Babylon… a strange land?

Babylon becomes the place of Exile for the people of God and as with so many biblical themes / passages there are different approaches we can take as Scripture seems to swing one way and another on it… either indicating that a multiplicity of interpretation is the best way to go, or (my preference) there is continual intra-canonical debate (disagreement?) which we are invited into, with the question being ‘so Martin how do you respond?’. Ultimately I have to give my answer… an assessment of my life (then) will not be on what had discerned about the various texts but how my life had been lived out.

I prefer the latter (entering the dialogue / disagreement) as Scripture in all its inspiration is first of all described as ‘useful’ (2 Tim. 3:16) and when we read further about the usefulness it is not so that we come to some level of correct beliefs at a head level but ‘correct’ responses and actions so that we can be involved in ‘every good work’. Behaviour over belief.

Babylon and the Exile. The place where they felt they could not ‘sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land’ so they ‘hung up their harps on the willow trees’. Away from the ‘promised’ land. Jeremiah is an interesting character. Not one who followed the pattern that was common, but suffered at the hands of his compatriots because he could not bring them a positive word about God’s deliverance, and refused to say that the Jerusalem temple would be the guarantee that all would go well (a clear forerunner of Jesus, who takes a similar line some 600+ years later).

Babylon the place where the synagogue develops. Ever so practical for how can a people remain distinct in such a place? Meet weekly, focus more on the scrolls than the story. Safety first. Safety – we so desire that, but it can prove to be something false that hinders us… after all the people of God are like the wind – a level of unpredictability to them.

The level of dislocation that Jeremiah’s compatriots experienced means we cannot be very critical of how they journeyed in the land of Exile, but we have a great advantage over them. After all they understood that their destiny was tied up with a specific land – ours is not. They understood that there was something distinct about their Jewishness, we understand that God is pulling a people from every tribe and nation together. Any criticism must be a critique of us in the light of their situation, and as with so much of Scripture if we allow the critique to come our way we can develop along a good path.

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to your dreams that you dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord (Jer. 29:5-9).

Seek the shalom of the city (translated welfare but the word is shalom… that rich Hebrew word that does not mean the absence of unrest / war, but the positive presence of well-being because everything is ordered in a godly way, where everyone can find a path to their destiny); pray on behalf of Babylon; fulfil there the creational command to ‘multiply’.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls
    and security within your towers.” (Ps. 122:6,7).

Pray, peace (shalom) and security (verb is ‘to prosper‘)… for Jerusalem. Same sentiments as for the place of Exile. Jerusalem held a special place in their hearts, and this Psalm is one of the pilgrims travelling to the city… But Babylon likewise has to hold a special place!

We might be able to suggest that the place of exile is temporary with the hope of returning to Jerusalem. Temporary for them, but for us? Jerusalem to the ends of the earth… Matthew (the Jewish gospel of fulfilment) indicates with his genealogy of Jesus (somewhat ‘manipulated’ to fit a nice pattern of 14’s, and even after the rather creative choice of who he lists it is still a little challenging to get it to be strict pattern of 14’s – ah well, Scripture is to be ‘useful’ for life!) that the exile is coming to an end with the amazing phrase that ‘Jesus will save his people from their sins’ for he will be ‘Emmanuel’ (God with us – at last after the Exile is finally over). Exile was because of their sins, but in Jesus it was ending. So maybe here they are back in the land of promise, and the temporary exile is over? But the end of Mathew’s Gospel is wonderfully provocative with the well-known ‘Great Commission’ sending the disciples to all nations (Gentiles) being a contrasting parallel to Cyrus commission to restore Jerusalem and the temple. Maybe the exile was temporary for the Jews of Jeremiah’s day; it seems permanent for us, but not simply permanent, it is transformed. There is no place that we are exiled from in the sense of one day we will return to a land… we are permanently placed in Babylon with the knowledge that we carry a passport from another place – ‘our citizenship is in heaven’. This ‘citizenship’ is not even close to meaning that ‘heaven is our true home’ but in the fulfilling sense that wherever we are we are to ‘seek the prosperity of the city’ so that ‘shalom‘ (an environment where people can enter successfully on their path to their destiny).

Seems that is in line with what I have posted on Revelation 21.

Babylon, our Babylon is indeed a strange land. But our goal is not to escape, to ‘go’ somewhere else… but to see some measure of ‘heaven on earth’ in that place. No Temple there… and even any synagogue pattern has to be a stepping stone to recovering the story beyond the text.

