First World Exiles: Returning Smaller
How long will this last? How long will we be social distancing? How long will we wear masks? How long will we live in fear of a virus? How long until life goes back to normal?
Chances are you’ve caught yourself asking some variation of this question. Perhaps you’ve complained about missing friends, or shed a tear over missing your students at school. As a pastor, one of the hardest moments of the week is Sunday morning, when we walk into once-alive buildings and are met with a skeletal crew of brothers and sisters who are running our livestream broadcasts. Each week I’ve muttered under my breath, “How long, O Lord?”
It’s a fair question. But a question that runs the risk of sounding like the generational equivalent of “first world problems” against the backdrop of history. You know those people who complain about problems their lifestyle has afforded them… “My car clicker battery died, and I had to unlock it with my key 🙁” or, “One pillow is too low; two pillows are too high!” Annoying situations, yes, until put into perspective. Against the backdrop of homelessness, the pillow complaint is wildly tone-deaf.
While stay-at-home guidance and social distancing are annoying and costly, we would do well to take a longer view of history when it comes to asking the question, How long? That’s what this series of blog posts is intended to help us do – to take a long view of our current situation.
Remembering Biblical Exile
This isn’t the first time that the people of God have asked God to bring them back to life before. One that immediately comes to mind is the book of Ezra, where the people of God were in crisis (in exile in Babylon) and wanted life to go back to the way it used to be (when they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple).
To condense the history lesson, Babylon began taking the Israelites captive in roughly 606 BC, and in 587 BC, Babylon captured all of Jerusalem. The people were exiled to Babylon, where roughly 50 years later Babylon was conquered by the Medes and the Persians (539 BC). Just one year after controlling Babylon, the Persian King Cyrus allowed 50,000 Jewish people to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.
The scene is recorded in Ezra 3:11-13:
“And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, ’For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away” (ESV, emphasis added).
For decades, the people of God wanted to return to life before the exile, and now that they had returned, some did not rejoice, but wept. On first glance it may seem like a highly emotional moment and that these were tears of joy. But rather, these were tears of disappointment, for the temple’s footprint had shrunk from the previous temple and this version paled in comparison to the former glory of the first temple. The cries of “how long?” were met with grief over “how small!”
This is the story I think of when I consider our current situation. I imagine the ancient Israelites looking at us modern Americans as we decry our social exile while remaining in our homes and freely gathering via church online to praise our same God and celebrate the same gospel without fear of retribution or persecution from outsiders. I wonder if they would snark, first world exiles. Perhaps they would. Against the backdrop of their story, our situation doesn’t seem to rise above the level of mild inconvenience.
But beyond the comparison, there is a similarity between our situations that is helpful to observe. Regardless of the difficulty of our exile, like them, we are going back to a world that is less than it was before.
Our first services back in our church facilities will be substantially different than they were on March 8, 2020. At Bethel’s Hobart/Portage (HP) campus that day, we served cupcakes in the lobby and had a record attendance in the Auditorium. A team of ten musicians led us in singing and praise, and I preached to people sitting side-by-side, some of them strangers they didn’t even know. There were so many people at the property, cars were parking on the grass just to find spots. People helped themselves to the coffee and shook hands at the doors.
Perhaps the return to physical worship gatherings in the future will provide none of these experiences. Our first services may only necessitate we use a quarter of the parking lot, with limited numbers of people who had to drive to Starbucks to get their own coffee. Instead of our customary worship band, we may have one leader who leads us in simple melodies. We will be tempted to look around and wonder if the glorious days of “come as you are” worship are over.
But on that day, I don’t want to be one who mourns because of the memories I have of the past. I want to be one who cheers because God is at work in our difficult present, overcoming obstacles, and unifying his people. This is the lesson from Ezra 3: If God is being praised today, then shout for joy! He does not need a temple to display his glory, nor does he need a full church to declare his goodness. He has defeated death on the cross by rising from the grave, and by faith, has given us access to the throne room of grace. We are his temples. He has brought us out of exile to move forward with the gospel, no matter the circumstances in this life.
So, when we are tempted to feel despondent over our first world exile, instead let us remember that God has been faithful to us and is still faithful even today. When we get back into the new rhythms of life, may we look forward, knowing that smaller doesn’t mean failure. It just means we’ve all been through something significant together. But God is bringing us through.