"How deserted lies the city once so full of people! " - Lamentations 1:1
To me, quarantine has felt very alienating, strange, boring, isolating, monotonous… Has it felt that way to you? I keep thinking about the fact that I both do and do not have the disease: as a young person, I have to act as if I could spread the virus at any time, and I have to act like I could contract it at any time. Thus, I feel like a leper when I go to the store. I feel like I should have to shout, “Unclean!” And everyone else should do that, too.
Lepers were banished from society as pariahs, but what if the whole society itself got banished? That is the experience of exile. Our spiritual ancestors’ experiences in exile define and shape the entire Bible, and those experiences inform our own spiritual existence. God banishes, exiles, Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. He banishes, exiles, Cain from his sight after the murder of Abel. He keeps Moses from entering the Promised Land. He sends Israel and Judah into exile in Babylon. The New Testament writers pick up on this profound, ancient theme. We Christians are still exiles, but our exile is spiritual. We are foreigners and strangers, wanderers, outcasts who are told that this world is a temporary place for us. We are told to store our treasures in heaven, not here. Early Christians felt very deeply that this world wasn’t built for them. This world didn’t want them, and it wanted to destroy them.
If you feel like the world wants to destroy you right now, then let me welcome you to exile! We’re all here, too. We have been banished from one another, and we can’t go where we used to go. Our own land is forbidden to us, and we don’t know what we’ll find when we “go back”. Will things look the way they used to look? How will our lives change? With our eyes open, we can see that God’s people have always stood on the outside looking in, yet he has given us the community of faith that spans all generations and places. We will be spiritual exiles until God restores our land back to what it used to be when he made it, before we were banished from the Garden.
Ezekiel’s advice to the exiles was to settle down, build homes, start families. Pray and work for the peace of Babylon so that the Babylonians will look at us and say, “You and your God are strange, but you are good.” The book of Daniel is an example of a person who represents God even while being far from the Promised Land and the Temple. Daniel takes a Babylonian job and even a Babylonian name, but he never compromises his allegiance to the Lord. The exiles read the Psalms to encourage themselves and to cry out to God. We can read the Prophets, too, as they give us God’s perspective on justice and the hope of redemption. These books tell us about Jesus, who was himself an exile. He was a hick from the backcountry, rolling into the big city with a band of misfits and a big idea. The Gospels tell us that he didn’t have a place to lay his head, and he counted as his only family members those who clung to God despite all of the pain and destruction in their lives. Oh yes, these exiles were nearest to the Kingdom of God when they stayed close to Jesus.
Even in this exile, God gathers us together as citizens of our true home, the Kingdom of God. Although we have been scattered and isolated for fear of contracting and spreading this virus, God brings us together around his throne in worship. Paul was convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love. If that’s true, then nothing can separate us from one another. The world knows us by our love for one another. That love comes from the Father and overflows in our lives as the fruits of the Spirit, a thankful and grateful heart, a wise attitude and an ability to understand and even to feel the suffering of others. During these times, the world is hungry for wisdom, patience and compassion. God has chosen you and me to administer those gifts. He has given them to us already – can you feel them?
"God finds ways to bring back the banished." - 2 Samuel 14:14