Return from Exile
What good can come out of COVID disruptions in the Church?
(This series of articles was written at the beginning of the first lockdown in March/April 2020)
Previous articles are still available on the Premier Christian radio website – (until they finally pull the plug!)
What good can come out of Flockdown? To answer this we have to return to the aftermath of the Exile.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)
God may have judged them and exiled them, but He intended them to flourish. He intended to bring them into a new thing, so that, when the Exile was over, they would be better equipped as God’s people. Let’s continue in our Jeremiah passage:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. (Jeremiah 29:10-12)
A familiar passage, usually wrenched away from its original context, a go-to assurance for God’s plans for us. Perhaps this promise is strengthened when viewed in its original context? When Flockdown is totally over, what will we have learned from it? Will God’s plans for His people really kick in? If so, what would we have learned during Flockdown to make us so aligned with God’s purposes? Let’s return to our friends in Babylon.
They were told to build houses and settle down. It wasn’t easy, there was a lot of weeping by the rivers of Babylon:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. (Psalm 137:1-6)
They were a shocked people, they had left behind the familiarity of their life in Jerusalem, a life dominated by the Temple, now razed to the ground by the Babylonian invaders. They were now strangers in a strange land and had to learn to adapt. In particular, how were they going to worship God without a Temple? God still had to be worshipped, but He had forced them into a corner, they had to find new ways.
With Flockdown, our physical churches were now taken from us, we had to find new ways too. There is a remarkable parallel in that, in both cases, worship of God reverted back to the original model of Deuteronomy 6 and Acts 2 … the home! In both cases, worship had veered away from the original model. The Temple system had become corrupt and oppressive; the local church model had often become ineffectual and self-serving. So, in both cases, God brought a bad thing in order to stir things up.
After the Exile, the centre of worship was based on home and family. Whether it was celebrating Sabbath and the Biblical feasts, or through the exercise of hospitality, the nurturing and education of the next generation or the care expressed towards the extended family. In exile, the Jewish homes became mini-temples, as families got together for study, fellowship and corporate worship. So the focus was wrenched away from the “professionals”, the priests and the hierarchy that surrounded them, and returned to the people and their homes and communities. Out of this came the synagogue system, often sited in homes, or at least accessible places, built wherever families needed to worship together. This was very much akin to the house churches that sprung up in the 1970s and 1980s and perhaps we are going to see a similar situation, as some Christians react to the new realities and decide to turn a problem into an opportunity.
Haggai was God’s prophet (along with Zechariah) when the pain of the Babylonian exile had given way to comfort and complacency. The 70 years prophesised by Jeremiah had passed and the Persian ruler, Cyrus, had issued edicts for the Jews to return to Jerusalem to start to rebuild the Temple. Then the work stalled, as a result of external opposition and the dream faded. The clock ticked away …
The Jews who had returned to Jerusalem had settled in perhaps a little too well and began to neglect their God and their obligation towards the partially re-built Temple in Jerusalem.
“Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Haggai 1:4)
Haggai warns them twice to consider their ways, to think very carefully what they are doing and to particularly consider the fact that, in their material comfort, they were still not really thriving.
This is an extract from the book, Flockdown: Is the Church out for the count?, available for £5 at https://www.sppublishing.com/flockdown-263-p.asp