When Exile Doesn’t End

“Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”
says your God
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her
that warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
for she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”

A voice of one crying out:
“Prepare, in the dessert, the road of the LORD;
make straight a highway for our God.
Every valley will be raised.
every mountain and hill will be made low;
the rough will become smooth and the rugged become plain.
And the LORD’s Glory will be revealed,
and all will see it together
for the mouth of the LORD has declared it.”

Isaiah 40:1-5

man wearing face mask in a dark room
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The season leading up to Easter is known, in liturgical traditions, as Lent. During these forty days Christians fast from something. Usually you hear people saying they’ll give up one item or habit, such as chocolate, or sleeping in rather than an outright fast, but still a noticeable shift. It’s meant to recall other significant periods of forty. Forty days of fasting that Jesus experienced between his baptism and temptation, forty days of rain upon Noah’s ark, forty years of wandering and waiting in the untamed lands between Egypt and Canaan. It is also meant to recall the period of exile in Babylon. Here, it was not forty, but seventy years of exile. Exile to pay back the land its Sabbath that had been neglected and forgotten.

When Easter ends, the fasting should stop, there is great celebration. In more liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholic or Anglican churches) they might not use the word “hallelujah” from Ash Wednesday until Easter. So when it reappears in the church, it’s a big deal. Celebration, rejoicing. Christ has come back from the dead, laying death down in its grave! The time for fasting is over! It’s time for celebration and feasting, a fore-echo of the wedding supper of the lamb.

This year, many hundreds of millions, if not billions, experienced a taste of some form of fasting or exile, if not necessarily voluntarily, due to the now ubiquitous term “social distancing.” Still, it may have been made more bearable for some as it seemed appropriate for Christians to be more secluded, to spend time struggling, and to have more isolation during the period of Lent, even while we wish and pray the circumstances were more voluntary and less dire. But now, Easter has come. Shouldn’t this fasting and exile be over? Shouldn’t we be coming out of homes, seeing and touching, interacting, and playing and dancing? Shouldn’t the exile of businesses be over and done? Shouldn’t I be able to go to a restaurant, or to a movie theater, or to a coffee shop, or library, or classroom? Why isn’t the exile over?

The bible has a lot to say about exile. During graduation season, which this year will be more than a little different, many seniors receive cards quoting the prophet Jeremiah “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans for bright hope and a future.” The greater context for this passage is, of course, that this message of hope and good will is delivered on the eve of exile. None that could hear and understand it would return back to that land. They would die in exile. Many of their children would be born, grow old, and die in exile. Knowing this, Jeremiah goes out and buys a parcel of land. “I’ll be back for this” he declares; but Jeremiah is never seen again once exile comes.

In the New Testament, after the resurrection, the early Church waited for the soon return of Jesus. They heard his words that “I go to prepare a place for you. If I go, I will come back” and waited…and waited…and waited. The delay in Christ’s return, it seems, caused something of a crisis. This is likely behind Paul’s admonishment to the Thessalonians to continue working as they wait for the return. It may even be a large part of the reason John wrote his letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The people were stuck between Easter and the end of exile (and exile under Roman Emperors renown for their persecution like Nero and later Diocletian, no less). The Resurrection had come, Jesus had ascended, but still they waited. This period, where the tension between the already present and still coming Kingdom of God is felt strongest, continues on today. As citizens of another country, we Christians live in exile, one that has not yet ended. The message for those in exile is one of hope.

The book of Isaiah spends roughly 39 chapters hammering at the people to turn from their sin to avoid exile. In chapter 40, Isaiah changes his tone and audience. The prophet begins to speak not to those who lived prior to exile, but to those who have come through the other side. His opening words are “comfort.”

Opening words are often important, especially in ancient literature. The Iliad begins with “Rage, rage of Achilles” signifying a major theme that would be that hero’s undoing. At this critical shift, the prophet’s words to the people are “Comfort.”

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that Isaiah wrote this prior to the end of exile (prior, even, to the beginning of exile). All throughout the years of laboring and waiting and wondering when or if it would ever end, the people of God could look to God’s words of “Comfort” to “my people.”

