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Exile 3

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We are continuing our series looking at the theme of exile in the Bible. In 586 BC, the nation of Israel was conquered by the empire of Babylon, and the majority of its people were carted off into exile, to live for generations scattered across the great Babylonian empire. And this experience came to shape how the Israelites made sense of their world and how they told their story. And as we live in our own form of exile during this pandemic, scattered and separated from the world that we called home, there is much that we can learn from their experiences.
This morning I want to talk about three things. First, I want to look at how God intended from the beginning for his people to be a vehicle of his blessing to every nation on earth. God blessed one family in order to bless all families. Second, I want to look at how the story of Israel’s exile shows us that God is faithful to his mission and his method despite his people’s failings. Even in exile, God does what he promised. And finally, I want to look at how the story of Christ’s church so closely follows the story of Israel, as also we are called to bring God’s blessing to the nations.
So, turn with me to Genesis 12.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Very quickly, let’s recap the story of Genesis up to this point. God created the world and everything in it, including human beings. And he told the humans to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Go and fill the earth. Well, they don’t do that. In fact, as we saw last week in Genesis 11 with the tower of Babel, rather than spreading out and filling the earth as God’s representatives, they all gather in one place to exalt their own name and status. So in response, God confuses their language and scatters them over the face of the earth. And these scattered peoples become the nations of the world.
So the question becomes, what’s to become of these scattered and rebellious nations? Is God just throwing them away? Throwing in the towel and saying this was all a mistake? And if not, than what is he going to do to bring them back into his blessing? Well, strangely enough, God chooses to bless one of those scattered families, so that all the families of the earth can be blessed.
Here in chapter 12, God calls Abram into a unique relationship. For no given reason, no indication of worthiness or merit, God tells Abram that he will bless Abram. While the people at Babel sought to make a name for themselves, God promises to make Abram’s name great. He’ll watch out for Abram and his family - blessing those who do him right, and cursing those who wrong him. And what is the purpose for this blessing? What’s the final and crucial line in this promise? Abram’s family is chosen for this unique relationship so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So from the beginning, God’s chosen people are called to function as the vehicle for God’s blessing to the nations. God’s mission is to bless all the families of the earth, all the nations of the world that were scattered in their rebellion against him. God is continuing to pursue them, this is his mission; and the method that he has chosen to accomplish his mission is to choose one family, one nation to serve as the vehicle for his blessing to extend to all families, all nations.
So every blessing we see in Israel’s story must be held up to this purpose. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all become tremendously wealthy during their lives. They are so richly blessed, and according to Genesis 12, for what reason? Moses and the Israelites are rescued from the hand of Pharoah, blessed with a miraculous escape, and for what reason? These descendants of Abraham are given a land that is flowing with milk and honey, the Lord himself driving out their enemies from before them, and for what reason? All these blessings can be traced back to this purpose - that through this people, through the blessings they’ve received, through the relationship that they have with the Lord, all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.
And yet again and again, God’s people take these blessings and this unique relationship for granted. They forget why God chose them in the first place, and they begin to serve only themselves and seek their own continued blessing at the expense of all others. Again and again, God called out to them to stop and turn back to the Lord and become blessing that they were always supposed to be, but his prophets are ignored. And so God scatters them over the face of the earth through exile.
And as a reader of this story we are left wondering, if the intended vehicle for God’s global blessing is in exile, scattered and disconnected, what’s to become of God’s promise that all the nations would be blessed? Has he thrown in the towel? The answer is no. God is faithful to his mission and his method despite his people’s failings. He is faithful to his mission, to see all the nations blessed, and his method, to use his chosen people as the vehicle of his blessing.
If you have your Bibles, turn to Isaiah 60.
Isaiah was one of those prophets pleading with Israel to return to the ways of God. Here at the end of his book of prophecies, we come to this poem which is written for the exiled Jews living in the diaspora, which is the word you’ll hear often when talking about communities of Jews living out in the nations, away from their land. So Isaiah is writing to these communities of God’s people scattered all over the known world, and he’s giving them hope that God had not abandoned them; but specifically, that God had not stopped using them to bless the nations, even those to which they had been scattered. Listen to what he says:
60 Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
3 And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
4 Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.
7 All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you;
the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall come up with acceptance on my altar,
and I will beautify my beautiful house.
What a beautiful poem! Did you catch his message? “the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” Seen by who? “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising…they gather together, they come to you.” What is Isaiah saying? He’s telling these exiled Jews that even in their exile God is using them as a means of blessing the nations. Even as they are living in a foreign land, following as best they can the ways of God, they are shining his light that brings life to the nations.
You see the names of these people that are being drawn to God light in his people, and while we would miss their relevance, the Israelite would not. They are the names of Abraham’s other descendents who were not a part of the unique relationship that followed down the line of Isaac. Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Kedar, Nebaioth - they were outside of the covenant promise given to Abraham and then to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. But what Isaiah is saying to exiled Israel, is that those on the outside will be brought into God’s house, and they will worship the Lord, and all this happens through the witness of God’s people - even while in exile.
And we actually see this at least partially fulfilled in the New Testament. When we get to Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends and fills the disciples of Jesus, we learn that present in the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Pentecost are:
Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
This list of nations covers the outline of the known world. How did the knowledge and worship of the Jewish God spread to all of these scattered places? It was these disconnected, exiled communities of God’s people, shinning the light of the Lord through their lives.
What is God doing? He is actually using the scattering of his people to further his good purposes in the world. He is using the exile of his people to enact his mission to bless the nations. What this says about our God is that he will do what he has always planned to do. As the psalmist says, “He does all that he pleases.” But what we see in Israel’s exile is that how God goes about accomplishing his purposes can vary, as he chooses to respond to the choices that we make. In this case, he is using the means of exile to accomplish his will.
But what does any of this have to do with us? If you haven’t already seen it, let me make it clear: the image of small pockets of people scattered all over the world, shining the light of God for all the nations to see, this is the image that we are given of the church in the New Testament.
Just before Jesus leaves the disciples and ascends to heaven, he tells them what he wants them to do. He says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Sound familiar? It should! He’s saying go out and shine the light of kingdom for all to see!
But they don’t. They stay in Jerusalem, and they do a lot of amazing things there, but they aren’t going out to the nations like the Lord intended. So what happens? They are scattered over the face of the earth. Do you see a pattern in all of this? In Acts 8 there is a great persecution against the Christians in Jerusalem. Violence that escalates to the point of martyrdom. So there’s a mass exodus of Christians out into the nations. They go north, south, east, and west; and as they go, they tell the story of Jesus and they begin to form communities in all of these towns and cities to which they are scattered. And in these communities they live by the teachings of Christ. They love their neighbors. They care for the vulnerable. They comfort the sick. They visit the imprisoned. They bless their city - shining the light of Christ that the nations might see it and be blessed.
Redeemer, this is who we are. This isn’t Israel’s story or the apostle’s story, this is our story. Like Abraham, we have been richly blessed, and we’ve been called into a unique relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And we don’t bear this unique relationship alone, but we share it with one another as the Body of Christ. We are a blessed community, and to what end have we been gifted so much from our Father in heaven? For what purpose do we exist as God’s people? God has lavished us with grace upon grace in order that we’d be his means of funneling that same grace to all the families of earth - to shine the light of Christ’s kingdom on those who are still in darkness.
And so, even in our scattered condition right now during this pandemic. Even as disconnected as we are from one another, our God is faithful to his mission and his method. You are his preferred method of extending his love to the world. Even now, the Lord intends to use you to do good - to bless and to love. May we rise to his call, today, and be a blessing to the world around us.
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