How to Return from Exile

22 Mar How to Return from Exile

How to Return from Exile
Lamentations 1:1-7
March 22, 2020
Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

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Text: Lamentations 1:1-7

1How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lover she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve,and her lot is bitter.

5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

7 Jerusalem remembers, in the days of her affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in days of old. When her people fell into the hand of the foe, and there was no one to help her, the foe looked on mocking over her downfall.

It has not escaped my attention that I started a sermon series on “exile” just as the word “Coronavirus” entered our vocabulary and made exile a reality in our lives.  Prior to January, for many people the word “exile” might have conjured up images of someone like the Dali Lama who was kicked out of his homeland of Tibet and ever since has been forced to live as a man without a country.  The Biblical account shows us that Israel was often in exile, forced from their land to live in Egypt or Assyria or Babylon.

But, as we are now all too aware, living in exile isn’t just about leaving your country.  Exile happens on a personal level whenever life throws you a curve and you end up in a place you never planned on being.  In scripture, the desert is often symbolic of the isolation and hardship of exile. When you and I end up in exile, we aren’t in a literal desert, but we still end up in a dry place emotionally and spiritually, a place where we can feel displaced, disconnected, confused, and often depressed.  We can be cut off from people, and instead of hungering and thirsting for food and water, in exile we hunger and thirst for things like peace, love, health, stability, purpose, direction, connection, or comfort.  

We all experience exile at some point or other.  For us, exile can be:

  • Emotional:  depression, PTSD, loss & grief, anxiety and worry
  • Spiritual:  feel disconnected from God or have had a bad church experience  
  • Relational: divorce, estrangement from a loved one, struggles with a child, a strained family relationship, changing roles of an adult caregiver to an aging parent
  • Financial: debt, loss of job, financial setbacks
  • Work: bad fit, difficulties with a co-worker, boss, or employee, toxic work environment
  • Health: debilitating pain, terminal disease, chronic medical condition
  • Season of life:  transitions between college and marriage and/or career, young children/empty nests, managing golden years
  • Physical:  Perhaps for the first time for some of us, a communicable disease has forced us into an unusual state of physical isolation

In week one of this series I named five possible reasons for exile.  This morning I want to offer five steps on how to return from exile. Let me be clear:  there is no magic formula and I am in no way implying that the return from exile isn’t hard and often painful work, or that it will happen on the timeline we want.  But, there are some practical steps that can help us begin to find our way back. 

If you want to return from exile, first, you need to name it.  There is something powerful about naming what you’ve got.  It’s the difference in walking around knowing you don’t feel well but not understanding why, versus having the doctor say, “this is what you’re dealing with.”  I had a profound experience of this last summer. After my daughter moved to Denver in July, I had what might best be described as a “meltdown.” I knew it was too intense to be solely about Emily’s relocation, but I couldn’t figure out what was happening.  A family therapist was able to name what I was dealing with as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and to connect the dots of how all the losses, deaths, and tragedies in our family over the past few years were all “coming home to roost”, so to speak, all at once.   Once she named it, so many things made sense and it normalized what I was going through. By naming your exile, you realize that what you’re experiencing is common and you’ll eventually move forward.

Second, if you want to return from exile you need to grieve it.  In general, I think we are poorly equipped for grief.  Many people don’t understand how important it is to grieve a loss or how to be present to others in their grief.  Our culture tends to send the message that we’re supposed to “suck it up” and keep going as if everything is okay.  But you cannot do that and be healthy. To grieve means to identify a loss and appreciate the impact it has on you. And then, instead of ignoring or dulling the pain, you give yourself permission to feel it, to be sad about it, and to begin to come to terms with the “new normal” that has thrust itself upon you.  If you try to move forward as if nothing has happened, you aren’t living in reality, because something HAS changed. When you experience loss, life is not the same. It’s important to honestly acknowledge that.  

In the sixth century BC, Babylon rolled into Jerusalem and totally destroyed the city.  They killed a third of the people, they took a third of the people back to Babylon in exile and they left the poorest third in Jerusalem.  The prophet Jeremiah wrote a poem expressing the pain of that experience, called Lamentations. It starts like this:

Jerusalem once was full of people, but now the city is empty.

Jerusalem once was a great city among the nations, but now she is like a widow.

She was like a queen of all the other cities, but now she is a slave.

Do you see what Jeremiah is doing here?  He is naming his losses. The city is deserted.  They’ve lost their former glory. They are now slaves.  Jeremiah keeps going, using several “no” phrases: no one to comfort, no rest, no one comes, no food, no one to help.  Jeremiah refuses to minimize, much less deny, all that he has lost and suffered.  But he also doesn’t get stuck. By naming and grieving these unwanted tragedies in his lament, he begins to move towards acceptance.  