And so, as this exile feels a bit more acute with the onset of isolation, quarantine, social distancing, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, financial strain, and so much death and mourning all due to a virus most of us scarcely understand, we can still look to these words: “Comfort, Comfort.” God, though not seen as expressly, closely and intimately as before, is still active. He is still working. God is preparing a straight, level, even and therefore swift path in the dessert. All will see it the Glory of God because God Himself has declared it will be so. And on that glorious day, God will bring comfort.

“In this world you will have trouble” Jesus assured his disciples as his death drew near, “but take heart, I have overcome the world.” So in your own exile, take heart, and hear the words of comfort. This is not the end. This is the tension and sorry that comes with anticipation!

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2019 Lent Day 18: Mark 6:45-56

Mark 6:45-56

Take Courage

Imagine being a disciple on that boat. In the midst of the storm, unable to make any progress. And here comes Jesus. Just strolling along.

It. was. terrifying.

The part that was terrifying though, wasn’t the storm. It was Jesus coming in the midst of the storm. Like the Demoniac who first asked not to be helped before Jesus had compassion and did so anyway, so the disciples see the person of their rescue and are terrified.

“Take courage” declares Jesus. He’s coming. Terror and all.

old-boat-in-storm

 

2019 Lent Day 17: Mark 6:30-44

Mark 6:30-44

Give them something to Eat

Again there is a reference to this sort of “Markan Secret,” which we’ve discussed before. It’s a bit indirect, but the idea is that Jesus and the disciples, having come back together following the death of John the Baptist after they had been sent out, attempt to go off together to have a remote meeting.

Wherever they go, though, the people follow. Rather than send them away, though, Jesus tells his disciples to give them food. The story Jesus is telling is too good for the people to run away, and Jesus is not the sort of person to send them off to fend for themselves. So he asks for the disciples to feed them.

Clearly they were not prepared, but the words hang in the air “Give them something to eat.” Jesus knows the disciples cannot provide such a thing, but that’s part of the point. At the risk of overspiritualizing what I truly believe was a physical miracle, let’s look at today’s churches.

How many pastors are the central figure in their church? How many go to hear this particular pastor or speaker or whomever?

“How do you like that church?” someone asks.
“Oh the pastor is great” we reply. Or “I just didn’t like the sermon today.” or “I really loved the music.”
This is not to say that every pastor about whom this is said is seeking to build some sort of cult of personality. It is to say, though, that humans will naturally create one, and we must, all of us, be on guard.

The disciples have just returned from spreading the Kingdom message. Jesus wants to guard them against the accolades they may have received from other people as a result of their short term mission. “You give them something to eat” Jesus earnestly requests.

Yet is Jesus who takes the meager meal and allows the people to be satisfied. It is Christ who satisfies, not us. Let us, as worshippers, leaders, teachers and musicians remember that. Nothing else will satisfy, nor should we, apart from Christ, seek to provide such satisfaction.

sliced bread on white surface
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2019 Lent Day 16: Mark 6:14-29

Mark 6:14-29

Who said it was easy?

If anyone in the gospels, other than Jesus, can be said to have been a model of obedience and Kingdom Building, it is John the Baptist. There may be others (Mary comes to mind), but definitely John the Baptist is in that group.

Yet what is his fate? Even in prison he continues his prophetic message. A preaching professor once shared with me the definition for prophetic preaching that I have since taken to heart: “Prophecy comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” That’s good news for the afflicted, but is a bad omen for those who are oppressing the soon to be rescued.

Unlike Joseph, though, who was unjustly imprisoned and continued to proclaim truth, there is no rescue for John. The problem with the comfortable is that they are almost always the most powerful as well. So, tired of the uncomfortable position he has put her in, Herod’s lover/sister-in-law is able to secure John’s head.

Following Christ and building the Kingdom is no guarantee that things will work out. If anything, the New Testament is a record how, from one perspective, building God’s kingdom ends badly for the most dedicated builders.

creepy dark fear grave
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2019 Lent Day 15: Mark 6:1-13

Mark 6:1-13

Familiarity breeds contempt

Jesus had been healing people, helping people, and doing all sorts of miraculous things. Yet, when he returns home, no one can accept any of it. It’s like he’s a little boy all over again, unremarkable in many ways. Even when they hear him speak and see what miracles he does, they cannot truly accept it. For many of us, it seems a lot easier to do the work of building the Kingdom if we were to go on a mission trip halfway around the world. The harder thing is to do it close to home. Jesus knows this intimately. Yet he still does the work he knows needs to be done. Difficulty does not excuse action.

