reflections on exile: when God loses

In this election cycle, God has lost. I don’t mean God lost the election; I am not equating Hillary Clinton’s loss with God’s loss, nor am I equating Donald Trump’s victory with God’s loss. I am speaking to something much larger that that. I mean that in the fight for power, prosperity, “influence,” materialism, consumerism, militarism, and so on, God has lost. We have made these to be king over us and rejected God as king. God is living in exile. God’s people in the USA are living in exile. And that’s ok.

Among the most dominant motifs in the Bible is “exile.” Exile shaped the people of Israel as a whole perhaps more than any other theme, beginning with the exile from the Garden, continuing through the exile to Egypt, the exile into the wilderness, and the exile resulting from Babylon’s domination of Israel as well as Persia’s domination over both Babylon and Israel. Exile continued to shape Israel through the periods of Greek and Roman domination and it continues to shape Judaism today.

The exilic motif says a lot about God who is named Yahweh. Yahweh was once understood to dwell in the Temple in a unique way. When the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 587 BCE, Israel had to formulate a new understanding of what it means for God to be with them, as the promise of the name Yahweh makes clear: Yahweh is the one who is with Israel. This new understanding inspired hope in the people.

Lee Beach writes:

“One of the most dynamic aspects of the turn to hope in exilic life was the renewal of Israel’s sense of being a people of mission. Exile brought about a renewed sense that Israel had a role to play among the nations of the world in declaring the supremacy of Yahweh. This is most evident in Isaiah, where the prophet articulates a compelling call for the people of Yahweh to once again act as light to the nations (Is 42:5-7; 49:5-6). It is not strange that given their context as a captive people living among “the nations,” Israel would reflect on its responsibility toward foreign people. The words of Isaiah recall the core teaching of Pentateuchal faith as found in Genesis 12:3, Exodus 19:6, and Deuteronomy 4:5-8, whereby Israel is founded as a people who will serve the good of the nations around them. This prompts a call for a renewed vision for Israel to see itself as not living in a vacuum but as a responsible steward of all the gifts that God has given it as his partner. This calling audaciously reorients the sense of defeat that exile naturally brought with it and asserts that the conquerors are to be converted to the faith of the vanquished. In the ancient world, where the gods were often understood in a highly territorial way and the defeat of one nation by another was also assumed to be the defeat of one god by another, this was a highly counterideological thrust that offered mission as a radical response to exile. It denied that Yahweh had been defeated and promoted the counterreality that Israel’s enemies needed to in fact become Yahweh worshipers.”[1]

In the midst of the traumatic upheaval of the common way of life, Israel found a new way of understanding its relationship with Yahweh. Not even utter domination by foreign powers could convince them that Yahweh was defeated. In the midst of tragedy Yahweh continued to be present and to offer hope to the people, and the people continued to worship Yahweh, albeit in new and innovative ways. They did not find it necessary to be the dominant cultural force in order to understand themselves as the beloved people of God.

God is not afraid of exile. God is not afraid to lose. God is not afraid of being marginalized, of having his name and identity pushed to the margins of society. In fact God seems quite happy to reside there alongside those whom the dominant powers-that-be have rejected.

Consider Jonah, who partnered with Yahweh in the mission of saving Israel’s conquerors, the Ninevites, from destruction. Jonah convinced his conquerors to repent of their evil and turn to Yahweh. Even from the bottom of the cultural ladder Yahweh continues to have influence and to maintain his identity.

Jonah did not need to be reinstated at the top of the cultural ladder in order to partner in God’s mission of redemption and salvation. As Christians in 21st Century America, we would do well to recognize that we do not need to be at the top of the cultural ladder in order to be the people of God, serving the kingdom of God, making manifest heaven on earth, shaping the future for the generations to come. We can lose our spot as the center of societal attention without losing our spot as beloved by Yahweh and called to serve those around us.

God is not afraid of losing. God is not afraid of exile. Why are we?

[1] Lee Beach, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

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