Exiled in Babylon

The Covid-19 Chronicles : Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 3

When the Babylonians ransacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in 586 BC, the residents of Judea were carried off into exile, as prophesied by Jeremiah, who didn’t exactly win popularity points with a people who thought they were invincible as God’s chosen people. During their years in Babylon, the Israelites built homes, raised families, opened businesses, and settled into life in a land not their own. Some, like Daniel, Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednigo rose to high positions in the Babylonian government. 

Bereft of Jerusalem and the temple, they had no sacrifice for their sins nor could they gather for the great communal feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. This didn’t mean they were without God or His Word. They had the Torah and prayer. Daniel prayed daily facing the ruins of Jerusalem, and the people greeted one another with the hopeful sign, “Next year, in Jerusalem.”

The church in many, if not most, parts of the world has entered into her own Babylonian exile. Unable to gather together as a body due to local health restrictions, we find ourselves in a diaspora, scattered to our respective homes and neighborhoods. Not only can we not gather for the great holy days of our Lord’s cross and resurrection, but we cannot celebrate the central feast of our gathering, Holy Communion, the Supper of our Lord’s Body and Blood. We are much like Daniel and the exiles in Babylon, living on an exilic diet of the Word of God and prayer and saying to each other, “Next Sunday, we will be together again.”

There are great lessons to be learned in exile. God never lets a crisis go to waste, and this present CoV-2 crisis is no exception. He is raising a holy fear in this world that goes far deeper than the dread of disease and the pandemic pandemonium we are currently experiencing. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Staring at its own mortality, humanity is being brought to its arrogant knees before its Maker and called to repent. This is good, right, and salutary.

The church too is being tested in its exile. When John the Baptist introducted Jesus, he said, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will sort the wheat from the chaff. The wheat He will gather into His barns, and the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” God is winnowing the world and His church, and none of us escapes the blade of the winnowing fork.  It runs through each of us as the chaff of sin is sorted from the wheat of righteousness.

As our Lord’s parable of the soil teaches, only broken and plowed soil is productive. The spiritually shallow soil of emotionalism and revivalism is being plowed under. How can you have a revival if you can’t gather? The best you can do is a virtual revival in your living room as you sit on the couch in your pajamas sipping a latte. The conflicted weedy soil of lives cluttered with activities and superficial concerns is being turned upside down. Gone are the Sunday sports leagues and the gladiator games that diverted our attention from things eternal, not to mention the cares and concerns over our investment portfolios. Even as the hardened pavement of the world’s unbelief which rejects God’s Word is broken by the shattering scenes of death, so the complacency of a church grown comfortable with holy things is feeling the blade of the Lord’s plow.

We are learning that we do not live by bread, or even The Bread, alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. God is prodigal with His Word, and He speaks to us in many ways – Baptism, Scripture, preaching, Absolution, Supper, and the conversation of believers. Though we may be without one form, we are never without the Word.

We are learning that our idols have feet of clay and cannot withstand the Day of the Lord. Science may flatten a pandemic curve, but it cannot sustain an economy or a community, much less our spirits. Our leaders, whether in home, church, or society, are not our saviors; they are mere fallible morals who cannot save us from the ultimate threats of Sin and Death. Politicians and pastors are not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. Only God can ultimately save us and has, in the dying and rising of His Son. Our exile will wean us from our idolatrous dependency upon leaders, whether in church or state, to our total dependency on our Father in heaven, who knows our needs even before we ask of Him.

We are learning that Christ is not only present in our gathering but also within us, in the very core of our beings, what the Scripture calls the “heart.” “I no longer live, but Christ lives within me,” wrote the apostle Paul. In the contemplative silence of exile, we find that Christ is truly “with us” – both among us and in us – now and always and unto the ages of ages.

We are learning to be Christ for others and to see Christ in others. The body of Christ in exile is the body of Christ in each of its members, a royal priesthood of believers. As Luther put it, we are to be Christ for one another and our neighbor, particularly our neighbor in need. And in our neighbor, we will also find Christ there to be served. “As often as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me,” Jesus said.

There is a danger – the danger of assimilation, becoming comfortable with the new normal of exilic life. When the edict of Cyrus allowed the Israelites to go back and establish the walls of Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, the return was not a flood but a trickle. The Israelites had grown comfortable in their Babylonian neighborhood and no longer hungered for Jersualem. This will be our test as well. Will we become comfortable on our living room couches in this time of exile, or will we devote ourselves, as Daniel and the faithful did, to the Word and prayer, longing to return to the gathering and the Supper we once took for granted?

The Lord sustained Daniel and the Israellites in their decades of Babylonian exile, and He will sustain us in the same way – by His Word and the gift of prayer. Even if we never again gather in this life around Word and Supper, we know that our scattering ends in a final great gathering of the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end.

Short of that Day, I hope to see you again soon, face to face. Next Sunday, should the Lord so grant it.


©2020 William M. Cwirla