Some people think, this is so negative.  If God is in your life, shouldn’t you be more positive?  Well, no. At least, not at first. It’s important to be honest about what we’re experiencing and how we feel about it.  Jeremiah didn’t exaggerate or complain. He just stated the facts. He refused to sugar coat what had happened.

I’ve experienced a lot of loss and I’ve been with people in times of loss.  The last thing you want when your life has just been blown apart is someone to walk in the room and try to put a positive spin on everything.  There is a place for that, and it will come later. But in times of deep pain, if you need to cry, cry. If you need to yell, yell. Trust me, God can take it.  Expressing such feelings reminds us of our need for God. When you admit your anger and fear and sadness it’s a lot easier to turn to God, to ask God to come and help you find the path out of exile.  The alternative, to keep it all bottled up inside, is a ticking time bomb, and it will eventually go off, often at the worst possible moment. 

First, name your exile.  Second, grieve your losses.  Third, if you want to return from exile you need to learn from it.  Two weeks ago I mentioned that the word for exile in Hebrew is galah.  Galah means “to go into exile” but it also means to expose, lay bare, or reveal.  In exile your heart is laid bare.  You see things about yourself that you wouldn’t normally see.  But it’s not just your heart that is laid bare; God’s heart is also laid bare.  The Bible tells the story of a man named Job.  Job was stripped of everything valuable to him.  He had his own personal exile experience and out of that he concluded this: “God reveals (galah) mysteries from the darkness and brings the deep darkness into light” (Job 12:22).

That is to say, God reveals Godself to us in dark places.  Galah means a lonely desert experience, but it also means a time of revelation.  In exile, we learn things about God that we can’t learn on the mountaintop.  When things are going well, we don’t always hear God. But when times are tough, our ears are more finely tuned to hear what God has to say.

Most of the book of Lamentations is about mourning, five chapters full of complaint and grief.  The book ends like this: “Why do you always forget us?  Why do you forsake us so long?  Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:20-22). 

Based on the open and close, you’d think the book has nothing good to say, no hope to offer.  But Jewish poetry is written in such a way that it places the most important truth at the center of the poem, and when we look there, Jeremiah tells us what he’s learned to be true about God: “…my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’  The LORD is good to those whose hope is in God, to the one who seeks God” (3:20-25).

That is Jeremiah’s main point.  He directs us to the faithfulness of God.  Out of all this pain come these incredible words of faith and hope.  Jeremiah is saying that exile isn’t the worst place. Why? Because there are lessons you learn in exile that you can’t learn anywhere else.  There are ways in which you get to know God and yourself that you can’t know any other way. But you need to be alert and look for them. Yes, express your anger, your fear, your despair.  But know when it’s time to sit up and listen rather than sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. Good things can happen in exile. God reveals Godself in exile.

Next, if you want to return from exile, reframe it.  Once you understand that exile isn’t the end of the world, it helps to reframe the experience. Reframing means you stop seeing things only from your human perspective and begin to see things from God’s perspective.  Once you see things from God’s perspective things can begin to turn around for you.

Have you ever seen how ball players react when they get pulled from a game?  The coach calls them out and sits them on the bench. Maybe they messed up, maybe they got hurt, maybe they seemed fatigue and in need of a rest.  Some players pout. Some get angry. Some even argue with the coach. But what does a smart player do? A smart player pays attention to how to get back in the game.  They might go ride on a stationary bike to keep loose and ready. They might talk to another coach about how to improve their play. They follow what’s happening on the field, so that as soon as the coach calls their name, they are ready to pick up the action.  Something similar happens for us in exile. There comes a time to focus less on our complaints and anger and to start paying attention to what’s happening all around us. So, don’t pout. Don’t give up. Stay ready to get back in the game, to re-engage with people and life.  Gratitude is one of the practices that helps us stay ready. Staying connected to people who encourage us is another. Prayer is another. Find those practices that help you reframe your exile so you can see it from a broader, more eternal perspective.

Finally, if you want to return from exile, expect to return from it.

There’s no formula for coming out of exile.  There is no timeline. I can’t promise you when it will happen.  But the Biblical record shows that God always brings his people out of exile and their experience of that redemption leaves them different, more faithful, than when they entered.  “They will know that I am the LORD their God because I made them go into exile among the nations, and then gathered them again to their own land; and I will leave none of them there any longer” (Ezekiel 39:28).


Exile is an inevitable part of life, but God has a plan for you to return.  God’s faithfulness is great, and God’s mercies are new every morning.


Let us pray:

Father, in the middle of heartache Jeremiah was able to say: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness… The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him.  Father, be with those of us in exile today. Fill us with hope and thanksgiving.  Reveal yourself to us.  Show us the path out of exile.  For the sake of Christ, we pray.  Amen.


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