December 18, 2017

Another Look: Lent – Praying with the Exiles

The Prophet Jeremiah, Chagall

The Prophet Jeremiah, Chagall

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

• Psalm 53:6

When we read and pray the Psalms, we enter into the prayers of David and the other psalmists, we enter into the prayers of the exiles who composed, edited, and arranged the Old Testament, and we enter into the prayers of Jesus the Christ, the Son of David, the ideal King who brought us salvation.

Tonight in Psalm 53, we hear the voices of those Babylonian exiles most clearly. In this psalm they lament the ungodliness of their captors, they lament their own captive condition, and they pray for God to save them and restore them.

All through the Bible, the theme of “exile” is present. The worst penalty imagined is to be exiled from the good land, separated from home, alienated from God, under enemy rule. So tonight, in Psalm 53, we hear the voices of the exiles.

Tonight we hear the voices of Eve and Adam, cast from the Garden because of their transgression to a life east of Eden.

Tonight we hear the voice of Cain, sentenced to wander the earth after failing to be his brother’s keeper.

Tonight we hear the voice of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery and exiled in Egypt. We then hear the voices of Jacob’s entire family as they are forced to resettle in Egypt, where eventually they become slaves to the cruel Pharaoh.

Tonight we hear the voices of the people of Israel, wandering through the wilderness until an entire generation died off, because of their unbelief.

Tonight we hear the cries of women like Naomi, who left the land in time of famine and suffered the loss of her husband and sons.

Tonight we hear the sad prayers and songs of David, God’s chosen king but also the exiled king, as he dwelt among the rocks and the caves while fleeing King Saul – David, who was later forced from his throne by members of his own family, exiled from Jerusalem.

Tonight we sit in silence with Elijah the prophet, who hid in the wilderness from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, alone by the brook, fed by ravens.

Tonight we watch in horror as the Assyrians conquer and scatter the northern tribes of Israel, demolishing their kingdom and dispersing the people far and wide into foreign lands.

And then we lament as the Babylonians sack Jerusalem, plunder and destroy the Temple, and then take the people captive, transporting them into exile, where they hang their harps by the waters of Babylon, longing for home.

We rejoice when they return to the land by King Cyrus’s edict, but our joy is mixed. For tonight we remember that, generation after generation, other nations came in to rule over Israel. Though they had returned from literal, geographical exile, they remained captives and slaves in their own land under enemy rule.

And so we pray with them. We pray for an end to the exile.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Jesus Wept (detail), Tissot

Jesus Wept (detail), Tissot

And then we see a baby born in Bethlehem, the city of David the psalmist and hear that he is destined for David’s throne.

While just an infant, he and his family are forced to flee in exile to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.

For years, he lives in obscurity, until a man named John comes.

John goes out into self-imposed exile in the wilderness, near the Jordan River, the place where Israel first came from their wanderings and crossed into the Promised Land. He announces that the time has arrived. Israel’s exile is about to end. The Promised One is coming! John calls Israel to once more immerse themselves in the Jordan, to cross over once more from the wilderness of exile into the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom, to welcome their King with repentance and faith.

And so Jesus appears in public. He identifies with the people by being baptized and immediately goes into the wilderness himself to be tested as the people were in their exile.

After successfully resisting the devil and winning where Israel failed, Jesus begins going throughout the land, announcing that the Kingdom is at hand, the day of salvation has dawned, and that God has sent him to announce release to the captives. He shows this by delivering people from sin and sickness and the oppression of evil spirits. He speaks the truth. He restores life and health and peace. He overcomes the powers that hold the people captive.

Then one day, the tables turn and Jesus dies and goes himself into the ultimate exile – the exile of death.

On Holy Saturday, it appears that the captors have won and that there was one great power that Jesus could not conquer. On that solemn day, it seems there will be no salvation, no restoration from exile. I can imagine that Jesus’ disciples and friends may have prayed Psalm 53 that day:

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!

This is Lent.

Praying with the exiles.

Recognizing our own captivity, our own exile.

Crying out with them for release and restoration.

Waiting…waiting…until it comes.

Comments

  1. I get up early
    for prayer, but drink black coffee
    in the dark instead.

    • Ronald Avra says:

      A full pot here with a portion of NT Wright’s New Testament translation and commentary. My thoughts wander a lot.

