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Dreaming of Home
In 587 BC the world of the Israelites collapsed around them. The Babylonian empire stormed their homeland, sacked Jerusalem, and deported many of their prominent people. The children of God were exiled in Babylon, the imperialistic empire of the time, intent on expanding its reign into the Mediterranean world.
It was the end of the world as they knew it. 587 BC; as epoch-defining for the nation of Israel as 9/11 has become for our own time.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.1
Walter Brueggemann2 argues that the prophet Isaiah speaks his somewhat surprising words of hope with this catastrophic reality in mind. Imagine Isaiah's readers: they were second-generation exiles whose memories of home were now little more than stories. Their reality was life in Babylon -- perhaps many of them had become used to it -- it was just the way things were, with no hope of change.
But Isaiah dared to share a dream. He had a vision, and it didn't include staying in Babylon. He gave voice to a new hope, the chance for the nation to again relive their identity as the people of God.
Looking Back to Move Forward
Scholars speak of Isaiah 40-55 containing this new message of hope.3 While in the first part of the book (chapters 1-39) Isaiah speaks words of warning and of the judgement of Yahweh, here he shares a new hope. God is going to do a new thing.
These dreams of a new reality are possible because of Yahweh's faithful covenant relationship with the people of God. Isaiah casts a new vision based on the action of Yahweh in their history time and time again.
To move forward, Isaiah asks the people to look back, to remember. Listen to these words of the prophet, as he calls to mind the stories of past redemption:
Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.4
This is just like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.5
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live. I will make you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast sure love for David.6
A new hope and new reality is possible. Yahweh has acted before in the most hopeless and desperate of situations for the people he loves, and he will do so again. Isaiah calls the people of God – exiles in a foreign land – to hope once more. He inspires them to challenge the Babylonian definitions of reality and to dream new dreams.
A People in Exile?
This seems fine for 6th century BC Israel, but just how can such a call relate to us – 21st century western Christians, with jobs and mortgages? The metaphor of exile seems a bit much, surely? I mean if we were third world Christians maybe, but exile, here and now in Aotearoa New Zealand?
We live in a democracy with no despots and imperialists telling us what to do. Sure, traditional western values are being challenged, but we still have incredible freedom. So what of exile?
Brueggemann7 suggests that the metaphor is in fact entirely fitting for the American church. He argues that the church is bombarded by definitions of reality that are fundamentally opposed to the gospel story.
While the American context differs from our own, we, too, are immersed in the western culture which is shaped by the same values. The 'consumer capitalism' or the 'western dream' which dominates our western worldview is the 'New Empire': the 'Babylon' which defines our hopes and dreams in ways completely opposite to the vision of the Kingdom of God.
Tom Sine describes the western dream as seeing the dawn of a better future in terms of "ever increasing levels of economic growth, technological progress, and personal consumption."8
Sine goes on to contrast the Kingdom of God with the western dream in his book Mustard Seed vs. Mc World. He talks about the contest between 'Mustard Seed' and 'Mc World', with two very different visions for our global future and two entirely opposing values systems. He suggests, though, that while the western dream persists there is growing disenchantment with it, among both Christians and non-Christians alike.9
In the 1999 cult film Fight Club, the main character Tyler Durdan delivers a recruitment speech to his underground, narcissistic gathering, which echoes this disillusionment:
We're the middle children of history, no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our war is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won't. We're slowly learning that fact and we're very, very p****d off!10
Waking up to Exile
Just as Isaiah was a prophet of a new hope, Jesus too proclaimed a reality vastly different from the dominant vision of the Roman Empire. Against the imperial and militaristic Roman definitions of reality, Jesus dared to share his radical vision of the Kingdom of God in his Sermon on the Mount; preaching humility, simplicity, justice and grace.
In the midst of war and violence Jesus said, "Love your enemies". In the face of poverty he urged, "Sell your possessions and give to the poor." Overwhelmed by hatred he pleaded, "Father forgive." Calling a people from exile, he dared to dream of a gentle revolution, in the midst of Empire, that could change the world.
In his first epistle, the Apostle Peter also reminded some early Christian exiles of their identity:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people . . . .11
Peter urges his readers as 'aliens and exiles' to live differently. Not to let the stories of Babylon grow dull in their memories, but to see the mighty hand of Yahweh delivering his people again and again to new realities. Peter urges his readers to remember.
But are we aware of our exile? Are we ready for new dreams and visions? Will we listen to the prophet songs of new hope?
We too are called to remember and to dream new dreams. We can't sit still, we have to live another way. We have to look back and see the hand of Yahweh in our story and be inspired to be part of the new kingdom reality.
We too need to remember, along with the revolutionaries and rebels, the prophets and poets, the deliverance of Yahweh. We need to remember Jesus' deliverance of his people from exile.
We, the People of God, are in exile; we are strangers in a strange land. But perhaps sometimes we forget. We get used to Babylon. We need prophets to come and wake us up and tell us that this is not the Promised Land, this is not our reality. God has a new thing for us, the people of God, and he has a new thing for this world -- and it is not the vision of Babylon.
Listen to the cry of Bob Marley in his song "Exodus":
Open your eyes and look within, are you satisfied with the life you're living? We know where we're going we know where we're from, we're leaving Babylon, we're going to the fatherland.
So let us dream new dreams, kingdom dreams. The words of Tom Sine seem fitting to end with:
At the centre of our lives, God calls us to a new dream that is different from the western dream. It is a dream of a God who invites us home to a world made new . . . and it is an invitation to join sisters and brothers all over the world in allowing God to use our mustard seeds to see his kingdom come.12