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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Start:Stop - Rising from the ruins of exile

Bible reading

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon … It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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. 1 – 7)


The Israelite Exile had several phases. In 721 BC the Assyrians conquered the Northern Israelite kingdom. Assyrian policy was to stamp out national identities by mixing up populations. Therefore the 10 tribes of that Kingdom disappeared. The Southern kingdom, Judah, was not conquered until 597. By this time the dominant power was Babylon, whose policy was deportation. So, when Jerusalem was captured, the leading citizens were taken to Babylon. Then, in 587, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and all but the poorest were taken.

Walter Brueggemann writes that “Jerusalem was burned and its temple destroyed, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and public life ended. For ancient Israel, it was the end of privilege, certitude, domination, viable public institutions and a sustaining social fabric. It was the end of life with God, which Israel had taken for granted. In that wrenching time, ancient Israel faced the temptation of denial—the pretence that there had been no loss—and it faced the temptation of despair—the inability to see any way out.” This was a crisis of faith, not simply defeat in war and separation from homeland, but the loss of every reference point that explained who they were as a people and the failure of their God to protect them. They had believed they were a people chosen out of all the nations to be in a special relationship with the one true God who created, sustained and controlled the cosmos. This testimony developed as God made covenants about their land, city, and kings. All were lost and this normative testimony was fundamentally threatened.

The Exile was a crisis to which the Israelites responded initially with grief and anger, but, as the Exile continued, they reacted, or were asked by God to react, in terms of reflection and reinterpretation. David Sceats has noted that “all the evidence points to the fact that the Old Testament came into existence in substantially its present form in and immediately after this period of defeat, exile and religious disintegration.” The purpose of both collating and organising older material, and of writing new material, was reflection. Those who put together the Old Testament in this way were reflecting on Israel’s past to “remind the nation of its identity, to help it understand its place in God’s purposes, and its responsibility as the covenant people, and, above all, to remember the universal claims of Yahweh, and his authority over all nations, including Babylon.” Sceats argues that the act of reflection undertaken by the Israelites was also about reinterpretation. God was, through the exile, revealing himself in a new way and therefore, in organising the religious literature of Israel, it was also necessary to reinterpret that literature “in such a way as to make religious sense of the crisis of faith it had gone through.”

As Western Christians in the twenty-first century, we have faced a crisis of exilic proportions. An increasing process of secularization has occurred within the West with Christianity being dethroned from the dominant position that it held at the end of the Medieval period. From the Reformation through the Enlightenment to Modernism, Christendom came under increasing threat and has now been gradually dismantled. Enlightenment thinking questioned the historical validity of central Christian doctrines, developed alternative ‘scientifically verifiable’ means of explaining the origins of species, positioned Government as the central means of meeting social/welfare needs, and created a consumer culture of aspiration and progress. The result is that for many in the West “God is dead”, “Man has come of age” and Christianity is dead in the water.

The theologians of the exile can help us in hearing and responding to the call of God in our day and time. Their pattern of reflection and re-interpretation based on the tradition gives a biblical means of reviving our roots and re-claiming our disputed lineage. We need to dream up what Church is and can be for future generations all over again. We should not expect to have all the answers to hand but should engage in a re-examination of our roots in order to imagine our future on a scale that is at least equal to that of the theologians of the exile. Our God is a God of new beginnings, of fresh starts. He is the resurrection God and, therefore, the one who gives hope that we can rise from the ruins.


God of all times and all places, as we gather this day, we are mindful of the many who are in exile, living in temporary shelters as a result of war, poverty or extremes of weather. We pray for those who have been in exile for long years, those who are trying to make a life and care for their children, planting gardens and seeds of hope and survival in refugee camps with scarce resources. For all those without the comfort and safety of home, we pray rest and respite, courage and comfort. For all who are afraid and wonder if their exile will ever end, grant the peace that passes understanding. May we recount your promises, your provisions, your power and encourage hope in those longing for healing and home.

Thank you for seeing us, claiming us, healing us, making your home in us, so that no matter where we are, we are never alone. Thank you for the people on the journey with us, the ones who’ve opened their homes to us, those who have called us family, friends who have loved us, strangers who have cared for us, all who have been the hands and feet of Christ to us. Thank you for those who right this very moment are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, tending the dying, and in countless ways serving for the sake of others. May we recount your promises, your provisions, your power and encourage hope in those longing for healing and home.


O God, the Creator and Preserver of all humankind: we humbly pray that it may please you to reveal your ways to all people and your saving power to all nations. In particular we pray for your church that it may be guided and governed by your Spirit in such a way that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. May we recount your promises, your provisions, your power and encourage hope in those longing for healing and home.


The Blessing

May Christ, who makes saints of sinners, who has transformed those we remember today, raise and strengthen you that you may transform the world; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.


The Brilliance - Brother.

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