The Old Testament story is dominated by two national events. The Exodus was the salvation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, bringing Israel into the promised land and making them distinct from all the other nations to be God’s holy people. The second national event is far less positive.
The Exile dominates much of the Old Testament literature, explicitly in many of the Prophets and in the Psalms as well as the historical accounts of the tragic fall of God’s people. The Exile forms the backdrop to the New Covenant inaugurated through Christ, a renewed relationship between God and his chosen people as stated by Jeremiah (31:31-34).
Now, the Exile occurred after generations of neglecting the law of God. After Solomon, many of the kings of both Israel and Judah are described as doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Usually the idol worship is chronicled, but this signifies the wider problem of disobedience. It must be remembered that for God’s people, their religion and their social lives were indistinguishable.
So as God’s people ceased to worship him, they lost their distintive character as a nation. They ceased to be the people God made them to be.
And so, after generations of unrepentant sin, God acts. Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon marches on Zion, the city of God, Jerusalem, and takes it. ‘He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land’ (2 Kings 24:14).
God was no longer there to shower favour and blessing upon his people, for they had turned from him! He was no longer their greatest treasure, so he was going to take away everything he had blessed them with, until they turned back to him, and knew he was their greatest gift of all.
I write this very brief history in order to introduce a concept in contemporary Theology. I study theology at a Bible College in the heart of England and so get the opportunity to hear the views of some of the top thinkers in the Christian church today. One popular notion is that the church today is in ‘Exile’. In order to explain the dwindling presence of Christianity in the public conscience and marginalisation of the Church, people smarter than me look in the Bible and borrow this language of Exile to describe the current experience of God’s people in the west.
The Church in Exile is the big idea.
I was at a day conference with Chris Wright, who wrote The Mission of God, one of the best books I’ve encountered for understanding God’s ongoing work in the world today. I asked him to what extent he believed the Church to be in ‘Exile’, and more importantly, why God would exile the Church.
His response was very interesting indeed. Firstly he explored how God had been pushed out of society, with little complaint from the Church. He pointed to the Liberal theology of the 19th century which marginalised belief in favour of reforming society and he equally blamed the failures of Evangelical theology for making faith into a private matter of personal preference. Ultimately, though, the greatest sin of the Church for which God has ordained Exile was labelled as idolatry.
Just like God’s people in the Scriptures, we forgot who God was. We went to science, and sociology and enlightenment progress and kneeled before it and praised it saying:
“From you will our salvation come! You are our hope and our peace!”
Paul puts it like this:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Yes, it is an ancient story. When God’s people reject the Saviour they know, when they push him aside, he will push them aside.
Has God pushed aside his people? In the west, I would argue yes. Globally, this is an insignificant blip since the Church is experiencing massive growth where his people will unashamedly live out their calling in every part of life.
Yet perhaps God sees it to be the right time for us to be drawn back to him in a new way. Without the Church’s centrality to society, without the ethical compromises and moral discrepancy, God may well be taking us by the hand down the Narrow Way we have forgotten.
The task, then, is to re-imagine the Church in the light of God’s sovereign action. Let us, therefore, read our Scriptures. Read the parts written in Exile. Read the parts about longing form God, read the parts about yearning for his blessing. Remember that God promised his people a renewed encounter with him at the end of their exile and remember that God promises us the same.
For generations we have forgotten our Lord, but now may the Church meet him again, though there are few of us and the times are hard.