Voices from the edge, or beyond—exiles from their own community—are important for us to hear, to recall us to the core of what we believe and what we know is right and good for all. Scripture offers consistent testimony about the importance of valuing the voices of exiles. It is a word for the church today, not to dismiss those who think, act, speak, behave differently. It is a word for the church today, not to force out those who do not conform to assumed norms. The value of each and every person underlies the motif of “exile” that appears in scripture.
Every year, at Christmas time, as we remember the story of Jesus, we can feel the moments when he might be classed as being “in exile”, even amongst his own people. Luke reports that he was born to parents who were forced to be on the move, uncomfortably displaced (albeit temporarily) from their home town of Nazareth at the critical moment of his birth (Luke 2:4–6). He was born in a manger, as no room was available in the kataluma, the guest chamber in what we might presume to have been a house of Joseph’s relatives (Luke 2:7).
He was born to parents facing potential disgrace—it is said that they were betrothed, but not yet formally married (Matt 1:18), and the putative father was preparing to “dismiss quietly” the mother of Jesus (Matt 1:19). In Matthew’s account, Jesus was born into a situation of some danger, as King Herod so feared that “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2) that he arranged for a savage pogrom, having “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” put to death (Matt 2:16).
In the Matthean version of the origins of Jesus, the family became refugees, fleeing Israel for the safety of (ironically) Egypt (Matt 2:13–15). When it was safe, they would return, not to their home town of Bethlehem in Judea (as Matthew has it), but to the less-known village of Nazareth in Galilee (Matt 2:19–23).
The moments of exile in this story—disturbed, displaced, under threat, in fear of life—resonate strongly with the experience of millions of people in the contemporary world. Perhaps these elements in the story also resonate with people of faith, who have found themselves “in exile” from their community of faith, for various reasons?
Deep in the experience of physical and cultural exile that the people of Israel had been immersed some six centuries before Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were themselves thrust into exile, a prophetic voice declared that good news still held firm, despite the unfamiliar surroundings and the uncomfortable, even disturbing, dislocation which that experience brought.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace”, this prophet-in-exile proclaims, praising the one “who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isa 52:7). Looking back with longing on his ruined homeland, he exhorts “the ruins of Jerusalem” to “break forth together into singing … for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isa 52:9).
It’s only a few verses later that the prophet begins a song that expresses the depths of despair in exile, and yet looks beyond that immediate experience to a time of restoration and joyous salvation—a song that we know as the fourth “Servant Song” (Isa 52:13–53:12). That’s the song that Christians interpret as applying to Jesus: “my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high … he was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity … he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge … the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities”.
Read through the lens of the story of Jesus, this song describes him, the servant, chosen by God for this task. Read in the context of exile, and identifying the servant with Israel (see Isa 41:8, 9; 44:21; 49:3), the song points to a redemption that must mean return to the land and restoration of the city. It is, in the end, a song of hope for the exiles.
The prophet has a strong and clear faith, which may not have sounded so clearly to those holding him captive in exile; he can see that “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isa 52:10). This stands as a word of hope that would echo through the later pages of history, in songs sung by the people (Ps 22:27; 65:5–8; 67:7; 98:3), in the advice given by the sage (Prov 30:4), in the prayer offered by Tobit (Tob 13:11), and on into the story of the one born in exile, chosen by God to be “light of the world” (Matt 5:14; John 8:12; 9:5) such that the good news that he brings will be known “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8; 13:47).
The value of holding firmly to this faith, despite the oppositions and sufferings of the time of exile, is what the prophet offers to his people. It is a living-out in advance of what Jesus teaches and models in his own life. In keeping with this motif of “exile” in the Christmas story, here is a poem written by a self-styled exile, my friend and colleague Janet Dawson, which I share with you today (with the permission of Janet).
A Prayer for the Exiles
Holy One, have mercy on your exiles,
those of us who no longer fit
within the traditional teachings of the church.
Those whose voice falters in the songs,
who cannot say “Amen”,
who desperately think of something else during the sermon.
Those who think the greatest heresy of all
is to say that You require suffering and death
in order to forgive.
Those who have given up on going to church at all.
Have mercy on us, Holy God,
those exiles who cling to faith
and yearn for a bigger, wider story,
a bigger, wider community.
A story that embraces the vast expanses of time and space,
and the enormous complexity of the cosmos.
A community in which everything and everyone is connected
Holy God, as we approach the Feast of Incarnation,
be born again in us, your exiles,
Tell your story in words that we can understand.
Create from us a new community.