A text I have read

Ever read Scripture and then come across a text that you have not read before. Maybe I was reading it in the NIV and so it read differently (I am not competent to comment on the Hebrew translation). Here it is:

We were with child, we writhed in labor,
but we gave birth to wind.
We have not brought salvation to the earth,
and the people of the world have not come to life (Is. 26:18).

I know some translations push toward the idea that Israel had not been victorious in the world, maybe indicating a lack of military prowess. However, I thought what if something is creeping through in this verse as the purpose of Israel, not one of being ‘saved’ and others damned, but of being the means through which salvation was to be made available to the non-covenant nations? So that those within the nations who in turn truly find God could be the means of salvation expanding? In Acts we read of the amazing gift of God to the non-Jewish nations: the gift of repentance (thinking) to LIFE.

OK the text might not be clear but I do like Jeremiah, I think way ahead of his contemporaries. There is a big ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ theme that is present in the OT. Classically expressed (and loved to be quoted by the ‘come let us pray’ people):

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity (Ps. 122).


Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jer. 29:7, emphases added).

The similarity is amazing… and the context delivers us a marked contrast! I do wonder if Jeremiah was light years ahead of his contemporaries, or maybe more in touch with Israel’s call. I wonder if he even thought the idea of a promised land was a compromise, and like Paul much later, understood that the promise to Abraham was not a piece of real estate but the whole world? After all it was promised that as far as he could walk and see would set the boundaries, and given that promise included his descendants, I wonder if Jeremiah sneakingly thought now that we are in Babylon (even though it is cos we have not been very good!) we might be able to really get hold of this vision that any prayer for Jerusalem is small-minded. I kinda think that his critique of the prophets who came prophesying what the people wanted to hear, was a critique of them saying ‘we are being persecuted, we can’t sing our songs in a strange land, but God will restore us to safety, we will once again be mighty and rule…’

Of course I read Exod. 19:5,6 as so key. Israel as a priesthood for the world, the means of salvation, the means of blessing coming. Maybe it was understandable that Israel fell into ‘we are the people, the others are the outsiders’… but the people who follow Jesus?

I will respond to the book I am reading of the ‘strange death of Europe’… A vision from the past for Israel in Exile would be, we got to repent, God will restore us, and back to Jerusalem we will go… A vision from the future I think begins with, the past is gone, it was never sufficient to get us into the future, our sin has got us to this point, let’s repent that a deeper sin was going on of exclusion. Babylon is our home.

Exile, aliens and home

Thanks to one an all for the comments on the previous post. Language can be such a challenge, and when analogies are used they often only describes a situation in part. Israel in Babylon were clearly in Exile, planted into a foreign culture away from the Temple rhythms, separated from their family inheritances. Exile was not an analogy for them it was a reality. Exile is a living reality for the many who are currently fleeing their lands due to war or extreme economic hardship. I might have received words about going into Exile – but the result is not as acute as the examples above.

Using the term ‘exile’ might also suggest that there has to be a change of geography or of distance from a previous setting, or that without that someone is lagging behind. I certainly do not believe that. The richness of the call of God is amazing. My background has not been that of the sacramental approach to the faith, but I, along with most non-sacramentalists that I know, would not for one minute suggest that the current pope or archbishop of Canterbury are not standing exactly where God has appointed them. This is the richness of God. I have so many colleagues that I have met over the years, and continue to meet from time to time, who are serving God in what might be termed traditional church settings. And serving God they truly are. Are such people not in exile? If I assume they are not in exile I also have to conclude that exilic existence is one existence for the people of God. The benchmark is not that exile is the new criterion that elevates one over another. The test we all face is that of serving God where we are. And in relation to the world (as defined by consumerism and not religious legalism) we are all to live as aliens. The greater the distance between heaven’s culture and the one we find ourselves living and working in will be the extent to which we are in exile.

Yet relating to the previous post and the sense in which I was using the term ‘exile’ there, I do consider that there are those who have been thrust out of what they have known to explore living in a culture that is alien to them. I do not suggest that this makes them superior nor would I wish them to be seen as inferior. In the context of Europe we have for years been seeing that thousands, and probably 10s of thousands, will find themselves uprooted from the familiar and be scattered to new situations where they will initially feel isolated and have to come in as those in need of being fed by the people of the land (Luke 10). Just a couple of days ago I had an email from a couple now in Athens that I had no idea had been taken there to slowly learn the ‘language’ of the land and gain the right to sow into it. They are one more example of those who at that level have been exiled. However it is not primarily about geography, nor is it about one’s relation to what might be termed a congregation. It is about a repositioning within the world. Nigel in his comment on the previous post raised the helpful point that if we are where God wants us to be then at a very real level we will be at home. That has to be the reality.

