Are We Exiles? | Matthew 5:6-10
Over the month of August, we are looking at a series called The End of Me, based on a book written by Kyle Idleman. We are looking at Jesus's Sermon on the Mount and unpacking some of the counter-intuitive truths. Three weeks ago we looked at brokenness is the way to wholeness, two weeks ago mourning is the path to blessing, and last week it was Authentic to Be Accepted. Ultimately, we will discover how Jesus transforms us as we begin to live out these paradoxical principles. Only when we come to the end of yourself, at the end of our robe, can we begin to experience the full, blessed, and whole life Jesus offers.
Today, I feel led to change tack a bit. When I looked at the two beatitudes inverses 9 and 10, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:9-10 NIV), it made me think about my faith and my country,
For the past decade, what I call the moral decay in our society, has often consumed my thinking and prayers. And I guess it is being heightened again with the incredible amount of debate in Australian society over same sex marriage. In my circles, many are mourning for what we had but are seeing that we are losing. As Dorothy said to Toto in the Wizard of Oz, “I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore” as she looks across another world where she doesn’t feel like she belongs.
And for a growing number of Christians, it beginning to feel like we’re not in Australia as we used to know it anymore.
A couple of decades ago, no politician would challenge issues like Same Sex Marriage, Abortion, Religious Education and Chaplaincy in Schools. And yet today, many of us Christians feel like our freedom, our influence, our values are under threat. Perhaps even more than this, many feel that Christianity itself is under attacked. It certainly doesn’t seem like we’re in Kansas anymore.
With these feelings of threats and attacks on our faith, the topic of Christians being in exile has been raised and debated in journals, books, and conferences. David Startling, who is a lecturer at the NSW Baptist Theological College has written in the Bible Society’s magazine Eternity, that “Exile, it seems, is the flavour of the year.” For example, last year the Nexus16 conference (hosted by a Sydney Anglican church and live-streamed to various locations around the country) adopted as its theme “Ministry in Exile”. And in a recent and widely-read blog post, the Western Australian writer, Steve McAlpine, urged readers to brace themselves for the transition into “Exile Stage Two” – a new level of cultural estrangement, in which it begins to dawn on us that we are living in Babylon (as the objects of scorn and ridicule, sometimes dragged into the town square to be lashed and humiliated).
Exile, it seems, is the flavour of the year. So are Christians really in exile? Is there a valid biblical basis for the recent flurry of “exile” language? And if there is, what are the implications for our life and ministry? If the question is asked at a literal level, the answer (for the great majority of us in twenty-first century Australia, at any rate) is of course a straightforward “no”. Most of us, live pretty comfortable, settled, suburban lives, in the country that we were born in or chose to adopt as our own. The circumstances of our daily lives could hardly be more different from those endured by people who have been forcibly displaced from homeland and family.
When we look in the Bible, we do see such terms that are applied to followers of Jesus. Peter, for example refers to a group of scattered Christians as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11 NIV).
John Piper is blunt about this. He says, “We are exiles. “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20 NIV). “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14 ESV).
This includes Australia. Australian culture does not belong to Christians, neither in reality nor in biblical theology. It never has. The present descent toward Sodom is not a fall from Christian ownership. John the Apostle reminds us “the whole world is under the sway of the evil one” (1 John 5:19 HCSB). It has since the fall, and it will until Christ comes in victory. God’s rightful ownership will be established in His time.
In a physical sense, we are not like exiles for many of us enjoy the comfort and peace of living in our country. But in a spiritually sense we are exiles, only that we haven’t really thought about this before.
Before, we Western Christians have enjoyed incredible privileges. For a long time, we have openly taught religious education in State Schools across the nation; we had been allocated free air time on television; we were able to preach in public; we are able to worship freely; we have prayers to Open Council Meetings to Federal Parliament; we have a huge cross erected facing towards our Parliament House in Canberra; most Christian institutions like schools are still allowed to employ only Christians if we want; Christian not-for-profit businesses are tax free; and even Pastors across Australia are blessed to have half their income taxed free. These are incredible privileges that we have as Christians, but it can be argued that they are not our right. We are blessed to have all these and more privileges but they are not our right.
I will be voting no in the up and coming Same Sex Marriage Vote and if the majority votes no and Federal Parliament then also votes no, I will not be saying “I told you so” nor will I be celebrating in huge victory. I will though be extending the right hand of Christian fellowship to all people for we are all broken and in need of hope and healing. As James says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13 NIV).
If, though the majority votes yes and Federal Parliament then also votes yes, I will not be making a scene about it. I will though be extending the right hand of Christian fellowship to all people for we are all broken and in need of hope and healing. As James says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13 NIV).
For many, me included, there will be disappointment if the vote is Yes, and it will be yet another sign of the moral decay in our society. And probably the chances are that in the years ahead we will find ourselves more and more frequently noticing how we are relating to the circumstances of the New Testament’s original readers compared with those in which we live today.
As followers of Jesus, how do we live as exiles in a country that is increasingly becoming hostile towards our faith?
There are four Biblical considerations.
1. We are a part of society
First, we are to be a part of society. In the Sermon on the Mount, straight after teaching about being persecuted, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14 NIV). We aren’t to withdraw. John Piper says, that “Christian exiles are not passive… being exiles does not mean being cynical. It does not mean being indifferent or uninvolved. The salt of the earth does not mock rotting meat. Where it can, it saves and seasons. Where it can’t, it weeps. And the light of the world does not withdraw, saying “good riddance” to godless darkness. It labors to illuminate. But not dominate”.
