Sermon for Sunday, Apr 6, 2008: Living in Exile

Living In Exile

1 Peter 1:17-23 NRSV

17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. 18You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.23You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Rabbits in Exile

In 1972, Richard Adams finally found a publisher for his children’s story about a warren of rabbits, called Watership Down. A dozen or so publishers had turned him down, declining the opportunity to publish what would become one of the most widely read children’s books of all time. But, Watership Down isn’t just a children’s book. It’s a story as timeless as those if Homer and Virgil. It’s an epic involving rabbits and here’s how it begins.

Fiver, born fifth in the litter, has a premonition that something terrible is going to happen to their little rabbit warren, Sandleford. So Fiver convinces his brother Hazel that all the rabbits must leave the warren to escape the coming danger. Hazel takes Fiver to see the Chief Rabbit to tell his story, only to no avail. Fiver and Hazel, and a ragtag band of rabbit brothers including Bigwig, Dandelion, Pipkin, Hawkbit, Blackberry, Buchkthorn, Speedwell, Acorn, and Silver finally head off, only to find out later that the entire warren has been destroyed by a housing developer’s bulldozer.

In their search for a new home, which they ultimately find at Watership Down, the band of rabbits faces repeated danger, and has to find the courage to keep going in the face of overwhelming obstacles. They cross streams, a bean field and even an open road. What keeps them going, keeps them looking forward, are stories. They tell themselves the stories they were told as baby rabbits. Stories of the great rabbit hero, El-ahrairah.

The story goes something like this — while Frith, the ancient god of the rabbits, was giving out gifts to each species — cunning to the fox, eyes that could see in the dark to the cat, and so on — El-ahrairah was eating, dancing, and generally having a great time. When Frith realized that El-ahrairah has missed out, he gives him strong hind legs for escaping and declares that all the world will be the enemy of rabbits. “But first they must catch you,” Frith tells El-ahrairah, “Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

And so the little band of rabbits tells each other that story and others, until they finally arrive at Watership Down. There’s more to the story after their arrival there, but the point was, the rabbits found hope in an ancient story they told over and over.

God’s People in Exile

Which brings us today to 1 Peter, and Peter’s reminder that these early Christians — whom he addresses as “exiles of the Dispersion” — that these first century Christians are in exile, too. Your translation may call them “strangers” or say they are dwelling here temporarily, but it all means the same thing. These early followers of Christ were exiles — strangers — in a land that was not their home. And, to make the point one last time, Peter closes this letter to these Christians by saying “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings.” By this time, Babylon the country was no more, and Peter is thought to have written this from Rome, the seat of the Roman empire, referred to in the book of Revelation as “Babylon the Great.”

We’ve been talking about that story on Wednesday nights as we are going “Through the Bible in 2008.” First, God’s people are in exile in Egypt, and Moses leads them to the land of promise. Hundreds of years later, after King David, after King Solomon, the nation again falls prey to foreign invaders. Jerusalem is destroyed in 586 BC, and the survivors are taken off to Babylon. There they spend the next 70 or so years, lamenting the fact that they are in exile, and longing for their homeland and the city of Jerusalem.

Eventually, under leaders like Nehemiah, Ezra, and others, God’s people return to Jerusalem, rebuild the city, and return to God. But, by the first century, exile is with them again. This time, rather than being in a strange land, the Jews have strangers in their own land. The Roman legions occupy the city of Jerusalem, garrisoned right next door to the Temple, which has been rebuilt by Herod the Great. An uneasy stand-off between the Jews and the Romans exists as many Jewish leaders cooperate with Rome, and with Pilate the governor from Rome. The nation longs for a “messiah” — a deliverer, a savior to save them from the “exile” of occupation. For a while they believe that Jesus will be that savior, but finally the mobs turn on him, the Romans put him to death, and that’s the end of that story. Jesus dead, and God’s people still in exile.

The Resurrection and the Exile

But, remember what season we’re in. We’re still in Easter season. Today is the “third Sunday of Easter” so we’re still thinking about the resurrection. That’s why Peter tells these folks that

Through him (Jesus) you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. 1 Peter 1:21

So, the resurrection is still front and center. God has raised Jesus from the dead and given him glory. Glory is the “weight of God” — the evidence of God’s presence sometimes manifested in brilliance, but always manifested in power. Jesus, resurrected and living, is the manifestation of the glory of God, the proof that God keeps his promises. But, the people are still in exile, and it gets even worse.

We are now several years beyond that first Easter morning. We are beyond the day of Pentecost when Peter preaches in the power of the Spirit, and three thousand believe that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. And, things go fairly well for a while. But then persecution begins again. Peter and John are imprisoned. And then finally, Stephen, a deacon, is arrested for preaching. Brought before the Council and the High Priest, Stephen preaches Jesus to them, and they are enraged. They drag Stephen out of the city and stone him to death. That unleashes a fury of persecution against the church, and in Acts 8, Luke tells us that Christians are scattered out of Jerusalem into other regions.

And, that’s where we pick up our story today. Peter is writing to exiles — God’s people who have again been torn from their homeland and dispersed into unknown territory. Exiles politically, religiously, and spiritually. Exiles not only in this life, but exiles of the kingdom of heaven. Colonies of heaven scattered from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Exiles Have Memory

But even in their exile, these followers of Jesus have a memory. They have a story, too. Their story is of Jesus. And they tell the stories of Jesus to each other. They tell the stories of Jesus healing the sick, for these stories remind them of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “By his stripes we are healed.”

