10 Mar Return from Exile: Laid Bare
Return from Exile: Laid Bare
Ezekiel 12:1-7 and Luke 4:1-13
March 8, 2020
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
For centuries the church has used the 40 days leading up to Easter as a time to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by Satan. The gospels tell us that Jesus ate nothing during this time, which is why fasting is a common Lenten practice, a way of remembering that Jesus himself went without food. Perhaps some of you are fasting for Lent. Some people fast from meat. Some fast from caffeine, or alcohol, or dessert. But food wasn’t the only thing Jesus gave up when he walked into the desert. He also voluntarily cut himself off from people, which is why in a recent blog, I invited readers to consider some type of media or technology fast, to make more room for the silence Jesus inevitably experienced in the wilderness.
When Jesus walked into the desert for those 40 days of fasting and temptation, he was choosing to send himself into a time of exile. Exile is a theme that runs through the entire Bible. It starts when Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, and humanity has been in exile ever since which it why it remains as powerful a metaphor for us today as it was for Israel.
Exile is a condition in which you are cut off from your sense of place, your sense of belonging. It’s a place where you lack things that you need. It’s a time of isolation and suffering. In scripture, exile is often associated with the desert or wilderness which stands in stark contrast to the bounty and richness of God’s Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Part of the symbolism of Jesus’ exile is that he was demonstrating that he identified with and understood the exilic history of his people, since so much of Israel’s story has to do with exile.
Abraham was called into exile. He was called to leave his country and his people and move to a land that was experiencing famine. Later, the Israelites were sent to Egypt in another kind of exile, the exile of slavery. When they came out of Egypt, they refused to enter the Promised Land, which resulted in a time of exile spent wandering in the Sinai Peninsula. Much later the kingdom of Israel was split in two, with the northern kingdom eventually being exiled to Assyria and the southern kingdom exiled to Babylon.
Whenever we see a major theme like this, we need to pay attention because God is communicating something to us. There are things God wants us to understand about exile, and one of them is this: God uses exile. Time in exile is never wasted because God can and will redeem whatever has led us into exile, even if it is our own mistakes, things we’ve done in ignorance, arrogance or stupidity. God will work it all for our good.
We can experience exile for many different reasons. I’m going to start by naming five of them. The first kind of exile comes from unbelief. That’s what happened to the Hebrews when they failed to enter the Promised Land. They doubted God’s ability to help them overcome the obstacles they faced and to make good on God’s promises. That unbelief led to their exile.
The second kind of exile comes from sin and rebellion. That’s what you see in Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a prophet in a time when God’s people lost the right to live in the Promised Land not merely for doubting God but for rejecting God in order to worship the false idols of their culture.
Third, exile can come from bad choices. It’s not about unbelief or rebellion, but you made some decisions that set you back and sent you to a time of exile. For example, a poor financial decision.
Fourth is circumstantial. Sometimes we end up in exile through no fault of our own. Illness. A job loss due to a downturn in the economy. Betrayal in a relationship. Death of a loved one. Sometimes bad things happen for no reason.
The fifth kind of exile is self-imposed. That’s what Jesus did as well as Abraham. They ended up in a hard place because God called them to a hard place, and they obeyed. One of the most challenging aspects of Jesus’ temptation narrative is contained in the phrase, “the Spirit led him into the wilderness.”
At some point or another, everyone ends up in exile. You feel cut off. You feel displaced. You may well feel alone and misunderstood. Somehow you ended up far from where you wanted to be, and you aren’t sure how to get back on track. You wonder if you’ll ever get back on track. You might even wonder if God has left you. But here is the good news: God always brings his people back from
exile. God never leaves us in exile. Exile is only for a season, and it has a very specific purpose. “Then 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).
In Ezekiel 12, the Hebrew word translated as “go into exile” is galah and it means “to expose, to lay bare, to uncover or reveal, or even, to be stripped.” In fact, in Ezekiel 13, the same Hebrew word is used this way: “I will tear down the wall you have covered with whitewash and will level it to the ground so that its foundation will be laid bare (galah).”
