Hope for the exiles
14th May 2020
Here is the reading and the reflection from today’s Communion. I mention in it a lovely video of someone telling the story of the exile for children and all ages, which you can see here. There is also a very helpful reflection on ‘Practices of resistance’ which we can use in this time, which you can read here. It ends with a mention of the hope Jeremiah was called to live out. Enjoy!
These are some words from the letter the prophet Jeremiah sent to the Israelites who had been captured and taken into exile in Babylon…
This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’
One of the things we’ve been noticing is that in this strange time when some things are changing so slowly, how we feel can change a lot. Our moods may fluctuate between stoicism and misery, between appreciation of some of the unexpected gifts and dismay when we face the challenging reality once again.
This week I read something about this being a time of exile, and it struck a chord with me. We’re not necessarily in physical exile – most of us are at home. But we may well be in exile from the lives we know. Most of us are still not going into work, or meeting up with friends or family. Our university campuses are like ghost towns, and our chaplaincy spaces – the places where we love to welcome students and staff and create communities – are silent and empty. Our churches are still closed – and we don’t know when we will be able to gather again and what it will be like. When will we be able to sing together again?
I was reminded of a psalm, psalm 137. It was written at the time when many of the Israelites had been captured and taken off into exile in Babylon, a long way from Jerusalem and all that they knew. Their captors asked them to sing one of their songs to them, but they couldn’t – ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’
The Jewish exiles thought that they had lost everything – they could no longer go to the temple, they could no longer meet together for their celebrations and services, they were kept away from the land they loved. But out of that time of loss and despair came great creativity. It’s thought that many of the Hebrew Scriptures were first written down during this time, because the Jewish people wanted to remember their stories, and their way of life, and what was at the heart of their faith – what it meant to be God’s people
That’s something that we may have been doing to. What does it mean to be the church if we can’t go to church. In the church Sarah and I belong to we’ve been thinking about that for a little longer, since our church was closed for reordering after Christmas – and maybe we are discovering a new sense of what it means to be the church together.
Maybe that’s true in some ways for us as a Chaplaincy too. We are finding new ways to pray for each other and support each other. As a team we are doing more together – not separated by our different campuses, but part of one sequence of prayer and reflection throughout the week. We are learning to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
Maybe some of us as individuals have had time to think about who we are and what is really important to us as well, in a way that may remain important to us.
But it isn’t easy. We don’t want to stay in this place of exile. We long for a way back to what is familiar – and the very cautious announcements about easing the lockdown make us impatient and unsettled.
Part of the gift of the time in exile for the Israelites was hearing new voices of hope. The great promises of the prophet Isaiah that God would lead his people back through the desert – and the letter which Jeremiah wrote to the exiles, which we read from today. Those words have often been shared as a sign of encouragement. When Sarah spent a difficult year in Italy after university she was sent them by her dear friend Maggie. ‘I know the plans I have for you’ says the Lord,’ plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
They may be words that you want to spend time with. I was reminded this week that whenever we start thinking anxiously about the future, it helps to remember that God is already there in that future. Whatever will come, he will be there – and his desire is for our flourishing, for our blessing, for our growing into abundant life. These words invite us to find within ourselves a sense of that ultimate trustworthiness of God, supporting us in our uncertainty, and helping us to face the future with trust and hope.
And maybe we can learn something else from the exiles. Jeremiah’s letter advised them not just to think about the future, but to live in the present. Even in exile they were to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and harvest their fruit, marry and have children, and pray for the welfare of the city where they now lived.
Even apart from so much that they loved, they could know the goodness and blessing of God. That was a lesson that stayed with them. There’s a lovely YouTube video which I’ll share with you, of someone telling the story of the exile for all ages, using sand, and little wooden figures. We see the people taken away from their home. We see a chain thrown across the sand to symbolise their separation. And then, after 70 years, there is a new ruler and they are allowed to go back home. And most do – with great rejoicing.
But some stay behind, in Babylon, because they have discovered that the God of their ancestors, the God of the promised land and the temple and their home in Israel, can be God with them wherever they are. And now they have the scriptures with the stories and the record of their people’s laws and beliefs to take with them wherever they are. So Judaism became a religion with followers scattered around the whole ancient world, and now all around the globe.
I’m sure that there are things we have learnt and ways of doing things that will go on being important when things have moved on. And underneath all of this, I think that maybe the invitation for us at the moment is to discover more deeply the God who is with us wherever we are, and whatever is happening – even when we feel like we are in exile.
Mother Julian reminds us that God is always our ‘homeliest home’. And this is not just one way. She says about Jesus that in us is his home of homes. We will always be in one sense travellers through this world – strangers and exiles – because we sense another home calling deep within us. But even here God calls us to make our home in him, as he makes his home in us.
As we come to pray, you may like to be quiet for a moment, and know that you are at home in him, and he is at home in you…
- We pray for those who feel that they are in exile at the moment, separated from their old life, from family and friends, from all that feels familiar and safe… Lord, may they find a home in your love.
- We pray for those who are exiles from their country, refugees of war, fleeing poverty, and all trapped by the lockdown, including some of our international students… Lord, may they find a home in your love.
- We pray for ourselves. Lord, you know how things are with us at the moment… Help us to believe that you have really made your home in us, and may we find our lasting home in your love.