And so, Jesus sends out his followers. He grants them authority and they preach a message of repentance. And so the kingdom spreads.

 

Lent Day 12: Mark 5:1-20

Mark 5:1-20

The Demonic and today

Earlier in the Gospel of Mark, and throughout many places in the Gospels, there is mention of those who are demon possessed. Today we are tempted not to think much of it. Perhaps, we may reason, this was just an ancient attempt at understanding mental as well as physical ailments. Demonic possession, after all, seems the sort of thing they make scary movies about. Certainly not something to be taken seriously in our day to day life. Perhaps there were, and even are still, demonically possessed individuals, but I have never encountered them and don’t really need to worry about that.

Perhaps. But perhaps not. Early modern thinker S∅ren Kierkegaard believed that the demonic was particularly acute in our modern society. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard opens his section on “Anxiety about the good” in his fourth chapter noting our modern reluctance to even mention anything about the demonic. According to Kierkegaard, the plight of the demonic (whether that is the man or the demons within the man) is that he is so bound to sin, that he is no longer anxious about it. Rather, he is anxious about the good. Yet, by that same anxiety, the demonic is drawn and revealed by the good. It is the demoniac that approaches Jesus, not the other way around. Kierkegaard is not dismissing the real possibility of demonic possession (in fact he prefers such a reading), but is noting that should not be the primary focus.

Rock Bottom

What really strikes me, and has struck most readers of Kierkegaard, is that the man who is in this pitiful state, who has gone as far down as possible, asks Jesus to leave him alone. This man who is tortured day and night (or the demons who torture themselves day and night) asks Jesus not to torture him. This is the dichotomy Kierkegaard points out. The demonic is simultaneously drawn to the good and repulsed by it. The man his lowest can see the goodness exuding out of Jesus, yet is so bound to sin he wants to be left alone. He is incapable of asking for help, yet he so desperately needs it. He is more victim than condemned at this point. It is precisely in this binding to sin that we see the full destructive power of sin. Sin is not something to beat ourselves up about. Rather, Sin is the ultimate enemy. The devil wishes he were as powerful and destructive as sin, yet he is just another victim of it.

The name to which the man responds is legion. Whether this also means he is possessed by a legion of demons is again not the point. He is not the only one in such a sorry state.

The drug addict, cannot save himself from his addiction. The bully at school is not being a bully for its own sake, but (in most all cases) responding to her or his own trouble at home. The plight of loneliness in our modern culture is brought about by chemical changes wrought on our psyche through technology our minds never evolved to truly handle or understand. We are legion indeed. And only Christ can save us, whether we want it or not.

Get Out

The passage ends with Jesus insisting on the secret again, but just before that, the town’s people come to see this man. The great shock was not the pigs running off the cliff. What prompts the crowd’s actions is seeing the man, the former crazed man, sitting, fully clothed at the feet of Jesus. Kierkegaard notes that this is primary failing of our society. We fail to see ourselves in the plight of the demoniac.

Rather than seeing the man rescued from sin and fully restored and rejoice, the people become afraid and ask Jesus to leave. If Jesus can cause such a radical change for that man, what kind of change does that mean for us? And so many of us go to a church building, drawn to the goodness in Christ, but we’ve segmented this part of our lives off so much that we may as well have rejected it. We depart from the presence of the holy unchanged, unbothered, and unconcerned. The Good (that is Christ) is calling us to genuine freedom and we abandon it for the comfort of daily routine.

administration architecture building cemetery
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2019 Lent Day 4: Mark 2:1-12

Mark 2:1-12

By now the “secret” has spread so much that at Jesus’ next stop there’s a standing room only crowd. Jesus doesn’t take it all in for himself, though. Instead he preaches the logos to them. That’s a loaded term. Even in that day, the term was loaded with connections to Hebrew Scripture and Greek philosophy, but that’s not what grabs the Gospel writer’s attention. It’s the side story that does. Four men, who love their own friend so much, they dig up the roof to set him before Jesus.

