Have any of you ever had the experience of exile – whether a forced exile, or one that was self-imposed? Sometimes strained relationships cause a person to leave home, or they are sent packing by their family. Some people have to leave a place they love because it is no longer safe for them. Of course, there are those who are political or economic exiles. But they all share the experience of a separation from home and roots, and if and when they do go back, home has changed; the people have changed; and many things are not as they were before, and even going home brings a sense of loss.
The Israelites of Jeremiah’s day – the sixth century BCE – were in that place. They had been conquered by the Babylonian army, many of them captured and deported, and they lived in Babylon in exile for seventy years. Finally, the Persians conquered Babylon, and the person king Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return home.
But home wasn’t the same as when they had left. The city walls were broken down, strangers were living in their houses, those who had remained in Judea had married outsiders, and the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The people rebuilt the city, and the Temple as well, but it still was not the same as it had been before they had been taken into exile. The glorious presence of the Lord, whose sign had been the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke that had accompanied them all though their journey through in the wilderness, was not present in the rebuilt Temple; the most sacred place, the place here heaven and earth met. God had left the building, and they knew it. Things were still not right., and the people yearned for the day of Yahweh’s return to the Temple.
Into this situation, the prophet Jeremiah spoke a word of hope and promise on God’s behalf – long-term, but a promise, nevertheless. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…this is the covenant that I will make with them… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” God promises that his people will have a new start, a new covenant agreement, one in which intimacy with God, the life-giving law of God will be written in the hearts of all God’s people. They will become a living temple, the center of God’s presence and God’s glory. This was hope, and good news, and promise.
This past week I spent four days at the Evangelism Matters conference. Four hundred Episcopalians gathered from across our church, including some of the international dioceses. There was a great diversity of people: young, old, black, white, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, people with tattoos, people wearing Brooks Brothers blazers, men, women, teens, introverts as well as extroverts, some from very large churches, some from tiny churches – all gathered to learn more about “the spiritual practice of evangelism in the Episcopal Church which is seeking, naming, and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people – and then inviting them to MORE!”
There was tremendous energy, and joy as well as urgency in the workshops, and worship, and conversations. One very powerful example was an exercise that we did on the first day. We were asked to think of a time when we had reached the end of our rope, had hit the wall, and to remember the feelings we had at the time. And we wrote those feelings on one side of a piece of poster board. Then, we were asked how God had resolved the situation; what made it better, and we were to write those words on the other side. We walked around the room silently, showing our difficult feelings to one another, and then we turned the cards over and showed the other side. Some of the difficult feelings that people wrote down were: abandoned, loss, grief, confusion, sadness, fear, death, alone, ashamed. And then when we turned the cards over we found words like: comfort, meaning, friends, guidance, wholeness, healing, love, community. After we had shared silently with six or seven people, we very briefly told the story to one other person who listened to us, and then we listened to them. We all had a story about God’s love and care for us that had given us hope.
Just like the Israelites, we all had stories of despair and hope; of destruction and restoration; of being at the end of our rope, and being found by the love of God and by community.
And all of us have these stories – times in our lives that have been absolutely awful, and being held and loved by God through the faces and hands of others has made all the difference. That is Good News that we have experienced, the Good News of hope in the love of God.
In the Gospel reading some Greeks, some Gentiles, want to see Jesus. So they go to one of his followers, one of his disciples, Philip, and say “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip then tells Andrew, and they go together to see and speak with Jesus. Now, we never get to hear if these Gentile folks ever connect with Jesus, but what matters in the story is that there are people outside of the Jewish community, outside of Jesus’ own circle, who are curious, who are drawn to him, who see in Jesus the presence of God in a powerful way, and want to know more.
God had promised to his people a new heart, and a new covenant, and it was coming true in Jesus, and people were hungry and thirsty for this true love and hope which held up even in the face of death.
People are no different today; they are just as hungry and thirsty for true love, and belonging, and hope, and goodness, as any ancient people ever were – especially hope, love, and goodness in the face of exile, despair, and death. But they don’t always know where to find it, or that it is even possible to be found.
I hope and pray that all of you in your times of pain, or alienation, or sorrow, or despair have been held by the love of God; that Jesus has met you in that dark and terrible place and brought light to your path, to your heart, to your life. If you have been through this you have a story of hope and love that you can share with someone else who needs to hear it, someone who is in their own dark place. Just by sharing your story with a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor in their need, you can be a messenger of hope, a conveyer of God’s love, one who helps others to see Jesus. Just by offering to pray for or with another in pain, you are conveying that they matter to God, that God notices them, sees them, listens to them; in the very same way that God notices, sees, and listens to you. You matter to Jesus.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for
the honor of your Name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018