Monday, November 30, 2015

Deliverance for Exile?: A Missional Reflection for Advent

In its first stanza, the ancient hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” captures the essence of the Advent season:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent is the season in which the Church worships in celebration of the 1st Coming of Jesus Christ and longs for His Final return.  The theme of Exile is a poignant one for this time of year.  The birth of Jesus Christ was envisioned in the 1st century as a signal to all that the massive disruption of the Babylonian Exile was truly over and that the long awaited savior from God had arrived to renew the Kingdom.  In the Bible, this teaching is most explicit in the genealogy found in Matthew 1:1-17.  A cursory reading of the genealogy reveals that in the midst of the long list of names there are four that are emphasized: Abraham, David, the exile to Babylon, and Jesus Christ.  Abraham stands at the beginning because he is the figurative father of Israel, and he was the recipient of God’s promise that all nations of the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:1-3).  David is emphasized because he represents God’s ideal ruler who will extend salvation and reign over a kingdom of justice and peace.  Why is Exile mentioned?  Because the exile to Babylon in 587 B.C. effectively put an end to the Davidic Kingdom and raised questions about the viability of God’s promises.  The Jews had returned home from exile in 538 B.C. and even rebuilt their temple in 516 B.C., but as the 1st century A.D. dawned, they remained under foreign rule and were hardly living in the reality of the Old Testament promises.  They longed for a renewal of God’s mighty acts of salvation.  Although they were in their homeland, they felt as though they were still living in a spiritual exile.

Matthew’s genealogy announces that Jesus Christ (or better Jesus the Messiah) is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.  This is filled out in Matthew 1:18-25 where Jesus’ two names are described.  God will no longer be “far away” because Jesus will embody and fulfill the Scripture from Isaiah 9 by bearing the name “Emmanuel”, which means “God is with us” (Matt 1:23).  God’s people will no longer carry the sting of exile because the name Jesus means “the Lord saves [his people from their sins]” (Matt 1:21).

What are the implications for today of these Scriptures?

1) Exile remains a powerful metaphor today.
Persons around the world live with a sense of displacement and longing for a true home.  In the most extreme cases, poverty and/or war have driven persons far from their native lands in search of the possibility for a prosperous life.  Such persons often face hardships in their new countries as they seek to overcome cultural barriers without the aid of friends or extended family.  Many will never or rarely see or hear from those that they left in their homelands.  They live as strangers in a strange land.  Feelings of Exile are the plight of immigrants around the world.

Many native born citizens of the United States or other countries around the world live in a sort of self-imposed exile within their own countries for economic reasons.  For example, as the world economy changes, it is becoming common for Americans to move across the country for employment.  My own story is not unusual.  I grew up in Akron, Ohio.  I lived there for my first twenty two years, even attending the local university.  From Akron, I moved to Lexington Kentucky to attend seminary.  Then, I moved to Richmond, Virginia to pursue the PhD.  I currently reside in Orlando Florida where I teach at Asbury Theological Seminary – Florida.  I am far away from my native Midwest and my in laws are from Puerto Rico.  My closest relative is more than 800 miles away.  In our neighborhood, there are very few native Floridians.  In fact, with sixteen years in the state, I am a virtual “old-timer” in our neighborhood.  My closest neighbors are from Puerto Rico, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, England, and New York respectively! 

Such a reality represents missional opportunities for Christians.  Reach out to those around you who are far from family during this Christmas season.  Open your home to the lonely and displaced during this season.  Embody the reality that Jesus has come to end Exile and to bring the love of God near to all who seek Him.

2) Jesus calls us home and sends us Out.
The Gospel is more than merely an announcement that Exile is over.  Salvation is truly come in Jesus.  But because salvation has come, many of our common expectations and practices are subverted.  Exile is over, but this doesn’t mean a return to a physical homeland but a commitment to life as a resident alien.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does represent the end of Exile and beginning of God’s long awaited age of salvation, but living as a follower of Jesus Christ means going into the world.  If Matthew’s Gospel begins with the announcement that Exile is over, it ends with the announcement of a sort of return to Exile.  In the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20), Jesus sends his disciples to the ends of the earth to “Make disciples of all nations.”  Yet, this new mission is not a return to Exile because Jesus promises to go with his disciples to fulfill this mission. “Behold, I will be with you always” is how Matthew’s Gospel ends.  The child born Emmanuel “God with us” brings this promise to a reality in His post-resurrection state.  The Risen Lord and Savior abides with his Church in its mission.  As followers of Jesus Christ, we may find ourselves a long way from the place of our birth, but when we live our lives on mission for God, we are never far from our truest home.

1) How are you participating in God’s mission this Advent season?  To whom will you reach out?

2) In what ways does the theme of Exile connect with your life?  How can you use this connection to reach out to others who do not know God?

3) What if following Jesus Christ were the surest way to find home?

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

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