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Exile

March 25th, 2007 by isaac · 2 Comments

Title: Exile
Date: 3/25/2007
Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8.

Sometimes I take a look at the passages from the Bible that I am to preach on, and I think to myself, “Preaching is only going to mess up these texts.” And that’s how I felt this week, and today, as I get up here and attempt to say something about them. The trouble with our passages from Isaiah, the Psalms, and, maybe most strikingly, John, is that they are so beautiful—they speak to us with profound images that tug at our depths—and anything I say about them can only distract us from their beauty.

Let me read again part of our passage from Isaiah: Thus says the Lord, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”

Isaiah makes the desert speak of God’s goodness: fresh flowing water, animals, a wasteland come alive. All of it tells of something unspeakably new approaching on the horizon—what the prophet calls “a new thing”; it’s about to spring forth. There’s building anticipation—like the last days of winter, and we feel the edge of spring approaching, when life breaks out of the earth in an array of colors. The Lord says: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

In this passage, the Lord asks an important question: “Do you not perceive it?” Don’t you see the new thing? It’s a question that forces us to look at the familiar and try to see if there’s something else, something that we’ve missed—it’s a question that calls us to patient.

It’s like those magic eye pictures that were all the rave when I was in Junior High or High School. They were all over the mall. The picture looked like a mess of colors and small objects repeated in a pattern. And people would stand around for a few minutes staring at the thing, then finally, their patience paid off, and they saw the picture hidden in all the random mess.

Just so there isn’t any confusion: Isaiah 43 isn’t addressed to a bunch of people gathered around a magic eye picture in the middle of a mall. Their situation is a bit more troubling. They suffer from forced relocation en masse. They were violently stripped from their homes, and now the Israel of Isaiah 43 lives in Babylonian captivity—exiled, under foreign dominion.

And in the middle of this dismal situation, Isaiah proclaims a distant hope. It’s a hope grounded in the God of Israel who has been faithful in the past. This is the God of the exodus; the God who set the people free from Egyptian captivity.

Isaiah reminds the people of this past in the first line of our passage: “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” This is the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea on dry land, while the Egyptian army follows and is drown in the Sea.

Isaiah’s message is clear: God liberated Israel from Egypt, and God will set the people free from Babylonian captivity. The God of Israel is a God who makes a way when there appears to be no way out. This is the God of the impossible; a God who makes things grow in the desert.

Or, as the Psalmist says, this is a God who is like “the streams in the Negeb” (126:4). The Negeb is a desert area in Southern Israel. It’s a land without water. But after a winter rain storm, the dry river beds (called wadis), become gushing streams and life flowers in the land. And this is what Isaiah calls captive Israel to see: The Lord says: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” It’s not easy to see this new thing approaching because the surface of things look lifeless, hopeless, dusty. But the God of Israel makes streams in the Negeb; this is a God who makes a way when everything is impossible.

It’s a call to anticipate another world, a transformed world, while we live in exile. I think I need to say something about exile. For the Israel of Isaiah 43, they don’t have to be convinced that they live in exile. They are confronted with their exile every day, as they live under Babylon’s heel. They feel their exile when they see the idols of these foreigners all around them. They feel their exile when they can’t work the land of their ancestors. They feel the exile when they can no longer visit the graves and altars of their mothers and fathers. They feel the exile when they can no longer return to Mount Zion, the holy temple of Jerusalem and worship.

Since their exile smacks them on the face everyday, Isaiah has to remind them that the God of their ancestors is a God who shines brightest when there is absolutely no reason to hope—when they face a Red Sea, when they wander in the wilderness. This is exactly the place where God makes something insane happen—God is a God of the impossible.

But here’s the problem, at least for me. My problem is the exact opposite of Israel in exile. I don’t need to be convinced that there is reason to hope—life is too good for that, especially in this North Carolina Spring. I need to be convinced that we are in exile, that this is not our home. It’s hard to see it—especially when I get to drive home in my nice car and spend some time with my wife and my cat, and maybe enjoy a glass of wine. How is this life in exile? I need some convincing.

And that’s why the poor and oppressed, here and everywhere, are so important for those of us who are among the wealthiest in the world, and who call Christ our Lord. If we turn our face away from the poor, we turn away from the reality of our sin. “The oppressed, the homeless, the naked, the hungry, all those who stand in need of our help, unmask our world for what it is: a world structured by sin” (McCabe, God Matters, p. 113). The poor and oppressed confront us with our sin; they expose our sinfully ordered world, a world ordered by violence, by economic systems that enslave.

This is our world; and may we never grow completely comfortable in it; may we always long for a better one—as Paul says in our passage from Philippians, “straining forward to what lies ahead, the call of heaven from God in Jesus Christ.”

May we remember the oppressed and suffering, for they show us, despite present appearances, how humanity lives in exile, under the foreign rule of the powers of sin… sin, sadly, in which we participate—if we dare to look just under the surface of things, just beneath the world our foreign captors what us to see—a world of comforts without costs, of pleasures without pain.

