A couple of years ago I was in Lubambashi airport on the way home from a two week trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. We were already running a day late, because of a failure of a connecting flight the previous day, and there was some doubt as to whether or not we had secured seats on that day’s flight. I didn’t really understand what was happening, various officials kept asking for different fees to stamp documents, or let us through to the next stage of the embarkation process. DRC is a francophone country, so not only did I not speak the local languages, I didn’t really understand the European language that was being used.
I spent the first seven years of my life in East Africa, I’ve been back on four different trips to different East and Central African countries. On each of those trips, I’ve always been aware of my difference, of my foreignness, of being an ethnic minority, however briefly. But I’ve always felt safe, weirdly at home. Until that day in Lubambashi airport, when I was overwhelmingly aware of how out of my depth I was, and my route back to the UK seemed in peril.
On one of those other trips, to South Sudan, I met a parish priest called Christopher. In addition to the local languages, he had a working knowledge of English, French, and German. I asked him how he’d come to learn all three. He said that those were the languages of the different international organisations that had run the various refugee camps that he had been in during his adult life, as again and again he’d had to flee different conflicts that had erupted in his home country.
I wonder what your experience of being a foreigner is. Perhaps you’ve been on work trips or holidays to different countries. I wonder where you felt the most different, the most foreign. It might not even have been abroad. It might just have been a journey to a different part of the country or city you lived in, a neighbourhood you didn’t go to very often, that you didn’t feel safe in. Perhaps you didn’t just visit there, you ended up living somewhere you didn’t feel was home for some time. Exile can be physical, but it can also be mental and emotional. A long term sense of not fitting in, of being away from home.
In Jeremiah’s time most of the people of God were in exile in every sense – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. We can read the background to what has happened in 2 Kings 24. The Babylonian army, led by King Nebuchadnezzar had beseiged Jerusalem, and carried off the King, Jehoiachin, the Queen mother, and all the cream of the crop to Babylon. The temple had been stripped of its treasures and “only the poorest people of the land were left.”. Nebuchadnezzar had also installed a puppet king, Zedekiah, the uncle of Jehoiachin. God’s messenger, the prophet Jeremiah, who had issued plenty of warnings that this is what was coming, was left behind in Jerusalem.
He is now writing to those in exile, those who have been taken from their homes, their place of worship, everything that was familiar to them. If we read on in the letter we discover that some of their leaders had been telling them not to get too comfortable in Babylon, because they claimed that God was going to take them home, back to Jerusalem, soon. Not so says Jeremiah, it’s going to be 70 years before God takes you back to Jerusalem, a life time. So, get on with living well where you are. Work, pray, live. Make yourself at home in your place of exile, because if it prospers, you will prosper. Don’t waste your time and energy mourning for what has been lost, or just sitting around waiting for the next thing to happen. Make the best use of the time that you have, and the resources that you have, in the place that you are.
If we’re looking for an example of someone who took this to heart, you could look to Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They never compromised their faith or trust in God, but they applied their undoubted gifts to governing well in the roles that God opened up for them. Along the way some were thrown into a fiery furnace, and another to the Lions, but God protected them through all their trials. They kept their faith, followed God, and worked and prayed for the place that they had been put, even though it could have cost them their lives.
Four or five centuries later we come across another foreigner. At the beginning of the story we don’t know that he’s a foreigner, but we can be fairly sure that he was an exile. He, and his nine companions, had a skin disease. At that time, in that place, leprosy was so feared that any skin disease that looked like it might be leprosy, led to the exile of the sufferer. People didn’t understand how it spread, we still don’t, not really, but its effects are so significant and deforming that people who might have had it were ostracized, expelled from their communities – exiled in every sense.
These ten people probably lived in their own little community, cut off from the wider community, and dependant on being given food and clothing. They know that they’re not meant to come near people so they stand far off, and call to Jesus. “have pity on us”. Jesus sees them, is moved by their plight, and calls back to them. His instruction might seem a little strange to us – why did they have to go and see the priests? Well, the priests were the gatekeepers. They were the ones who looked at funny little rashes and skin complaints and decided whether they were leprosy or not. They were the ones who said whether you had to leave the community or not, and also whether you could come back in or not, if you claimed you were better. If you want the details you can read them in Leviticus 13.
So, the ten would have understood this as an implicit promise that they would be healed, otherwise there would be no point in them going off to see the priests. So, off they head, and as they go, they are healed. They have the possibility of returning to their families, their communities, their homes. But first, they return to thank the one who has made all of this possible. No. Only one of them does, the one now revealed to be not only an exile but a foreigner. Not only a foreigner but a despised Samaritan, the racial and religious enemies of God’s people. This is the one who chooses to come back to Jesus in gratitude, and is the one that Jesus commends for his faith.
As I was reflecting on these two accounts from the Bible, they got me thinking about being an exile and a foreigner. It seems to me that we are all exiles and foreigners. Not just, “we all”, in this congregation here this morning, but every single human being on the planet. We are all exiles and foreigners.
The Christian understanding is that we were all created by God, to live under God’s rightful rule and reign in God’s kingdom. The problem is that we have all exiled ourselves from living in that kingdom by our own disobedience, rebellion, and sinfulness. We want to live our own way, by our own rules, in our own little kingdom. So, left to ourselves, we are exiled from the kingdom we were created to be citizens of.
God is gracious, though. In great love he sent his son, Jesus, to live among us, in exile, to die for us, and to be raised to life to show us the way back home. If, like the Samaritan, we cry out to him for help, follow his commands, and believe in his name, then we can go home. We are brought into the kingdom of God once again. However, for the remainder of this life, we still live in exile, here in the world, waiting to go to our eternal home.
So, everybody is an exile. If we are at too at home in the world, then our exile will be eternal, we will never get back to the home that we were created for. If we realise this, and follow Jesus’ way home, then we have to live with the awareness of being in exile now, knowing that we are heading home.
So, how are we to live as faithful exiles? It seems to me that we could do worse than to follow the examples given to us by Jeremiah and the Samaritan.
What did Jeremiah say – build houses, plant gardens, start families, seek the prosperity of the city, pray to the Lord for it. I wonder what that looks like for you. What roots is God calling you to put down in your community, in the place that you live, in the place that you work. How are we praying for the prosperity of Eyton, of Wellington, of Telford. We are to live rooted lives in our communities, but with an ongoing awareness that we are exiles and that one day God will call us home.
And what about the Samaritan, what did Jesus commend him for? Gratitude and faith. Those two things which are hallmarks of citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are inexpressibly grateful to God for all that Jesus has done to make it possible for us to come home, for the very faith that enables us to continue to trust that we will see that home one day, and that it will be good.