So exile might or might not be a good term. The embededness in the world, even if that is a society that could be familiar to us, is where God wants us to be. Alongside that there will be many who find themselves in a setting that is less than comfortable for them. They will at times look back to the former days where God was found. If I am correct that the aspect of royal priesthood is central to the election of heaven, then it is vital that the body of Christ will be comfortable with exile as an experience, otherwise we should not be surprised to see national sovereignty raising its head, walls being built and no home given to the refugee. I made a huge leap in the last sentence, but I think this is what is at stake.

As we truly get into 2017 I consider that one of the continual challenges will be, regardless of the level we feel alienated, will be our ability to embrace the mess around us. God’s world is a mess, and there is no prayer that is there to take us out of it, but that with the presence of Jesus to live within it. As a result we will get our feet dirty, and if we not abide in him we will find our hearts also are tarnished.

In my experience of exile there is a necessary element of being weakened. Of discovering that what I was formerly able to do I am no longer able to do. I think that is probably an ongoing experience. It is great to quote Scripture: ‘I can do all things…’ but the all things are through Christ, not through familiarity. For those evidently called into exile then there is also a key Scripture that comes before the one I just quoted. It is the one that says ‘without me you can do nothing’. And if he is to be found where we have not yet fully entered, we will have to learn to grasp with both hands the exilic condition, then we will be with him, then we will discover even if we are not able to testify to being able to do all things, that at least we are doing a few things that carry the hallmarks of heaven!


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Exile becomes normal?

Well that has been a true break between posts. We have been in the USA for the Christmas and New Year break, bunkering down with family. First time all together since 2012 so been great. Long flights ahead for us and we will finally be in Madrid tomorrow night, maybe around 24 hours of travel in total. Then we will have some days there and hopefully line up to see a few apartments.

All the above might or might not be semi-interesting, however what follows of course is highly interesting to one and all!

Around 2000 I received 5 different prophetic words from different people in widely ranging geographies in a period of about 3 months that I was going to enter exile. The language slightly differed, biblical illustrations varied from Ezekiel to Joseph but the message was clear. The interpretation of any word is of course always open to any number of possible outcomes. At the time I was at the height of travel with approximately 6 months in the UK, 3 months in mainland Europe, and 3 months in the USA and Brazil. My context was no longer that of denominational / network invites but invites that related to a geography. The strap line of ‘working together for the sake of territory’ summed up what shaped the invites. As I sit here (Sacramento) and type this post I remember that just over twelve years ago we had finished walking from the Oregon border to the original mission in San Francisco praying for a new Jesus movement that would come from the extreme (symbolised by the West Coast) and that it would rise with a new generation of parents who would position themselves within but not over such a movement.

So that was the context but also inside I knew that those days would soon come to an end. Immediately following the walk was when Sue became ill and within 6 months had passed away. From that time till Jan. 1, 2009 there were clear shifts in my situation with less and less high profile / size invites. I was probably slow to realise that whatever exile means it has to express a measure of significant separation from a previous familiar context. Separation and, in measure, dislocation is necessary before finding a relocation. In my experience a shift of geography was incredibly helpful in catalysing this process. I probably needed that to move more clearly into exile. When reading Jeremiah is seems that the people had moved to exile geographically but not mind-set wise. He needed to exhort them to buy land and seek the prosperity of the city. Their mind-set was locked into ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land’. The mind-set had to change – and probably also the song. Church that is wrapped up in itself will be very insular and will shrink in size – even when the numbers in the pews increases; but a church that wraps the world in its arms through anonymity, hiddeness and by being deeply sown in the land will find ‘of the increase of his government there will be no end’, and only by doing so will there be the alignment for the answer to the ‘let your kingdom come’ prayer.

Can exile become normal? I think so. And in the first post of this year I dedicate it to those who in this year will discover that far from being away from the presence of God that he will be found increasingly in the exilic setting. These next few years will see many in our world experience exile. They will find that the society around them is not the one they can live comfortably within. It is important that there are those in the body of Christ who have been there and are comfortable with exile, they are the ones who can believe that there is a new world at hand.


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