“Seeing their faith”

The Gospel says that Jesus “seeing their faith” forgives the sins of the paralyzed man. Can you pray someone into the kingdom? Or does Christ declare a reality that has already happened outside of anything these people have done? Is the declaration of forgiveness, instead, Jesus making plain the hope for which he came, the reality he had already, and would later, secure by his incarnation? Is it possible that Jesus looks upon the faith of the four friends, and decides to peel back the secret just a bit, for the sake of all five of them? “Your sins are forgiven” he declares.

“In full view of them all”

At this point, and still in response to the faith of the friends, Jesus wants to make his person clear. There is no mention of a secret this time. Jesus heals the man, and the evidence is plain to everyone. The man gets up, in public, and is obviously healed. This healing acts as evidence of the already present truth that Jesus has come to forgive sins.Jesus_healing_the_paralytic_in_Cafarnaum_-_Sant'Apollinare_Nuovo_-_Ravenna_2016.jpg

2019 Lent Day 3: Mark 1:29-45

Mark 1:29-45

Secrets on Secrets

News spread, and so Jesus heals many people of their many ailments. So much so that the “whole town” shows up. Yet Jesus still won’t let the demons declare the truth evident to all. Let the people make their own judgments it seems.

The next morning, Jesus goes off by himself. He’s got to recharge and sleep isn’t going to do it. When his disciples find him to bring him back to town, he’s famous after all, he convinces them to go somewhere else. “This is why I have come” declares Jesus. To bring good news, through words and actions.

Then Jesus reaches out to touch the untouchable. Healing the man, he also warns him to not to talk about it. The former-leper-now-a-walking-miracle man completely ignores this. And the secret news of the secret kingdom continues to spread “secretly.”

2019 Lent Day 2: Mark 1:16-28

Mark 1:16-28

Calling

Jesus begins his ministry in Mark’s gospel with a focus on people. He sees them and calls them. Much has been made by many others, and rightly so, about the turn Jesus exhibits here. Only the most scholastic or the most connected would have had even the opportunity to follow a rabbi in Jewish culture. They would have sought one out, and asked to follow him. Other rabbinical literature of the time suggests that a rabbi should deny a potential disciple at least three times.

Instead Jesus finds them. He calls them. Fishermen. Just the kind of people I was looking for, says Jesus. They already know how to fish. The same offer, it seems, is to you. You’re already the kind of person he’s after for his kingdom.

A Secret

Jesus immediately is confronted by an evil demon. On the Sabbath. In a synagogue. The demon recognizes who Jesus is, right away, but Jesus tells him to hush up. This introduces the theme of what many scholars have called “the Markan secret.” I’ll reference it throughout. It serves an important purpose, but we’ll get to that. It’s worth noting, though, that while Jesus tells the demon to be quiet and casts him out (on the Sabbath), news spreads anyway. It’s hard to keep such news quiet.

2019 Lent Day 1: Mark 1:1-15

Mark 1:1-15

Every good story, including each of the Gospels, begins with some sort of call to action. Things don’t start with the actual ministry of Jesus, though that is their primary focus, but start with some other action. For Matthew it’s the birth of Jesus and so the action is on his parents. For Luke, it’s the birth of John the Baptizer. For John it’s the creation of the world and conflict between light and dark. Mark begins with the action. The actions of John the Baptizer and the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

John the Baptizer knows his role as one making preparation, not establishing the kingdom. His reference is to the book of Isaiah, where the prophet gives a message of hope for a future he will never see. They are to prepare a way in the dessert for a return to their homeland for exile. The Gospel of Mark, then, accepts that, though the people of Israel are living in their geographic home, they are still living in exile. Rome is in charge and they are non-citizen subjects. Herod is a farce of a king. In general the people have little hope. And yet, John cries out to prepare for a change. God is not alien to you, but is coming to redeem you again, to bring you back to his self.

Then, he arrives. He is baptized in the river and we see Father, Son, and Spirit all at once as Jesus comes out of the water. Change is starting. Things will never be the same. “The time has come” declares John. “The Kingdom of God is near.” That is certainly good news.