meditations on exile (3): community is crucial

And [an angel] called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons… For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…” Revelation 18:2-4

Babylon. John, the author of Revelation, used it as a code word for Rome, the superpower of his time. In today’s world, “we” – the United States – are the superpower of the world, the economic, cultural, and political giant among the nations. Drunkenness? Sexual immorality? Luxury? Sound familiar?

The command to “come out of her” is an explicit sexual reference intended to make us blush. “Quit fornicating with the ways of the world,” God says. Without a euphemism.

We must ask, therefore: how do we, as citizens of God’s heaven and disciples of Jesus, live as we sojourn in Babylon? How is it that we “come out of” the ways of the world? The ways of America?

As always, it is helpful to look to biblical history for guidance. The actual city of Babylon was once the superpower of its age, promulgating paganism, trade, and tyranny across its empire. The prophets tell us that it was because of divine decree that the Babylonian empire included Israel. Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor of Babylon, ordered in the sixth century B.C. that all but the poor of Judea be exiled to Babylon.

That meant: God’s people, in Babylon, in the heart of the empire. The question the Jews were asking themselves at that time is the same kind of question we must ask ourselves today. For them, it was, “How do we practice the Torah, God’s law for us, in a pagan city, away from the promised land and the temple?”

The book of Daniel deals with this question, especially in chapters 1, 3, and 6.

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank… Daniel 1:8

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego… said to the king… “Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18

When Daniel knew that the document [banning for a month the worship of any god besides the king of Babylon] had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10

In each case, faithful Jews took their lives in their hands by maintaining the practice of their Israelite identity under the watchful eye of a dictatorial, pagan regime. And amazingly, in each case, the pagan king ended up baffled and in awe of the true God.

And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of [Daniel and his friends], he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. Daniel 1:20

Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” Daniel 3:28

Then King Darius wrote… “I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever…” Daniel 6:26-27

We make a difference when we stand out, not when we blend in.

For exiled Jews wishing to the live the Torah, from the sixth century B.C. to the present day, the necessity of living together in groups has been obvious. The laws of the Torah assume a context of community. A kosher diet alone requires a kosher farmer, a kosher butcher, and a kosher vendor. One cannot practice Orthodox Judaism in isolation.

Likewise, the commands of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament assume a context of community as the setting for the practice of the Christian life. By my pastor’s count, there are 49 “one another” commands in the New Testament: be at peace with one another, submit to one another, encourage one another, pray for each other, etc. And that doesn’t include the 10 repetitions of the command to “love one another” in John’s writings alone.

Exiled Jews needed each other to maintain their ritual purity and their commitment to monotheism. Sojourning Christians need each other to exhort one another in the gospel and to be the body of Christ to the world.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27

By the Holy Spirit of Jesus in us, the church is Christ to the world. You may be an eye, I may be a hand, but either way, we cannot function without each other. Close-knit, interdependent, mutually submissive, mutually confessional, mutually accountable community is crucial.

The biblical mindset is not “us against the world,” but us, in the world, different from the world, and therefore helpful to the world. Jesus said,

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

As it was for the Jewish exiles 2,600 years ago, it is our differences from the world around us that make us attractive and amazing to outsiders. Why be impressed at more of the same? More pettiness, more egoism, more infighting, more ignorance. We cannot be light by imitating darkness. We cannot be Jerusalem by participating in Babylon.

And Jerusalem is what we are: God’s city, God’s house, God’s children.

Your sister church here in Babylon sends you greetings… 1 Peter 5:13 (NLT)

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35

meditations on exile (2): relating to the host country

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… Philippians 3:20

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:11

In the same way that so many Old Testament saints were forced to live in a land other than their homeland, followers of Jesus today are exiles and sojourners. We are not living in our hometown. As exiles, we know, “This is not our home, this is not our culture, this is not our ‘normal.'”

Suffering makes this easy to remember. Worldly happiness and comfortable lifestyles make it easy to forget. The church in America is living – rather, dying – under a deadly addiction. Christians used to call it “worldliness,” a word not used much anymore. Elsewhere in the world, in churches without guaranteed safety or enough Bibles to go around – much less AC, coffee bars, or sound systems – the church thrives. Grows, like crazy. Jesus’ name is savored; luxury is foreign.

