Is it possible that there is no going back to the good ole days? Perhaps God doesn’t intend the North American Church to return to a place where she dictates and shapes prevailing cultural norms. Perhaps our exile from “Jerusalem to Babylon” isn’t supposed to engender a hope to return to Jerusalem.
The fact of the church’s exile from a place of dominance in culture does not mean we should hope, yearn, or fight for a return to that place in the future. Why not? Well, there are probably many reasons, but I’m interested in how the new unsettled and uncomfortable place we find ourselves in will force a creativity that gives us new ways of being faithful to our mission as God’s people. This will help us develop faithfulness to God’s mission that we have often fallen short of in recent decades despite our best intentions.
Repentance through Mission
Scripture is pretty clear that the destruction of Jerusalem was judgment upon Israel for their lack of listening to the prophets and for their lack of repentance (Jer 25). But I’ve long believed that this forced move of Israel was more than just punishment. It also feels like one of those moves God orchestrates to send his people on mission.
God does that sort of thing. He used a large fish to swallow up a reluctant prophet, persuading Jonah to resume his mission to Nineveh. Couldn’t God use an invading army from the North to pull Israel to “be on mission” with God in Babylon? Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles begins with an intriguing pronoun that hints at who was doing the exiling.
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I (emphasis mine) carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
It seems it wasn’t just the Babylonian armies doing the exiling, but God was using them as his instruments for doing the relocating. He was relocating his people to a strange new land, filled with people they didn’t like, to serve as slaves. If God could use a fish to belch his prophet in the direction of his mission, why not use Nebuchadnezzar’s armies?
A New Perspective
One way to look at the exile would be to see it as God’s judgment on his recalcitrant people. To apply this view on the church’s experience today might lead one to see the marginalization of the church as a temporary, and perhaps deserved, punishment that can be fixed with some repentance. Presumably, when we have repented, God will return us to Jerusalem and all will be restored, good, and right.
But we might want to pause as ask, “Should we want to return to our old and comfortable ways?”
If however we see the Babylonian exile as part “judgment,” and part “launching reluctant missionaries,” then a whole new world of meaning can be drawn from this instructive period in the life of Israel. It is this latter perspective that we here at Flourish San Diego believe serves as a great metaphor for how the church should see its task in the world today.
At the center of our approach toward the way the church should see itself on the margins of society today is that of shalomifying our city. This is exactly what Jeremiah told the Babylonian exiles. The word of the Lord was not, “grab your bags, we are headed back to Jerusalem.” The word of the Lord was to “build houses, settle down; plant gardens… Marry and have sons and daughters… seek the shalom of the city… for if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:5-7). It was a call to stick around, conduct life, and seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon. If they do well, you’ll do well.
In Part Two, I’ll show you how we diagram the shift in thinking that must occur when we shift from being “At Home in Jerusalem” with being in “Babylon in Exile.”
Stay tuned for “Exile Changes Everything, Part Two,” which we will share next week.