They tell the stories of Jesus reimagining the Law when he said, “You have heard it said….but I say unto you.” For these stories remind them that God’s Law is good, not a book of rules too onerous to keep.

They tell the stories of Jesus as he spoke patiently to disciples, like Peter, who could not understand until after the resurrection.

They tell the stories to each other, and they encourage one another. At this point, there is no doctrine, just stories. There are no denominations. Just stories. There is no division, just stories of Jesus. And these stories give them hope, and encouragement, and faith, and power to live their lives as exiles, too.

Now in the Babylonian exile, many wanted just to go along with the Babylonians. The longer they were in Babylon, the more accustomed to the food, and the climate, and the customs they became. Some bought houses, some opened businesses, some found positions in the government. But, then it came time to go home, and they did not want to return. They had lost their identity, they had become their captors.

That’s always the danger of living in exile. The danger of forgetting and compromising, and then finally letting go completely to merge with the culture all around you.

But the exiles in Babylon, like Ezra and Nehemiah, who kept the stories alive, who remembered the stories and told them over and over, these exiles longed to return to Jerusalem and the presence of God.

Exiles Have Rituals

To help keep memory alive, and the stories fresh, the exile often maintained their own rituals. Daily prayer, as in the case of Daniel, kept them focused on God. Singing, which King David had popularized, kept their spirits up. But even in the exile one song writer lamented,

How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?

But for those who could, they did sing. And like the slave songs of our own nation’s history, some were songs of lament, like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” For truly nobody who wasn’t in that situation of exile and captivity could know. And so they sang songs of sorrow, songs of sadness, songs of hope, songs of freedom, songs of God their savior. They sang because if they did not sing, they would have to cry. And sometimes they sang through their tears.

Gregory Roberts tells the story of running a free medical clinic in one of India’s urban slums. Late one night, Roberts stumbled upon a nightspot on the outskirts of Bombay, from which he heard these angelic voice singing in Urdu. He says –

Three men began to sing in powerful, thrilling voices. It was a luscious sound — a layered gorgeous music of passionate intensity. The men weren’t just singing, they were crying and wailing in song. Real tears ran from their closed eyes and dripped onto their chests.

These were the blind singers of Nagpur, musicians who had been caught up in a tribal battle, captured, and tortured until none could see. And yet, they sang out of their sorrow. Roberts remembers a man leaning over and whispering to him during their singing, “The truth is found more often in music than it is in books of philosophy.”

Exiles Have Hope

But most of all, exiles have hope. Now, when we use the word “hope” most of the time it means “wish.” For example, we say, “I hope it won’t rain tomorrow so we can go to the ballgame.” What we are really saying is, “I wish it won’t rain.” We don’t have any control over the weather, nor do we have any promise that our wish will make it so.

But Biblical hope, the hope of God’s people in the Bible, is different from that. In the Bible, “hope” is simply “unrealized certainty.” We don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen. Peter says, “Your faith and hope are set on God.”

That’s not wishful thinking. Anything set on God isn’t wishing. Anything set on God isn’t wanting. Anything set on God is certain, guaranteed, assured — write it down, it will happen. And that’s why the return of Christ is called “The Blessed Hope.” We don’t know when, but we know it isn’t if. We don’t know how, but we know He’s coming back. the King will return to claim his kingdom. We have hope.

Now that hope isn’t based on our strength. There are forces in this world that can turn us inside out. The nation of Judah thought they could make alliances and stop the Babylonians. But, their army and two others couldn’t stop the Babylonians. No, our hope isn’t based on our strength.

Our hope isn’t based on our goodness. We’re not that good. Left to our own desires, we would eat the apple all over again because the story of this world is “I want to be god.” No, Peter said, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” Ancestors there meaning Adam and Eve. No, our hope isn’t based on our goodness. Our hope is based on Jesus, whom Peter said was “like a lamb without defect or blemish.” No, our hope is based on the word of God, and I don’t mean the Bible here. I mean, and Peter meant, that creative word of God that spoke the world into being and pronounced it ‘Good.’

That word is the good news that was announced to you.

So, we are exiles, living in a strange world, telling ourselves strange stories, and singing strange songs. All because we have hope.

And Here’s What Exiles Do

Yesterday, while driving to Blacksburg, I was listening to NPR. April 5 was the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. NPR played some excerpts of Dr. King’s sermons, for all his speeches were sermons at heart. King had gone to Memphis to aid striking sanitation workers. These men, mostly black, had full-time jobs. But, they were paid so little that they still qualified for welfare. They had no vacation days, no sick days, no benefits, and no rights. They could be fired on a whim, and when two workers were killed operating the unsafe trucks that the Memphis Sanitation Department owned, the workers went on strike.

Some criticized Dr. King for taking on the sanitation workers’ cause. It was a distraction from civil rights, they argued to him. But, in a sermon on why he was in Memphis, Dr. King told the story of the Good Samaritan. He said that the priest and Levite who passed the wounded man by asked, “What will happen to me, if I stop to help him?” Fearing perhaps that the robbers were still close by, or that the wounded man was faking to trick them into coming close enough to be robbed themselves.

But, Dr. King went on, “When the Samaritan came by, he asked not, ‘What will happen to me if I stop to help him’ but rather “What will happen to him, if I don’t stop and help?”

And that’s what exiles do. They live Kingdom values in a world that is alien and strange. Exiles remember the stories that shape their lives, they practice those rituals that keep the stories alive, and they live in the hope that God will keep his promises. They live, as Peter said, “in reverent fear during their time of exile.”

Note: Illustrations of Watership Down, and “Blind Singers of Nagpur” from Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture , by Michael Frost.