The events and themes of the biblical testimony of the pilgrimage of the covenant people provide us not only with landmarks that accent the church year, but also with metaphors that can be applied to the journey of faith, both personally and collectively.
Famine, bondage, liberation, wilderness, resettlement, nation building, the corruption and decay of idolatry and injustice, defeat, exile – the recurring cycle that we know in our personal experience and in the pages of history.
In the wake of the intensity of Advent and Christmas and their messages of a pivotal disclosure of the “light of the world” and the promise of “peace on earth,” we find ourselves at the beginning of a new year that will have challenges on many fronts to the living out and realization of those messages.
At this threshold, I find myself drawn to that period of the covenant community’s history when the hand of Babylon was defeated and replaced by Cyrus of Persia, whose perspective on public life led him to promote the release of captives and freedom for them to return and find restoration of what had been lost in exile.
The exile was a national catastrophe, well-deserved in the eyes of the community’s historians, brought on by a long history of misplaced priorities that abandoned all but the superficial aspects of the covenant. But with Cyrus, described by Second Isaiah as christos (anointed one), the exile was over, and the opportunity for restoration began.
The prophetic voices that had been stern and harsh in their judgments on covenant unfaithfulness now turned to words of promise and hope of a “new thing” that the Lord would be doing for and with them.
It is not hard to see some parallels with where we are in the present time, especially in the area of faith communities and their well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken much of what we have known as “church” into a kind of structural and functional exile, with necessary restrictions on programming and traditional forms of worship and ministry. It is safe to say, I believe, that no part of the faith family has been unaffected by this challenge.
But this new year comes with the promise of vaccines that will eventually temper the virus, and with new national leadership that appears committed to address issues that have long festered beneath the surface of our common life and infected many parts of it.
Communities of faith yearn to “get back to normal” after missing for many months the experience of community that is so central to the nurturing of faith. It is not hard to see our task as reminiscent of the desire to restore Zion and rebuild the Temple.
As we give thanks for this opportunity, we would probably do well to consider some other parallels from that experience that may be relevant to our task.
The picture we get from the less familiar parts of the testimony reveals that the return and restoration of city and Temple were not swift and complete.
There were those in exile who had become comfortable there and did not desire to return. There were differences of opinion about the details of the restoration, and different patterns of commitment to the task.
It was a long, slow process that fell far short of some of the visions of restoring Jerusalem and the Temple to their former glory. This is where we might discover the most significant parallel to our current experiences.
The Exile was a devastating loss, but it was also a context in which Israel refined its understanding of the covenant as a relationship not dependent on city or Temple, but on community. This refinement no doubt continued as they attempted what restorations they could accomplish in the circumstances of their return.
Their rebuilding would not be a reset to a former level of glory, but it would be a more relational community whose covenant was “written on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:31). The counsel was to “remember not the former things,” but to be open to the “new thing” that the Lord would be doing.
The testimony draws our vision to the renewal of creative energy that did not produce a bigger and better Temple, but a chorus of prophetic voices that saw a new future and a commitment to frame a theological narrative that would describe the loss of a “promised land” (geography) as the discovery of a “land of promise” (community).
Churches and other faith communities will have much rebuilding to do after our exile of Covidian captivity. In our return, perhaps we should hope not for a restoration of all our former ways but for a faithful application of what we have learned about ourselves and our ministries during our captivity.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).