The Babylonian Exile happens just as the prophets foretold, or at least as they tried to foretell. Prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah tried to warn them. Don’t be seduced by their easy to pronounce names, these were hard messages likening the people to petulant children, a promiscuous spouse, and a sinsick addict bent on self-destruction.
Together the prophets warned of a coming judgment upon Israel’s failure to remain faithful to God on the one hand, and their failure to love their neighbor on the other.
The prophets had back up too! God gave them the words to say and empowered them perform miracles to add credence to those words. In the name of God they healed the sick, fed the hungry, even raised the dead. But what did they get for it? Rejection. Beatings. Some they even killed.
Even for a loving parent there comes a point where you can’t just say “Go to your room.” There comes a point where you just have to say, “Get out!”
“Get out!” God says, “Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will be ruined, and you will be cast out of my sight.”
And so it comes to pass. War breaks out, thousands of God’s chosen people are exiled to Babylon, and Zion, Jerusalem, the Temple, they are all destroyed.
The Psalmist gives voice to the exile’s woe: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion. There on their trees we hung our harps. Our captors taunted us, demanding we sing our songs of joy saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ But how can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?”
It’s more than a question. It’s a crisis.
How could they be God’s people outside of God’s promised land, outside of God’s temple, God’s own house? How will they ever get back? What are they supposed to do now?
It’s not long until the questions get even more pointed and they cry out to God, “How could you do this to us? How could you let this happen? Don’t you care about us at all? Where are you?”
What we read in the story of the exile, it’s more than a question. It’s a crisis. A theological crisis.
I got a letter this week from a woman named Linda who worships regularly with us online. “I took a friend out to an early breakfast last week,” she wrote. “She’s a dear friend whose spouse has had a recent health crisis and is barely ‘out of the woods.’ As we chatted, she told me about her firm atheism. I didn’t really know what to say to her beyond the fact that I’m still a believer. Then I just tried to listen to all she had to say. It was a three-hour breakfast. But then I drove away from breakfast wondering…what if she’s right?”
It’s not just a question. It’s a crisis.
It’s about this time in the story of the exile that there’s a shift in the Prophetic literature. In fact it’s a turn that takes place in almost all the prophecies of judgment. It’s a shift, or a turn, away from judgment towards hope.
The things the prophets start doing, the things they start saying, they shift, often still in the midst of the judgment and despair. Still in the crisis, the prophets start to announce another, alternate future.
“Look,” they say, “even now, the God who is doing this to you is still the same God you’ve always had. You may have broken your promises, but this God is all but incapable of breaking his. This God is with you. This God will bring you home.”
And then, in some of the most stunningly hopeful prophetic imagery the Exiles are told their God is still with them. Coming to them to redeem them. Your God, they say, is like a good shepherd, one who seeks out and finds the lost sheep. Your God is like a new vine growing out of a dead stump whose leaves can heal the sick. Your God is a God who, just by speaking, can put a new heart, and new flesh, onto dry, desolate bones.
I would love to say that the Old Testament ends with a happily ever after, but I can’t. It’s true, the exiles are brought home, just as God had promised, but when they get back, as we read in Ezra, Nehemiah, and through the latter prophets, things just aren’t the same. Their wait isn’t over, and it’s quickly clear, things aren’t all better.
The last book of the Old Testament, the book of the prophet Malachi ends with an open ending, still waiting for redemption, but nevertheless promising a coming “sun of righteousness, with healing in its wings.”
When Jesus comes along people think he’s just another prophet. He looks like one at first. He takes up the prophets’ mantle in many ways, doing signs and wonders, proclaiming judgment on the House of Israel. But in time he doesn’t just talk in prophesies, he embodies them. He heals the sick, feeds the hungry, raises the dead, and then, when asked about what prophetic word he is trying to get across he tells them he is the Word made flesh, saying “I AM the Good Shepherd. I AM the vine. I AM the Resurrection, and I AM Life.”
Linda’s letter continued, “In my car and later that day I tried to distract myself with some podcasts. I listened to a bunch until I ran out of content. That’s when I decided I might as well listen to one of your sermons. Only,” she said, “it wasn’t you preaching that day. It was someone else, and that’s when it hit me, with what felt like a physical force. Their words just hit me, and right there, in my car I prayed and said, ‘Okay, God, I am choosing faith in you again. Right now.’ I prayed for my friend and decided I am believing for her now, even though my own faith feels pretty tiny.”
I AM the Resurrection, and I AM Life. Those who believe in me, even in crisis, even in doubt, even in exile, and even in death, yet shall they live.
In the end we owe our version of the Old Testament to the exile. Not only are a majority of the prophets written before, during, and after the exile, but the exile was the theological crisis that drove the children of Abraham to remembrance, remembrance of a God who was their help in ages past and promised to be their hope for years to come.
It was children of the exile who ultimately arranged the stories from Genesis to Malachi. No wonder Genesis starts with a story of a couple rebellious children who get cast out of paradise and have to wait in hope of one day making it back into the garden.
And then, what a marvel that the whole rest of the story is about God’s relentless efforts to bring them home, indeed to convince them that he is their home, that the home of God is with us.
We are not all that different from those exiles. We too are rebellious, and we too struggle in the theological crisis caused by sin and death. Is God really for us or not?
The story the Bible tells in both Old and New Testaments says yes, our God is for us, even when our faith and faithfulness are pretty dang thin, this God remains with us.
You may believe this, or for you it may sound too good to be true. It may be a promise of an alternate future that you cannot yet see, cannot yet trust. So perhaps for today, like the children in exile, and like Linda’s friend, perhaps today you’ll let us believe it for you.
God is with us. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Believing in this is the key to enduring every exile with hope. God has put us here to make this promise to you, and to wait with you. Whether it turns into a three hour breakfast, or a seventy year exile, hear the Good News. God is with us. He will bring you home.