A Church in Exile

The Hebrew story is a story of exile.

In Genesis 12, God called Abram to leave from his nation and travel to an unknown land. Abram willingly becomes a nomad, a traveler without a home. This is how the Hebrew nation starts – a displaced man, separated from his family and away from home.

And this position of exile and displacement is where the nation of Israel spends the majority of her history.

Joseph and his family are displaced by a famine and travel to Egypt, where they are eventually enslaved. They are kept in slavery for hundreds of years until God delivers them. The nation of Israel is then birthed as they emerge through the waters of the Red Sea, a nation of nomadic former slaves.  They wandered through the wilderness for decades, a people group without a home. It’s in that state of displacement that God issued the Torah, claiming them as his people and giving them a way to live.

Even when they come into their land, the nation of Israel isn’t very strong. They’re constantly attacked and occupied by other people groups. When the nation is eventually united under a king, it only takes 120 years to split into two separate kingdoms, which are soon overtaken by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Most of the prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible is written to Israel in this extended exile and captivity. God sends far more prophets to a nation in captivity than he does to an established nation.

And it’s not just the nation of Israel that experiences God in exile. Displacement also seems to be where God reveals himself to individuals. God appeared to Abraham and called him into to exile. God appeared Moses at the burning bush when Moses had fled from Egypt as a murderer. God appeared again to Moses at Mt. Horeb while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. God appeared to Elijah when Elijah had fled from Jezebel and her threats to murder him.

This theme of exile and captivity also carries into the New Testament. Jesus’ ministry took place in Roman-occupied Judea, where the Israelites were the oppressed people. Many of the epistles were written to churches experiencing persecution and displacement. The author of 1st Peter reminds his audience that they are foreigners and aliens in the land they’re living in. The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature designed to encourage a Church experiencing the pangs of displacement and oppression.

I think it would be fair to suggest that God has an affinity for displaced people. Some of the biggest moves that God has made throughout human history has come in a time period of exile and displacement.

And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I don’t think that the history of Judeo-Christianity has centered around exile and captivity by a string of unfortunate coincidences.

I think God might just prefer to work with displaced people.

I mean, that’s not a new idea. Any reading of the Gospel shows that Jesus spends more time with the disparaged and marginalized than he does with the established and powerful. Many churches today even emphasize the importance of reaching out to the marginalized and displaced as part of what it means to be a Christian.

But is reaching out to the displaced enough? Maybe the biblical theme of exile teaches us is that we must go beyond helping the exiles and displaced people, and join in their plight – becoming the outcast, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Reading through the Bible, it doesn’t seem like God spends a lot of time speaking to those who are established and in-control. And on the rare occasion that he does speak directly to someone in power, it often requires an exile like Daniel or Joseph to interpret it. Like maybe the more at-home we become in our surroundings, the less God is able to get through to us.

Maybe the closer we get to comfort, the farther we get from the voice of God.

Maybe God never intended us to feel “at home”.

Maybe God’s call for Abram to leave everything he knows and to enter into a state of displacement is the same call he offers to us today.

Now it’s really easy for us to make the jump from this to our eternal destiny. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through” or whatever. That one day we’ll all get to heaven and be at home. That’s all fine. I don’t want to dismiss that reunion with God, but I don’t want us to jump there too quickly either.

Before we jump immediately into eternity, let’s slow down and question what it means for us now.

First, I think it means that the Church should have the same affinity for the exile and foreigner that God does, and that Christians ought to embrace the immigrant and the refugee.

You can’t hate immigrants or refugees and love the Christ who calls his people to be exiles, foreigners, and strangers in a strange land. You can’t reject those who are different or strange and accept the Christ who was killed for his failure to uphold the status quo. You can’t ignore the homeless and follow the Christ who had no place to lay his head.

In order to serve a God who loves the foreigner, exile, and marginalized, we also have to love the foreigner, exile, and marginalized. Further than that, the Church should become the foreigner, the exile, and the marginalized.

We should be a group of people that lives differently from the world around us, and who trusts in our God to sustain us while we do. We should be a people who surrenders everything we know and love in order to chase after God by loving our neighbor. Not from a position of comfort and ease, but from a position of solidarity and camaraderie – where we enter into the suffering of our neighbors, and help them bear its weight.

You can’t read the Bible without being confronted by the recurring theme of exile and displacement. And you shouldn’t be able to look at the Church without seeing those same themes carried out in the lives of its members.

We ought to be a Church in exile. We ought to be a Church that is displaced and marginalized. We can long for the day where our exile will be ended and we will be called to live in the peaceful presence of our King, but until we get there, we have to learn to live out of exile. Because that’s where God is, that’s where God speaks to us, and that’s where God calls us to be ministers.

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