Summary: In many ways the Christian church is a church in exile as many of our traditional power bases have been lost. We are not to focus on things of man, but things of God, in prayer and faith. Perseverance in prayer is the key.
A Church in Exile, and our Response.
Sermon for Proper 29, Year C
21 October 2001
St John the Evangelist, Cold Lake
2 Tim 3:14-4:5
One of the joys of being a Lay Reader is the privilege of preaching God’s word before His people. The other part of that joy is whenever you preach; it is because the Rector is not present…so there is usually no one sitting behind me looking over my shoulder while I speak. I also had to change my topic for today, as the previous title was ‘The ten best Rectors I have known.’
If you have been following the readings for the past two Sundays there is a clear theme running through them. 2 weeks ago we heard Psalm 137 – the one sung by Boney M in the 1970’s – that contains those well-known lines ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion’. Last week we heard the Prophet Jeremiah writing to the exiles in Babylon and telling them to settle in for the duration. This week Jeremiah continues with a discussion of the new covenant that God is forging with the Israelites.
I am getting ahead of myself – so a word on the exile. The exile is, without a doubt, the defining moment of Israel in the Old Testament. The nation of Judah, ruled by great Kings such as David had fallen and become a state of the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian’s occupied the country, and then took most of the leaders from the society off in exile to Babylon. Imagine this in our terms – one morning you phone the St John’s number to talk with Fr David, and this is the message you hear ‘Hello, this is St John the Evangelist, Father David Lehmann, Rector. As a result of the recent occupation of Cold Lake by the Babylonian army, I have been told that I will be moving to Babylon. There will be no further services.’ That Sunday when you showed up for church you would have found that Fr David, the Wardens, the Vestry and most of the Lay Readers had been taken away. The temple, which was the centre of your life, would have been empty of all except a few minor priests. A few months later, even the temple would have been gone as the Babylonians destroyed it. All of the town leaders, the mayor, the councillors and reeves the lead hands from the public works shops would have been taken away. Most of the teachers from the schools would have been taken as well. With those who were left, you would have to try to recreate some kind of society. To put it simply, life as you knew it, had changed forever…and it was up to you and your friends to try to put something back together. We ourselves are living through such defining moments today.
I chatted with one of our new congregation members a few weeks ago and she mentioned that it continued to amaze her that the bible was so applicable to different societies throughout history. When you think that we find wisdom so profound that it brings you to your knees, literally, in a document that is mostly over 2000 yrs old it seems nothing short of a miracle. While other ‘ancient’ authors are difficult to read and discuss concepts that are foreign and strange, God’s word speaks to us where we are today. This is no less true in the concept of a church in exile. The concept of exile applies to us as individuals as well, as each of us will go through periods in our life when our prayer life seems pointless and we feel apart from God. St John of the Cross called this the ‘dark night of the soul’ – the positive side of this is that almost every saint we know of has recounted their periods of exile…for some of them very long – St Theresa’s lasted 18 years, but in the end she was richly answered by God.
Before the exile the Jewish mode of worship was characterized by highly institutionalized worship centred around a major temple. Continuous prayer and sacrifice was offered on behalf of the people. The problem was that much of the worship became focused on the how of the ritual instead of the why – the worship of God. They had lost sight of the entire point of worship. The exile then, although it was the end of the world for them, was a period of tremendous change for Jewish worship. Through the fire of the exile their church became decentralized and less focused on the ritual…the question of Psalm 137 ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song’ was answered. Jeremiah reflects this as he describes the new covenant, where the religion would be written upon their hearts, and not in scrolls in the temple, and they would all come to know God.