Piercing the Darkness of Exile

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In its opening stanza, the ancient hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” captures the essence of the Advent season:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent is the season in which we worship in celebration of the 1st Coming of Jesus Christ and long for His Final return. The theme of exile is a poignant one for 2020.  It’s been a year of pandemic, mass unemployment, political division, protests for justice, and the suffering of isolation. 2020 has marked a year where we truly may feel the longing for an end of the darkness and the coming of Christ.

The message of Advent and Christmas is that God has pierced the darkness by sending Emmanuel into the world. The birth of Jesus Christ signaled to the faithful that the massive disruption of the Babylonian Exile was truly over. The long awaited messiah and savior from God had arrived to renew the Kingdom of God. 

In the Bible, this teaching is most explicit in the genealogy found in Matthew 1:1–17. A careful reading of the genealogy reveals that three names and one event stand out from the others: Abraham, David, the exile to Babylon, and Jesus Christ. 

Abraham sits at the beginning because he is the figurative father of Israel, and he was the recipient of God’s promise that all nations of the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:1-3). As son of Abraham, Jesus will be the means of extending the goodness and grace of God to the world.

David represents God’s ideal ruler who will extend salvation and reign over a kingdom of justice and peace. The messianic hope of the Old Testament represented a longing for a new son of David to arise and bring salvation to God’s people.

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It is fascinating that a historical event (the exile to Babylon) shows up in the genealogy. Why is exile mentioned?  Because the exile to Babylon in 587 B.C. effectively put an end to the Davidic Kingdom and raised questions about the viability of God’s promises. Was God finished with Israel? Do God’s people have a future? The Jews had returned home from exile in 538 B.C. and even rebuilt their temple in 516 B.C., but as the 1st century A.D. dawned, they remained under the suffocating rule of Rome and were hardly living in the reality of the Old Testament’s promises. They longed for a renewal of God’s mighty acts of salvation. Although they were in their homeland, they felt as though they were still living in a spiritual exile. The question of an abundant future was still alive.

Matthew’s genealogy announces that Jesus Christ (or better, Jesus the Messiah) is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. In fact, the birth of Jesus happened precisely at the right moment. In 1:17, Matthew observes that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to exile, and 14 generations from exile to the birth of the Messiah. This symmetry shows that the darkness and despair of exile in no way thwarted God’s larger plan of sending Jesus. In fact, in retrospect, Matthew shows that Jesus arrived right on schedule.

The meaning of Jesus’ birth finds additional theological reflection in Matthew 1:18–25 where the Messiah receives two names: Jesus and Emmanuel. God will no longer be “far away” because Jesus will embody and fulfill the Scripture found in Isaiah 9 by bearing the name “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us” (Matt 1:23). God’s people will no longer carry the sting of exile because the name Jesus means “the Lord saves [his people from their sins]” (Matt 1:21).

What are some implications for today?

1) Exile remains a powerful metaphor and reminds us that darkness does not mean that God is finished.

Let us hope that 2020 proves to be a once in a generation challenge. But it likely won’t be the only deep international crisis we will face in our lifetime. As followers of Jesus, we have hope because God’s people have lived through and ultimately thrived in many difficult seasons through the centuries. God’s good future is secure and we await it with courage and hope.

Secure in our knowledge of the coming Kingdom, we can live as light in the darkness of today. We embrace holiness of heart and life now because our future is secure in Jesus Christ.

This truth opens up missional opportunities for Christians. Reach out to those around you who are fearful and lonely during this season. Be generous to those in need. Love and pray for your enemies. Embody the reality that Jesus has come to end exile and to bring the love of God near to all who seek him.

2) Jesus calls us home and sends us out.

Advent and Christmas are more than merely an announcement that exile is over. Exile is over, but this fact doesn’t mean a return to a previous status quo. Instead, Advent/Christmas invite us to embrace a new normal in which we live as resident aliens. Our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). In Matthew’s Gospel, the birth of Jesus represents the end of exile and beginning of God’s long awaited age of salvation. As Jesus’ followers, this means going back into the world. If Matthew’s Gospel begins with the announcement that exile is over, it ends with the Great Commission (Matt 28:16–20). The Risen Jesus sends his disciples to the ends of the earth to “Make disciples of all nations.” Yes, exile is over, but this means that we now willingly re-engage the world to the ends of the earth.

The mission of the Church is a call to live as exiles among the nations but with an important twist. We are no longer alone. The Gospel of Matthew ends with a promise: “Behold I am with you always to the end of the age.” The fulfillment of the promise of Emmanuel finds its fullest expression in our living out of the Great Commission. Our Risen Lord and Savior abides with his Church in its mission. As followers of Jesus Christ, we may find ourselves a long way from the place of our birth, but when we live our lives on mission for God, we are never far from our truest home.

The gospel comes to us on its way to someone else and some place else. May your experience of Advent and Christmas in 2020 renew your hope and empower you for mission in the new reality and opportunities of 2021 and beyond.

Reflection:

1) In what ways does the theme of Exile connect with your life in 2020?  How does Advent and Christmas feel different for you and your family?

2) What are some ways that you can reach out with the good news and love of Jesus to friends and family who may be lonely and struggling during this season?

3) What if following Jesus Christ were the surest way to find your true home and discover your new normal?

If you’re interested in learning more about the Bible’s grand story, including the themes of exile, community, mission, and holiness, get Invitation: A Bible Study to Begin With by Brian Russell from our store.

Through the study, you will:

  • Learn the overarching story of the Bible from Creation to New Creation in ten weeks.
  • Study, learn, and live out 50 key truths drawn from the central passages of the Old and New Testament.
  • Be transformed to live a missional lifestyle shaped by the way of Jesus.

The goal of the Invitation is not merely information—it seeks the transformation of readers as they encounter the good news of Scripture and realign themselves continually with its powerful truth. Get if from our store here.

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Brian D. Russell (Ph.D.) is author of Invitation: A Bible Study to Begin With (Seedbed) and serves as Dean and Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is also curator of the Deep Dive Spirituality Conversations Podcast (https://deepdivespirituality.podbean.com/)

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