God is speaking metaphorically to the Israelites, telling them that God is going to expose their true heart. The Lord is going to allow hard times to come in order to reveal who they really are. The point is not that God needs to know who they are; God already knows. But we are the kings and queens of self-deception. We are masters at avoiding and concealing the truth of the sin that resides in the human heart. So, “galah” is sometimes needed to lay bare the truth. For good and for bad, exile reveals what is in your heart. In Ezekiel, exile revealed a heart of rebellion amongst the Hebrews. But with Jesus, exile revealed in him a heart of obedience and trust.
This theme of exile invites us to ask: what has exile revealed about your heart? If there’s been a health crisis in your family, what has that revealed about the true condition of your heart? If your finances are upside down, or a relationship has ended, or you’ve been rejected, or your life has been upended in a way you never saw coming and didn’t want anything to do with, what has that shown you about yourself?
Most significant losses send us into exile, and Lent can be a deeply rewarding time of spiritual reflection as we ponder those experiences—what we endured, what we learned, how we changed. We can also use this season to enter a time of self-imposed exile to consider the darker side of our natures, not to beat ourselves up but because this kind of honesty can lead to greater freedom. We don’t fast from chocolate or coffee to earn brownie points with God. We fast to identify with the human experience of loss and expose our weaknesses. We lay bare our foundation before the Holy One who understands, loves and forgives all. Sometimes our lives are so busy, so cluttered, so noisy that we don’t spend much time dealing with who we really are. We don’t deeply consider what’s in our heart. But reflecting on exile during Lent exposes what’s really there.
Psalm 107 is a vivid description of people living in exile. Some wandered in desert wastelands, unable to find a way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, without food, water or home, and the psalmist says that as a result, their lives ebbed away. “Ebbed away” means they were “overwhelmed to the point of giving up.” Exile was sucking the life right out of them.
The psalmist continues with his vivid description. Some of the exiles sat in darkness and under the shadow of death, prisoners suffering in iron chains. It is a picture of people who are suffocated by pain. It feels like they can’t go on. Each day they think things can’t get any worse but each day they do.
You might be in a similar place. Maybe darkness and the shadow of death describe your situation. Perhaps you are filled with regret over what you’ve done or something you didn’t do that you know you should have. You aren’t in literal iron chains, but you feel as trapped in life as if you were.
But here is what I want you to see. These exiles didn’t lose hope. Instead, “They cried to the LORD in their trouble…” (v. 6). The last thing people in exile sometimes do is call out to God because they think God has forgotten them, or disappeared, or washed his hands of them. They assume God wants nothing to do with them. But the psalmist wrote this song to tell us that’s not true. Even when the reason for our exile is sin or rebellion, as it was here with the Israelites, God uses exile to get our attention and call us back home. God doesn’t lay us bare to shame or abandon us, so when your heart gets exposed and it’s not all it should be, don’t give up, but also, don’t cover up. That’s the other temptation, isn’t it? We are tempted to rationalize or deny or excuse or minimize what’s happened, or to defend ourselves and deflect blame. But that only deepens our exile.
When exile is a result of your own sin or rebellion, the best thing to do is to come clean. If you want to leave exile, own up to what you’ve done. Admit it and deal with it. Accept the consequences now because they won’t go away or diminish. Consequences for sin grow exponentially over time.
“Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and God saved them from their distress.” If you are in exile today, hear the psalmist’s profound words that God will not leave you there. God will bring you out of darkness, out of the shadow of death, and God will break your chains. The verbs used in this verse are powerful and active. God reaches into the mess you are in and pulls you out of it, setting you free from all that keeps you bound.
The psalmist writes with confidence, as if he knows something about God. Maybe it’s because he’s been through his own exile. But he closes by saying, “Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds, for God breaks down (demolishes) gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron” (vs. 14-16).
God doesn’t just knock down doors made of wood. God obliterates gates of bronze, then cuts through bars of iron. When it comes to our rescue, God holds nothing back.
Some of us are in exile. If we’re not actively in exile today, we have been, or we will be. I don’t know how you got there. I don’t know if it’s a result of rebellion or unbelief or bad choices or God’s calling or circumstances. But God is with you and will break through whatever it takes to set you free, so don’t give up and don’t lose hope.
Prayer: Jesus, in this season of Lent, we are conscious of your faithfulness and our unfaithfulness. We ask you to rescue us from our distress. We don’t ask because of what we’ve done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf. Come, Lord Jesus. Break through the gates of bronze and the chains of iron to deliver us from exile. Deliver us and help us to find our way back to you. Amen.