We must not forget who we are. We are sojourners on the earth, waiting for our real home. As such, we must ask: how should we relate to our “host country,” i.e., the world around us? The New Testament bans from us several options:

It bans revolt, a temptation not common among American Christians who have been raised to pledge allegiance to the flag:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Romans 13:1-2

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 1 Peter 2:13-15

Perhaps the first temptation is so rare because the second is so widespread. The New Testament also bans assimilation:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. Ephesians 4:17

Do not be conformed to this world, by be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8

The prophets, Jesus, and the apostles propose to us another option for living out our identities as aliens. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, authors of Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, a book I just read and very highly recommend, call this third option “revolutionary subordination,” an alternate route between assimilation and revolt.

The Sermon on the Mount, the classic name for Jesus’ speech in Matthew 5-7, outlines in unforgettable beauty what revolutionary subordination looks like for disciples in a world gone wicked.

“They say ‘don’t murder’? I say, anger is murder. Allow nothing to delay you from reconciliation. They say ‘don’t commit adultery’? I say, lust is adultery. Stop at nothing to avoid sinning. They say, ‘he got what he deserved’? I say, do not resist an evil person. They say, ‘love the good guys, hate the bad guys’? I say, love the people making your life miserable.” On and on. At every turn, it rebels against things as they are with nothing less than creative genius.

Claiborne and Shaw explain one, now proverbial, part of this magnificent sermon in a particularly insightful way. “Turn the other cheek” did not mean “let anyone who wants to beat you up.” Rather, it meant, “To the person who gives you a backhanded slap intended to insult, show them you would be willing to take even a punch in the face without retaliating. You love them too much. Shock them, and their conscience, with the patience of your grace.” “Give the shirt off your back” and “go the extra mile” in the following verses mean similar things.

That’s revolutionary subordination. It means to refuse to accept the ways of the world. To turn them completely inside out in a subversive kind of submission. In many ways, all of Jesus’ teachings are an elaboration on this theme. His lifestyle was its embodiment. For him, apparently, it worked. Why then do we doubt his methods?

The church must be a peculiar people, to borrow a phrase from Claiborne and Shaw’s book again. God forbids that we value the things America values; he forbids that we call idolatry cool and sensuality normal. For a citizen of heaven, sin is never normal. It is the one thing in God’s universe that is not normal, the one thing which perverts every other good thing.

Patriotism is not a virtue Jesus admired. Nationalistic pride is founded on demonstrations of strength and hero-worship. It is a far cry from the otherworldly statements of Jesus about the meek and the persecuted being the victors of the universe. Yes, the “unBeatitudes” make promises too, but they are miserable ones and utterly opposed to God.

American culture values many other things Jesus hates, like having pride in yourself, living in luxury while others live in poverty, and lying about who God is. To the extent our churches and lives succumb to this kind of thinking and living, to that extent we deny the Jesus we claim to imitate.

“Beloved, as sojourners and exiles…” the Bible urges us. We cannot forget who we are. We are not home, but we are homeward bound.

More next time.

meditations on exile (1): seeking a homeland

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. Hebrews 11:13-16
The longing for a homeland is indelibly etched in the human heart. It is elemental to human nature, common to all: the desire for belonging, identity, a sense of rightness. The ability to say with a deep and satisfied sigh, “This is where I am supposed to be. This is my home.”

For decades, Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Israelite nation, lived in tents, childless, away from their home and family, waiting for God to act on his promises to give them a big family and a land of their own. They waited, and saw only the hint of the fulfillment in the birth of their son Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and his family, also received the promises, then spent their lives waiting and sojourning. “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you,” Abraham told his neighbors (Genesis 23:4). So he remained for the rest of his life. In his lifetime, he never got his homeland.

In chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author says that, by calling himself a sojourner and foreigner, Abraham meant not only that he was a stranger living in a foreign country. He also meant he was a stranger and an exile on earth itself.

