It’s fashionable in the church to talk about Christians as a people in exile–people who find themselves to be alienated strangers in a foreign land.
The concept of a new exile has given Old Testament scholars authority and fresh voice in religious discussion. If Christians are in exile like the Jews were in exile, then there must be something we need to learn about exile in the Hebrew scriptures.
Exile has given fearful Christians, Christians who seem afraid of the real world, a way of dealing with the fact that mainline Christianity seems to have lost its appeal to many. Exile justifies our sense of disenfranchisement, our move from center stage to the sidelines. If we are an oppressed people living as aliens in a foreign land (i.e., Christians living in an essentially hostile world) it comforts us to know that this is a religious experience. It helps us believe we are right (as usual) and the world is wrong. It protects us from asking awkward questions about why we are not center stage, why our churches are not packed to the doors. We can adopt the stance of victims in the struggle for survival.
But there is a basic problem with this metaphor, something wrong with this picture—we have not been cast out from the country of our birth by our government or some invading force. We have not been expelled from our native homes, deprived of possessions and freedom. I’m a green card carrier, a resident alien, and I know first- hand the perpetual sense of not being a perfect fit, but I am here by choice, not by force. Feeling like a stranger does not make me a person in exile. I just wasn’t born here and it feels odd sometimes.
I remember when an atheist friend of ours immigrated to the United States in the mid-80s, how offended she was by the American assumption that she probably belonged to some church or other. At the time I felt very smug. I had only recently emigrated myself. A life-long Anglican in a country where only 10 percent of people attend church, I had often felt myself to be odd. There was part of me that was very happy to see the tables turned.
And it was during those same seventies and eighties that the church experienced loss of vision and appeal. The church was completing its long history of rejecting things that did not begin in the church. The struggles with the Galileos and Darwins of this world continue because the church, Christians, have a hard time when God pops up in places other than the church. The church has often made a practice of refusing the gifts of creative insight and inspired criticism from outsiders. We choose to ignore God’s pretty solid track record of choosing outsiders as God’s chosen. We had better unstop our ears and open our hearts.
The metaphor of Christians as an exilic people has become popular because we don’t feel as secure as we used to. We’re worried we’re not relevant to the world any more. Perhaps, we think, we are just part of the roller coaster of history. Maybe we are merely fading away like so many other movements and religions.
And that is the sin upon which the prophet pounce. The sin of believing we are just a transient people caught up in the vagaries of history. The sin of believing that nothing can really be done to change the way things are. The sin of sitting on our backsides weeping over the fact we feel ignored. “No!” proclaims Isaiah, “See the Lord comes with might, and his arm rules for him …. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
No, the church is not an exilic people. We are not, as some scholars would have us be, holed up in some refugee camp bearing the suffering of the world defending ourselves against the onslaught of the wicked enemy.
It’s true, we like to rush into our respective castles and pull up the drawbridge on the world. It’s a sad case of “If we can’t have it our way we’re not going to try yours.” We have claimed exiled status not so much because we have been cast out, but because we are in danger of being passed by. We may feel out of context but it is a role we choose at our peril. We would better ask whether we feel out of things because we haven’t loved enough, or served enough, or thrown ourselves into life itself enough. The temptation for is to become inward looking and self-serving. To become a people focused on spirituality for its own sake and not love for its own sake. A people afraid to look up and love the world. A people who refuse to live as though love wins in the end.
Listen to the gospel of the day. People went flocking out to see John the Baptist. Not because they had a bad case of the miseries about their sins, but because John was proclaiming the beginning of something new. They were participating, they were repenting, they crowded the highway to the river to do battle with the forces of life in the wilderness. They were poised to take on the world, not to retreat from it.
John’s cry was the Advent summons. The kingdom is at hand. Good news. God is starting something new.
People were being baptized because they wanted to be part of whatever was going to happen. They could not possibly have known what it was to which they were about to give witness. But their hearts were ready. They were ready to throw in their lot and go wherever the spirit chose. Is your heart ready? Will you go wherever you are called?
Readiness and willingness are the key. For only the loving and the loyal, the tender and the faithful could see what was going on. Only they could see God at work in God’s world. The others—the unloving, the untrusting—simply couldn’t see the kingdom when it was right under their noses. They never “saw” Jesus at all. That is why they were always asking for signs.
Bishop Riah of Jerusalem tells the story of a group of Palestinians discussing their future. “Imagine,” said one of them, “our cause is a train. What job would you like to have on it?” “I would like to be the driver,” said one man confidently. “I would like to be a signalman and get things started,” said another. “I would be the guard and make sure everyone was comfortable and safe,” said another. Another said, “I would work in the restaurant car and provide food for the journey.” One man sat quietly in the corner and said nothing. “Haven’t you got anything to offer the cause?” said the first man. “What would you like to be?” “I shall be the coal,” he replied.
We are not in exile. We are coal. So this Advent, stay out on the street. Take a look at the world around you. Be the fuel in God’s fire. Participate with joy.