A prevalent theme in Leslie’s and my heart and mind lately is what I’ve come to call the “exile theme.” As I read through the Old Testament this fall and winter, I continue to resonate more than ever with the story of Israel’s exile. It reflects in so many ways the road Leslie and I have walked over the past months. I so hope that nothing I say below sounds in any way melodramatic. But the exile theme has been a great source of strength and encouragement for me, and I’m writing in hope that it will be for some of you as well.
When Israel was on the brink of exile—the previously unimaginable removal of God’s promise people from God’s promised land on account of their persistent rebellion—Jeremiah reminded them of all the ways God had pleaded with them to turn from their sin:
For the past twenty-three years—from the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon, king of Judah, until now—the Lord has been giving me his messages. I have faithfully passed them on to you, but you have not listened. Again and again the Lord has sent you his servants, the prophets, but you have not listened or even paid attention. Each time the message was this: “Turn from the evil road you are traveling and from the evil things you are doing.” (Jer. 25:3-5a)
I see a reflection of this in the way I ignored the Lord’s messages for a very long time. I’m sure some of you can relate. God pleads with us repeatedly to turn from our rebellion and forsake our sin, but we ignore the Holy Spirit’s warnings and continue on the “evil road.”
When God’s patience had finally run out, Jeremiah announced the inevitable coming judgment:
And now the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: “Because you have not listened to me, I will gather together all the armies of the north…. I will bring them all against this land and its people and against the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy you and make you an object of horror and contempt and a ruin forever. I will take away your happy singing and laughter. …This entire land will become a desolate wasteland. (Jer. 25:8-11a)
I see this reflected in the way my wife and I sometimes feel when we are with friends from our previous church community from which we had to be removed because of my failings. We love being with them. But it can also be very hard. We love it because we have deep and strong and life-giving relationships with them (see my post on April 21). But it can also be heart-wrenching to hear about the good things happening in the church community we so love. And we love our new church home. But it can also be very hard to be there. We love it because we feel so very warmly welcomed there. We resonate with the worship and teaching styles and content. Our kids love the Sunday school class. And yet, we don’t feel at home yet. We will. But we don’t yet.
It also occurs to me that there must have been some (relatively) innocent people in Israel who also had to go into exile despite their innocence. Surely not everyone in Israel sinned in the same way. Surely not everyone committed idolatry to the same degree and rebelled to the same extent. But they all shared in the fate of the worst of them and had to suffer the heartbreak that some were much more responsible for because they all shared in the covenant together.
Again, there is a reflection in our experience. It breaks my heart that my family has had to endure the heartbreak of exile that I was disproportionately responsible for because of the fact that they are in a covenant with me.
Nevertheless, even in exile, I’m reminded, there is hope and there is a mission. The hope for the exiles is God’s promise that the exile will end:
Long ago the Lord said to Israel: “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself. I will rebuild you, my virgin Israel. You will again be happy and dance merrily with your tambourines.” (Jer. 31:4-5)
We know that the sense of loss and heartbreak will dissipate and that at some point we will feel fully engaged and fully invested in a church community again. We know that at some point we’ll look back at this season of life with even more gratitude and understanding than we already do. And we trust that we’ll have more joy and fruitfulness in the future than we otherwise would have had because we’ve gone through this. We’re hoping and trusting in that promise. That’s what it means to believe in an all-knowing, all-good, sovereign God.
The mission for the exiles was to serve the Lord where they were, rather than wasting time lamenting that they weren’t where they might like to be. As Jeremiah wrote to the people of God in exile:
Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare. (Jer. 29:5-7)
My family and I are being sent into some new places in this season of “exile”—most notably our new worship community and my new professional field. We want to seek the peace, prosperity and welfare of these places. We want to plan to stay. It wouldn’t be surprising to us if God had us here for a long time. So, we’re planning to be here for a long time and if God opens a new path for us at some point, we’ll walk it. We want to serve our church and its community, and I want to be a missionary in the new profession God has opened up before me. I get to put my money where my mouth is. For years I’ve been exhorting men and women to be missionaries to the “9 to 5 window”—everyday apostles to the places God has sent them during the workday. I know God is now calling me to live out that exhortation myself. And I couldn’t be more excited about it.
Being in “exile” doesn’t mean God isn’t with us or with you. He was with Israel. He is with us. He is with you. And we’ve already begun to see the fruit and opportunities for the gospel that God has opened up for us in this new season of life. What an amazing privilege. What an amazing grace to continue to serve the one true God as his ambassador.
May God give me—and all of us—strength and boldness as we live out our calling as his messengers to a broken world in desperate need of its King.