(pause)

If you paid attention to the passages we read earlier in the service, and what Scriptures I’ve talked about in my sermon, you’ll notice that there’s one I haven’t mentioned. In fact, I’ve stayed far away from it. It’s the story in the 12th chapter of John of Mary, Lazarus’ sister, anointing the feet of Jesus in preparation for his burial. It’s a beautiful passage, displaying before us an extravagant gesture of love as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, which will be his end.

There are many important things to be said from this passage. One thing, not widely acknowledged, is that in some sense, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in chapter 13 because Mary washes his in chapter 12. John links the two acts together. Jesus learns from Mary’s act of devotion, and he repeats it to his disciples. But that’s another sermon—maybe for Maundy Thursday.

But the part of the story that scares me, the part that I want to stay away from, is that all this stuff I said about how our faith calls us to remember to poor, to show concern for the poor—that stuff I said makes me sound like Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, the one who handed over our Lord to his killers. And that’s a reason for me to worry.

Let me set the stage. Just before this scene in the home of Lazarus, Jesus raises Lazarus from the tomb. And it says in John 11:53, “from that day on, the Sanhedrin plotted to take his life.” So, we enter this scene in chapter 12 with overwhelming joy in response to Jesus’ profound miracle, while the dark cloud of Jesus’ crucifixion begins to settle on the story.

And as Mary pours costly ointment on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair in possibly a moment of joyous thanksgiving for the return of her brother Lazarus, Jesus receives her gift as preparation for his burial—in a matter of days, those same feet will be nailed to a Roman cross.

But Judas does not share the same mind of Mary, or Jesus. He doesn’t understand Mary’s extravagant gratitude; nor does he understand Jesus’ approaching death. He is concerned about something else: the poor—Judas says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (v5). Isn’t it terrible that I can see myself asking that same question? 300 denarii is about what a everyday worker would make in a year. That’s a lot of money. We could use that for some small business loans for all the hard-working people out there who have the creativity, but no capital. Or a multitude of other good things, really good things, stuff that cares for the body and soul.

But for some reason, Jesus doesn’t let Judas call into question Mary’s expensive celebration of gratitude. Instead Jesus replies with a surprising and cutting statement that still grates against all my Christian sensibilities: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (v8). What are we supposed to do with that?

I mean that as an honest question, and open question, one that you can shed some light on. But I also want to offer what may be a way forward, even if it’s sketchy.

Christ is present in our world, but it’s an ambiguous presence. That’s what it means for us to come together as the body of Christ, while still waiting for Christ to return at the culmination of history—then Christ will be unambiguously present, we will not longer see as through darkened glass.

But for now, we are left with an ambiguous call. Like Jesus said, we will always have the poor among us, and we must never forsake them—they are the blessed ones who, like Jesus, reveal to us our sinful and selfish lives. At the same time, we are called to the extravagant thankfulness of Mary—activities that don’t translate into anything effective, it doesn’t really do anything. It’s Judas who wants to exploit Mary’s generosity for the poor. It’s Mary who offers a gift from the depths of her thankfulness. (see Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, p. 462).

And in our world, when time is money, we come together and waste our time with worship. We could be doing many other things—many important things, like serving the poor, working so we can make a little more money to give away, and a host of other things. But we are like Mary: we come and offer our praise and thanks for the good things God has given us, and wait on the Lord, we wait at his feet.

And in a world where production is the only value system upon which our lives are weighed, what we do here comes across as absurd, a complete waste, a distraction from the really important things.

And maybe this wastefulness is of the utmost importance, because it the only chance we get during our week to tell one another that we are in exile, despite the way our lives feel. We come and turn ourselves toward heaven, like Paul says, and come to see that this world is not yet God’s redeemed world.

And so as we wait in exile, we open ourselves to God, and God pours out the Holy Spirit in this wilderness and gives us a taste of the glorious kingdom to come. It’s like this but more, much more. It’s a community that loves—that pours out our lives for one another as Mary did for Jesus, and Jesus will do for his followers.

And it’s a community that then opens itself to those who need the love of God—those who live in this dry and weary land, who know the pains of exile. There is a drought of love, of selfless love, love that sacrifices without return, unproductive love, in this world. And that’s why we are here. Our lives bear witness that God has not yet abandoned humanity in this world of sin and death and violence and pain.

As the Lord says in Isaiah 43, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”

Tags: sermons

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Henry // Jun 13, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Powerfull writing. Help us into the passion of the text. I’m exploring Psalm 126 as a paradigm for mission in difficult places, “sowing in tears” “reaping in Songs of joy” I’m a missionary in Niger which is in the desert and has recurring famine.

  • 2 isaac // Jun 24, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Henry, thank you for reading my sermon. It sounds like you know a lot more about what the Psalmist means by “sowing in tears” and “reaping in joy.” I’m sure that’s the travail of a missionary. Many blessings to you and your work.

    peace of Christ,
    isaac