Friday, April 8, 2011

A Devotional for the Thirty-First Day of Lent

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
 for his steadfast love endures for ever. 
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
 those he redeemed from trouble 
and gathered in from the lands,
 from the east and from the west,
 from the north and from the south. (Psalm 107:1-3)

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ (Jeremiah 23:7-8a)

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

The people of God always seem to be a people in exile. First, God rescues the ancient Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. Then, many generations later, the entire nation of Israel turns from God, is overrun by foreign invaders, and hauled off into exile. As they did in Egypt, they began to cry out to the Lord, and he opened the way for them to come home again. The psalmist celebrates God’s goodness in saving his people from trouble.

Jeremiah acknowledges that Israel’s relationship to God is a rescuing one. Early on they claimed the identity of a people that had been rescued from slavery in Egypt; in the era after their exile, they would claim the identity of a people that had been liberated from lands other than their own. While this liberation would bring them home, they would still be under the dominance of foreign rulers. They would be in a kind of house arrest in Israel, but at least they would be home.

It’s difficult today for us to think of ourselves as being a people in exile, especially in the US. Because of a sense of freedom, it doesn’t usually occur to us to think about being dominated by outside powers. But in every land, whether the US, Venezuela, Lithuania, or England, the people of God are a people in exile. All nations are centered on self-interest and, while people might benefit materially at times by that, it is a very different interest than that of God’s.

There is another exile in which all people live: It is the exile into the inevitability of suffering and death. We go from day to day as if these things aren’t lurking outside our doors, but they are. People who suffer often find themselves in isolation—a kind of personal exile from the land of the living. Those who grieve the loss of a loved one feel as though they have been hauled off into the shadows of loneliness, a place where others need not go.

In the midst of this exile, the people of God gather to declare a different reality. The God who has always rescued his people is the God who is with us, and he is present in our exile. When we gather around those who suffer and those who mourn, sharing their pain, we participate in what God is doing in those who are hurting. When the people of God live out the reality of God’s rescue in communities of faith, care, and love, isolation is broken. While we may still live with the threat of suffering and death, we enact God’s love as we care for one another; in that enactment we not only trust in God’s presence with us, sharing our suffering and grief, but we also hope in a future when God will make all things new.

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
 He will dwell with them;
 they will be his peoples,
 and God himself will be with them; 
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
 Death will be no more;
 mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
 for the first things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:3-4)

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