It is a horrible thing to be exiled: to be thrown out and forced to leave the place which is your home . . . and to be sent to a place which you do not know and which does not know you. It is horrible, and most of us cannot imagine it. We’re lucky, of course, for exile is not really an unusual human experience. In fact it is quite common. How very many exiles (refugees) there are in the world today. And throughout history how often have individuals or families or even whole nations of people been compelled to leave their homes and go to a foreign and most often unfriendly land.
It happens for many reasons. Perhaps it is a war that forces people out. Or an epidemic or pestilence or famine. Perhaps it is politics or economics or race or religion. There are many reasons, but always the experience is roughly the same. Most of the time they don’t want you in that foreign land any more than you want to be there. The people don’t speak the language that you speak, and everything looks different. There they don’t eat the food that you eat, and their clothes and their habits and their customs are unfamiliar, even disgusting to you. Things don’t work the same way as they did at home. And often the people there shun you and treat you with shame. And then, the worst thing . . . one day you discover that your children are becoming more like them and less like you.
In exile you are cut off. Cut off from your past, and cut off, it seems, from your future. You cannot go back, and yet you are not at home where you are. People lose their bearings when they are uprooted like this. And their standards. They give up hope sometimes. Sometimes they lose their will to live.
The passage which we heard from Isaiah this morning was written to people in just such a situation. It is surely one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture. It was written as a message of reassurance to a people in exile.
Comfort ye. Comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned:
Behold the Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him. . . He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. Life up thy voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah, “Behold your God !”
This particular exile took place about twenty-six hundred years ago. In the year 605 B.C. the Babylonians swept down from the north, defeated the Kingdom of Judah and laid siege to its capital, Jerusalem. They put the city to the torch and burned it to the ground. And later, in 597 B.C., among the people who were left alive after the carnage, they chose the brightest and the best, the leaders, those with education, the artisans, those who had a trade. And the Assyrians deported them to Babylon, their own city, and resettled them there. (It was an effective method of conquest: take away all the leaders and anyone who knows how to do anything and then a country can never build itself back again.)
And so the Jews found themselves in exile, in a foreign land, “among a people of strange speech.” ( Ez. 3:5 ) And yet we know it was not a time of great privation; strangely enough they were treated well in Babylon. Indeed, the period the Exile was a rich and formative one for Judaism itself. But even so, it was exile, and they longed to return. Far away from home their very existence as a people was threatened. Their sons and daughters learned foreign ways and gave up their own traditions. Some among those in exile began to doubt their religion. God had forsaken them or perhaps the God of Israel was powerless or absent in this place.
“By the waters of Babylon”, one of them wrote, “there we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, 0 Sion. As for our harps we hanged them up upon the trees that are therein. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” ( Ps. 137 )
It was to this dejection, this despair, this loss of hope that Isaiah addressed himself, and in the name of God he made the people of the Exile a promise: they were not abandoned. God would come to them and he would bring them home.
And that, you see, is exactly what did happen. Less than fifty years after their deportation, there was a new conqueror and the Empire of the Babylonians collapsed. And with the new conqueror came a new policy. The Exiles were allowed to return home. In time Jerusalem was rebuilt and in time they had become once again a people and a nation. On of them left us another song, this time about their rejoicing:
When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion, then were we like unto them that dream. Then was our month filled with laughter, and our tongue with joy. Then said they among the heathen, The Lord hath done great things for them. (Ps. 126)
But they never forgot their Exile, as unhappy and bitter as it had been. Like the experience of slavery in Egypt which was their beginning, exile and return became a way by which Jews understood themselves and thought about their God. It was an experience which profoundly marked and determined them. Perhaps indeed it prepared the Jews for the many centuries of Exile and bitterness that they were yet to know.
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About six hundred years after Isaiah wrote what we heard in the lesson this morning, another group of people began to understand that same passage in a way somewhat different from what Isaiah had originally intended. It was not a contradiction of its meaning, nor was it a distortion, but an amplification and enlargement of what the prophet meant. Most of these people were Jews, and they too had experienced exile, and they too were convinced that God had come to them and had brought them home. And they looked forward to yet another and a greater home which God would make for them. I am speaking, of course, of the people who wrote the New Testament.
The exile they had known had nothing to do with where they were, but with what they were. It was an inner exile. It was a spiritual Babylon. It was the state of not being at home with oneself and not being at home with God. This was an exile, as they understood it, which afflicted all humanity, and there was no place one could go to escape, no home, at least in this world, to return to. They called this exile sin.
But if they understood themselves to be in exile, they also believed with great certainty that God had come to them in Jesus and was delivering them from the exile of their sins. In Christ God would establish was even now establishing within them and within their community, the Church, “ new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells”. ( II Peter 3:13 ) God was again returning them from exile and bringing them home by making them in Christ, by His grace, at home with Himself.
Permit me a brief aside: do you know what “parish” means? I’ve mentioned this before. Do you remember? We are the Parish of the Advent, but do you know what the word means? It’s taken from two Greek words which together mean “away from home”. The implication is that a parish is one’s home away from home. It is the place to which one goes to be truly at home: at home with God, at home with one’s fellows, at home with one’s self.
And so those New Testament people, the very ones who invented the word “parish”, who felt themselves returned and returning from a spiritual exile, read the prophecy in Isaiah of God’s promise to His people in a strange and alien land, and they could not but see it also as God’s promise to them of the Messiah whom they knew, the Christ who led and leads them out of spiritual Babylon into their true and holy home. And it speaks as well to us, doesn’t it? We who both know and await the same Messiah.
Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people saith your God! Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. Lift up thy voice with strength, 0 Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah, “Behold your God !”