Summary: That we are different from the world is not a license to withdraw. We are to engage and to transform the world around us, for that is the key to our church's future.
Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church, Silver Spring, MD, August 26, 1979; with minor changes, Forest Heights Baptist Church, Oxon Hill, MD, Sept. 9, 1979; Howard University School of Religion Chapel, Washington, DC, Oct. 10, 1979; Twinbrook Baptist Church, Rockville, MD, retreat, Jan. 19, 1980; First Baptist Church, Rockville, MD, Nov. 16, 1980; Calverton Baptist Church, Silver Spring, MD, Jan. 17, 1982; Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC July 28, 1985
The headlines occasionally frighten us, informing us that some prisoners have escaped from some House of Corrections. That comes as no surprise to, I’m sure. People who are confined want out, of course. People who have been uprooted from their homes and family and friends, people who have been taken away from their normal pursuits, are angry and are hostile and are naturally quite anxious to get out. It doesn't matter whether they are in prison because of their willful breaking of the law, or whether they are in the hospital because their bodies have failed, them, or whether they are just trapped in a runaway Metro train. The result is much the same: people who are not where they want to be or think they ought to be get restless. Only with difficulty do they make their peace with the situation. They want out.
Now what about the sort of uprooting that takes you forcibly away not only from home and family and normal pursuits, but even takes you to a strange and alien land? What about what we call exile, the situation when you know that you cannot return to your homeland, that the sights and sounds with which you grew up are forever locked away for you? Some of our churches have dealt with refugees from Southeast Asia; we have watched thousands of people go into exile as a result of the political and military developments in that corner of the world. And it has not been easy for them. Some have prospered, to be sure; some have made their way into American life fairly well. But for many there has been the agonizing, wrenching knowledge that they cannot go home, they cannot rebuild life as they have known it, they will always be a little disoriented, a little out of place. They are in exile. Our city is impacted by Haitians, Cubans, Salvadorians, Ethiopians, all wanting, needing to leave home, but in exile.
My thesis is that God's people know what exile is. Always the people of God have had to deal with the reality that in a measure they are strangers and aliens, exiles, in a culture of which they can never be fully a part. But how they deal with that makes all the difference. In the seventh century before Christ, some 2600 years ago, the people of the southern kingdom, called Judah, found themselves drawn into exile. The background and the politics are quite complex, and we cannot go into that fully. Suffice it to recall that in the middle of the decline and fall of the Assyrian empire, and as a result of the power struggle between Egypt and Babylon, the little kingdom of Judah found itself subservient first to one, then to the other, and always in a bit of a rebellious mood. When King Jehoiakim asserted his independence, and then rather conveniently died without having to face the full consequences, the Babylonians moved against Judah. They deported the new king, the young Jehoiachin, the king's family, and all the nation's leadership. The cream of the crop were taken to Babylon, there to live in exile, far from the land they had ruled, far from the institutions they had developed, and, some of them would say, far from the God whom they had worshipped. "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" they asked. What is the future? What do you do with yourself when you are an exile? In what do you invest your hope?
Then to this exile community there came the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is certainly one of the more fascinating personalities of the Old Testament: a man of intense emotions, a perennial champion of unpopular causes. Jeremiah counseled the rulers of Judah not to resist Babylon, but they had paid no attention to his counsel. And now in their exile and their misery, they were addressed again by this prophet whom they feared and hated. The Letter to the Exiles is contained in the 29th chapter of Jeremiah's book of prophecy, and it includes what must have been some more bitter pills to the exiles in Babylon.
Jeremiah's counsel to the exiles of Judah stuck away in alien Babylon is a word for us too. It speaks to us as contemporary Christians, it especially addresses us as we struggle to identify who we are and what we ought to become in this community.