Being Christian exiles in Australian culture does not end our influence; it takes the arrogance out of it. We don’t get cranky that our country has been taken away. We don’t whine about the triumphs of evil. We are not hardened with anger. We understand. This is not new. When I first started my journey into being disheartened of the moral decay, an elder reminded me that the world was in worse decay than now when the Early Church commenced. Antioch, Corinth, Athens, Rome. The Empire was not just degenerate, it was deadly. For three explosive centuries, Christians paid for their Christ-exalting joy with blood. Many still do. More will. As Jesus told us, “Everyone will hate you because of me” (Mark 13:13 NIV). For those first Christians, this was a time for unconquerable love and ministries of mercy.
We do, for example, need to remind our politicians and media that any removal of tax benefits to Christian charities would be bad for Australia. Natasha Moore wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last October how she asked one of Australia's leading experts on charity law, Anne Robinson, what would happen if the government did simply revoke tax concessions for churches and start taxing them like corporations. Would it matter that much? Anne Robinson said, “The church has no entitlement to special treatment under tax law," she said. "It is also true to say that if the church closed up shop and didn't provide the schools, the hospitals, the social welfare infrastructure – society would go bankrupt, basically. It would cause the kind of social disruption that would bring governments down. They could not fund these social goods without the contribution of the church”.
For those first Christians, yes, it was a time for influence — as it is now, but not with huffing and puffing as if to reclaim our lost laws. Rather with tears, persuasion, prayers, and perseverance, knowing that the stupidity of racism, the exploitation of the poor, the de-Godding of education, the horror of abortion, and the collapse of heterosexual marriage are the paths to moral society decay.
2. Respond With Humility.
Second, we need to respond in humility. Some of the actions and words spoken and done in the name of the church have not be glorifying to God or at worst, were pure evil. The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse revealed some very dark and ugly side of the church. What saddened me was commenting on the continuing defensive posture of some sections of the Church as it was investigated. Phrases which more or less convey the sense of; ‘We are trying you know’, ‘It’s not all that bad’, ‘We did our best at the time’ and ‘Others were much worse’. There is a lack of lack of acknowledgment of guilt and shame but most of all a lack of compassion and the absence of the word ‘sorry’. Karina Kreminski from the Baptist Theological College has written, “The church is certainly being punished at the moment in Australia but some of it is warranted and if that is the case, our first word needs to be ‘sorry’ and our posture must be one of compassion. We must not be overly defensive when we are legitimately assessed and ridiculed in this season. This will certainly also require courage but with a good dose of humility”.
3. The Way of The Cross
Third, we must understand that a follower of Jesus must take up their cross. Jesus told us that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34 NIV). As Jesus suffered, so will we. But Peters, “after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10 NIV).
For years, we have been privileged to have many laws that not only line up with our values but also to our advantage. This may not always be the case, and so we have to be reminded that we are to journey in the way of the cross.
4. The Path of Love and Peace
Fourth, we are to lead in the way of love and peace, not in war of words or violent protests. In Jeremiah 29, the Prophet Jeremiah tells the elders, priests, prophets, and all the people who had been exiled in Babylon, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NIV).
And when we turn to the New Testament, we read again what Peter said to those who he referred to as exiles: He tells them in 1 Peter 3:11, “Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it” (1 Peter 3:11 NLT). They are to live “such good lives among the pagans” that the slanders of their enemies are silenced and their neighbours are drawn to worship God (2:12, 15). Most of all, they are to testify to Jesus, by what they do, what they suffer, and what they say (1 Peter 3:13–17). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus again taught us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9 NIV).
John Piper has written that “The greatness of Christian exiles is not success but service. Whether we win or lose, we witness to the way of truth, beauty, and joy. We don’t own culture, and we don’t rule it. We serve it with brokenhearted joy and longsuffering mercy, for the good of man and the glory of Jesus Christ”.
The kind of exiles we are to be is not a bitter, resentful people, harkening back to better days, when we had more power and influence. We are to be instead those who know that the culture around us, whatever culture that is, is temporary. We are to pattern our lives not longing for the past but hope for the future. This means a holy discontent. We pray for God’s kingdom to come (Matt. 6:10). We groan with the creation around us for the end of the wreckage of the curse (Rom. 8:23).
Russell Moore has written that “The political and cultural climate of [Australia] does not make us exiles. It can, however, remind us that we are exiles and strangers, just as our ancestors were. Aussie Christians can wake up from the illusion of “Christian Australia,” and learn to seek first the kingdom of God.
This doesn’t mean a retreat to the catacombs, and it doesn’t mean returning to monasteries. We are gospel people, mission people, which means we must remain engaged with the mission field around us. But we may need to engage in different ways to preach the Word and to serve the lost and vulnerable.
Our society has changed and will continue to change. I do grieve what is happening but I can’t remain in the past. We had it pretty good. Perhaps a new day is dawning for the church in Australia to wake up, to stop being Luke Warm, to learn what it means to really love one another so the world will know that we are Christ’s disciples; to be humble but courageous in living out God’s Word, and to earnestly seek for His kingdom to come. Thinking about this actually gives me hope. We may not be in Kansas anymore, but a day is coming that we will experience something better than we can ever imagine.