Exodus or Exile?

Originally posted in our church newsletter.

The exodus is a major theme in the Bible. The story of how God rescued his people from captivity and brought them into the Promised Land is one that many of us know well. The exodus gave language to European immigrants who left behind religious persecution for the promise of a new land and it formed the imaginations of enslaved Africans who prayed and planned for their escape:

I’ll meet you in the morning
when you reach the promised land
on the other side of the Jordan
for I’m bound for the promised land.

As important as the exodus is for those of us who know God’s salvation, there is another dominant biblical theme that we tend to forget: exile. Yet despite our neglect of this part of the biblical story, it’s huge throughout the Old Testament. Many psalms and much of the prophetic literature was written in an exilic context as God’s people suffered under one empire and then another.

Maybe we focus more on exodus than exile because the latter doesn’t fit the expectation of much of American Christianity. After all, the exodus brings with it promises of security and prosperity while the experience of exile is ambiguous and sorrowful. Yet as I look around I have to wonder whether out situation is closer to exile than exodus. Without downplaying God’s powerful salvation in our lives and his sustaining presence in our communities, don’t we have to admit that the world we inhabit is a long way from the Promised Land?

Theologian Raymond Rivera says that once we acknowledge our exilic status we are free to think creatively about “doing ministry in a situation of captivity.” Rather than thinking that we’ve settled into the land of God’s promise – or even that it’s around the corner, attainable by a bit more hard work or strategic ministry – we instead accept the foreign land to which we’ve been led by God. From this vantage point we begin to ask different questions about community, friendship, work, family, and church. We worship and work for the good of this foreign land without looking to it for approval or permission.

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Pastor Michael Neal at the prayer vigil.

At times this means taking public stands in protest and prayer against the injustice of this land’s powers. Pastor Michelle demonstrated this powerfully on Monday at the prayer vigil when she publicly lamented over Chicago and its racist policies. Other times it means finding common ground with those who don’t share our Faith but whose work reflects the kingdom of God. And all of the time it means building structures and nourishing communities that contribute to human flourishing and Christian witness in the midst of exile.

In 2016 we will build structures and ministries that will help us be more deeply rooted in Bronzeville. The bitter fruit produced by this foreign land has been especially visible lately, yet we’ve not been called to flee for some promised land of our own making. No, we hear the prophet’s word to the Babylonian exiles to “plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (Jeremiah 29:5) In this place of exile we are called to put down deep and sustaining roots that God might produce in us “fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)

As we approach the second Sunday in Advent we are reminded that, although we’ve experienced the promise of God’s salvation, the eternal Promised Land awaits our Savior’s return. Until then, we are a people in exile. But we have not been left alone. And, thanks be to the God who was born into our exile, we’ve not been left without hope.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

2 thoughts on “Exodus or Exile?”

  1. Is your paragraph citing Raymond Rivera a direct quote or is that paragraph your writing? I would like to cite this in an article and a sermon. If it is original to Rivera, can you send me to the book/page? BTW, appreciated your participation on the panel in Louisville recently!

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