    • Thanks Robert. Please keep them coming.

      And remember, coffee is a gift too

      Ben

    • What do you think about changing the line breaks, so it looks like this?

      I get up early for prayer,
      but drink black coffee in the dark
      instead.

      • You can line break it any way you like, Ben. It’s fine with me. I just was using the haiku pattern, 5-7-5 syllable lines. I like the way your arrangement looks on the page.

  2. All my life, for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like an exile. The places I’ve lived in were temporary shelters, for longer or shorter periods of time. I was born in such a shelter, among strangers that were called my family; I live in one now, with my wife, to whom I know that I am also in many ways a stranger. I have no land, no roots, no children, no inheritance, no legacy, no permanent residence. When you’ve felt all your life like an exile, it’s exceedingly hard to believe that it isn’t your normal condition, that there is such a place as home, and that your exile will ever end.

    • And yet, if you can think of yourself as an exile, you can imagine a home. I am reminded of this part of Lewis’s Essay “The Weight of Glory.” (which I strongly recommend regularly reading in its entirety)

      Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love”

    • There is obviously much pain and hurt behind your comments, Robert. I wonder if at times Jesus didn’t feel the same. Your comment made me think of this:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvzkWam1PRE

      I hope you find peace.

  3. I keep hearing about the importance of “praying the Psalms”. Could someone offer some advice or materials on how to do this?

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    On Holy Saturday, it appears that the captors have won and that there was one great power that Jesus could not conquer.

    Anyone remember Tony Campolo’s story about “It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Comin'”?

  5. In the Orthodox Church, Lent begins the evening of the seventh Sunday before Pascha, at Vespers (so actually Monday). The expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise is commemorated, and throughout the Matins prayers we hear liturgical poetry that describes our identification with Adam, The Human Being, exiled from Paradise and union with God, and suffering exile in death. Over and over again we hear refrains like this: “But Master, in compassion call me back again… I am fallen, in Thy compassion have mercy on me.”

    That evening during the Vespers of Forgiveness, we are immediately confronted with the fact of God’s compassionate forgiveness, and we hear “God forgives!” over and over again as we each ask forgiveness of all who attend. It is a solemn service and full of hope and assurance. After the usual Psalms that begin Vespers, we hear: “Turn not away Thy face from Thy servant, for I am in trouble; hear me speedily: hearken unto my soul, and deliver it.” And then, “Thy grace has shone forth O Lord, it has shone forth and given light to our souls. Behold now is the accepted time: behold, now is the season of repentance. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, that having sailed across the great sea of the Fast, we may reach the third-day Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.” And we hear nearly all the songs of Pascha, to remind us of where we are going, and the reality of that forgiveness.

    Repentance is understood not as feeling sorry for my sins or simply deciding to do better; it is to turn back to God (Hebrew shuv) and turn one’s entire way of thinking (and therefore how we direct our lives and thus **be**) to God (metanoia). Constant repentance is enjoined, but is brought into much sharper focus in Lent as we prepare to celebrate the death of Death. We call it a season of joyful sorrow. We fast from certain foods because, among other reasons, it was the desire for a certain food, rather than for God above all, that led us to the predicament of exile.

    Dana

  6. Christiane says:

    Praying with the exiles . . . God have mercy:

    http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2015/9/syrian-toddler-2.jpg

  7. Christiane says:

    I like that term ‘praying WITH the exiles’ because it is inclusive in spirit . . . I’ve always been troubled by Christian people who finger-pointed at ‘those other sinners’ and did it with a kind of ‘glee’ over their proclamation of hell receiving ‘those other sinners’ . . .

    I don’t see Our Lord in that kind of exclusion of ‘the others’, I just see self-righteousness at its worst

  8. Tonight these voices are overwhelmed by the cries of the exiles of Syria caught between starvation and death, forces beyond their control toying with World War III, one of those forces the hidden hand of Zion, doors closing everywhere, camps being terminated, nowhere to run, the terrified eyes of children reflecting terror as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

    Praying with the exiles.

    Recognizing their own captivity, their own exile.

    Crying out with them for release and restoration from our walled places of comfort and security.

    Waiting…waiting…until it comes.

    But not in our back yard.

    • …doors closing everywhere…

      It’s horrifying. On the other side of all the piety and politics is real human suffering. There are no abstractions among the refugees and victims of war.