Exile is a major theme of the Bible. For over 400 years, the young Israelite nation lived as exiles and slaves in Egypt, until Moses and Joshua led them out of Egypt and into Canaan, the “promised land.” Some number of centuries later, the entire nation of Israel was taken out of Canaan into exile again, first by the Assyrian empire, then by the Babylonian empire.

Foreign invasion and mass exile is traumatic in the extreme for any people group  in any time period, but perhaps for none more so than the Israelites. Invading conquers stole the promised land from them; their national and even spiritual identity, their self-understanding, their hopes, their plans, not to mention their possessions and livelihoods: all gone on an tyrant’s whim.

In one of the Bible’s most bitterly sad and poetic psalms, an Israelite expatriate expressed the pain of exile like this:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? Psalm 137:1-4

The promised land was, to the people to whom it had been promised, home and more than home. It was nearness to God himself. Their God was the God of Israel, the God of Jerusalem, the God of Zion. To be away from Jerusalem was to be away from the temple, the designated “dwelling place” of God.

To the exiled Jews, physical separation felt like, and represented, spiritual and relational separation from God. When God sent Israel into exile, away from the land, he was sending them away from himself “with a decree of divorce” (Jeremiah 3:8) because of the flagrant paganism and corruption of the people, which he called “adultery.” To them, home was where God made himself present. And God was not present in Babylon.

Even to this day, Jews are still seeking the homeland of their ancient past. They are waiting for the day when God will fulfill his promises to give them back their land, and by doing so, give them himself.

In Hebrews 11, though, the author says something really amazing. He says that the homeland the patriarchs anticipated, and that the exiles in Babylon ached for, was in fact “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

For [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Hebrews 11:10

Not Jerusalem, but the New Jerusalem, was Abraham’s real home. That is to say, God himself was Abraham’s homeland. Paul said,

But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. Galatians 4:26

In our lives we live with an idea in our minds of where and what our home is; or perhaps, what we want it to be. As Christians, God forbid that we settle for a homeland on this earth. In fact, he does forbid it: he forbids that we live as natives and citizens in this world, in “Babylon,” when in truth, because of Jesus, we are exiles and strangers. Like Abraham, we spend our lives sojourning. God’s promises are what we base our lives on.

Jerusalem above, the city of God, the promised city, “built by God,” is our only home. Jesus has gone ahead to prepare it for us. Indeed, Jesus has bought and paid for our citizenship with his life.

More on that later.

“Abba! Father!”

I wrote the following several years ago and posted it as a “note” on Though I had nearly forgotten about writing this short reflection, the concept has remained precious to me for years. I republish it now in the hope that it will bless you in a similar way.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:15-17

I recently learned that “abba” in Aramaic means something close to “papa” or “daddy.” This has got me thinking.

You call your dad “father” when you go off to war, when you come home blushing, when you’re being punished, and when you’re being adult. You call him father as you march away, avoid his eyes, or ask for his help, when things are serious and grown up.

We call God “Father” when we pray, repent, beg, doubt, and suffer, when we are being tested or tempted, and when we are alone. We call him Father in his holiness and enormity, and in our own guilt and helplessness. We call him father with our heads bowed.

But he also invites us to approach him as intimates, as his children, quietly confidant in his powerful good work. He lets Paul – a very mature, Roman, Jewish, man – call him abba, papa, daddy. I haven’t even called my own dad “daddy” since I was a little kid, and he is much less intimidating than God.

“His compassions never fail, they are new every morning.”

God delights with a simple joy in his own creation. Like a child admiring his own handiwork, he has named every star; he wants new songs and shouts of joy. As father he is strong and mighty; as daddy he is gentle and tender. As father he humbles us and breaks our proud hearts; as daddy he lifts us up high, then rejoices with us in our still small triumphs. God the Father is our fortress in the battle. God the Daddy welcomes us back once the battle is won.

That God runs to me even as I wallow in my own doubt and trepidation, slaughters a fatted calf at a feast in my honor, puts his ring on my finger, and makes me alive again.

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” Lamentations 3:19-24