.

Superficially, at least, this feeling of exile, should be alien to the Christian; in Jesus the Messiah has arrived-not quite as expected by all, but Jesus is clear that with him the Kingdom of God is at hand.

And yet, as is obvious, many would laugh at the suggestion that the Kingdom of God is at hand; some lame may walk, some blind may see and dumb speak, but many are still lonely, hungry and homeless. Many have little reason to think they have been revived by the life-giving breath of God or been treated as one by their fellow men. Justice and righteousness exist, but they are scarce. You might well think there was quite some work to do before we could say the Kingdom of God or a Promised Land was nigh.

Perhaps for this reason, Christianity has tended to postpone the final arrival to a second coming, a Last Judgement, when all the injustices of this world will be sorted, when the hungry and pained will be fed and healed and the wicked, will finally get their comeuppance. Perhaps so, but taking this line of thought literally tends to distract us from doing something now about the wrongs around us; I would rather think the judgement is not final in a temporal sense, but a metaphor for what is right and wrong, and their consequences now.

There is a partial parallel in our experience of forgiveness. We know that however terribly we have behaved, we shall be forgiven, but we can only be forgiven if we want to be, if we repent. Knowing that one has done wrong, however, and being sorry, is not always easy; it requires reflection. Forgiveness, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is there, but it may take some recognising, and some struggle to ask and to know what to do, to attain it. 

So, I suggest that the idea of exile, longing, waiting it more usefully thought of, as a preparation; the reflection on what for us the Promised land should be and how we might get there. The kingdom of God is indeed nigh, but it may not be quite what we were expecting (It certainly wasn’t for 1st century Jews). We need the feeling of absence and expectation to work out what it is, and crucially, what we need to do to bring it about. We have had and still have an exile imposed by Covid 19 and we have had to work out a new way of worshipping. The bigger questions remain:  Where are our mountains of Israel? With whom do we need to be unified to live in righteousness and justice? These are the questions to exercise us in our waiting. Amen.

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