As a campus minister, I keep some weird hours. And on occasion, I’ll find myself watching late night television. One of the features of late night television is that they have commercials for products you never knew you needed. From vacuum packing your leftovers, blankets with sleeves (for you and your pets), air purifiers, space age chamois cloth, to anti acne cream, there is a fix out there for whatever ails ya.
In fact, the question really only seems to be: what is the best way to fix what’s wrong? There are all kinds of competing products and strategies out there to make your quality of life better. There is the traditional route with medicines or procedures. There is the holistic or homeopathic route. There are those who swear by exercise and particular diets.
And of course, there are the old standbys that people have turned to for a long time: food, alcohol, drugs, sex, money. The things that we crave and the things that we imagine will fix whatever is going on wrong with us. It’s easy to scoff at such a notion, but there sure are a lot of people out there trying those strategies. They’ve been around for a while and it seems like they’ve got quite a following.
II. THE PRODUCT
But see, we in the church know that those things won’t make you better. We know that money won’t bring happiness and contentment. Alcohol and drugs provide relief for a time but cannot bring healing and wholeness. Sex, power, success, possessions, status… none of those things can bring you happiness. We know that. All of those products are flawed. All of those products fail to deliver on their promises. You will not find fullfilment in any of the things of the world. There is only one thing that can bring you fulfillment: God.
After all, isn’t that what all those healing stories in the Gospels are all about? People who’ve tried everything else, doctors, medicines, but find that nothing can bring them healing like Jesus. All you have to do is reach out and touch his clothing and it works just like magic.
There are a lot of competing products out there vying for your attention and claiming to be able to cure what ails ya. But not one of them comes close to what God™ can do for you.
God™ is the greatest product. You can almost hear the little trademark symbol after it. God is the best life strategy you can find to fix whever might be wrong in your life. God is the ultimate product, and lucky for you, we have a lot of God on the shelves here in Church, so come on down! Because we have the ultimate product, don’t we? We know that happiness and contentment won’t come from alcohol, drugs, and money. And we sure as hell know it won’t come from a ShamWow or a Snuggie. It can only come from God.
For so long, we’ve been told about God in precisely that fashion. The solutions of the world have been lifted up and then thrown down as incomplete, ineffective, and false. We have been told that none of these things will lead us to happiness, wholeness, and peace. And then we have been told that God is the answer. In effect, the Church has become the ultimate Infomercial sponsor.
Because God™ is a fix-all. Unhappy? Get some God™! Lonely? God™’s all the company you need? Sick? God™ can cure that! Short on cash? Give a little money to a televangelist or pray hard enough and God™ will bless you with more money! Whatever it is that you need, God™ can take care of it. God™ is like Oprah, Apple Computer, Google, and James Bond all in one! What more do you need? You’ve got God™; everything is fine!
There’s only one problem with that approach: it’s a crock.
Statistics vary but according to one survey, women lie, on average, three times a day; while men average six lies a day. It was reported, however, that the most common lie for both sexes was, “Nothing’s wrong; I’m fine.”
And boy is this problem compounded in the church. For so long we’ve been talking about God as the solution to all our problems, as opposed to the solutions offered by the world, that we have failed to see the great lie at the heart of that message.
Because things are not fine.
It’s curious that we have lost sight of that reality. Because our scriptures are full of lessons about the world not being fine. Just looking at the Old Testament alone we have: fratricide, universal sinfulness requiring the flooding of the entire world, human hubris, sibling rivalry, slavery in Egypt, abuses of royal power, idolatry, abuses by the powerful against the poor, persecution of the prophets, and then we get to the major example that dominates much of the Old Testament: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in Babylon.
III. THE EXILE IN BABYLON
In 587 B.C., the armies of Babylon, led personally by King Nebuchadnezzar, breached the walls of Jerusalem, captured the city, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and dragged the population off into exile in Babylon. The catastrophic nature of this event is hard to grasp for people who have never been occupied by a foreign power, had their homes destroyed, or taken into captivity.
This event was not only devastating on the people of Judah militarily and politically, it was devastating theologically. For everything they believed about their covenants with God lay in ruins. The covenant with David, wherein God had promised that a ruler from the line of David would be on the throne of Israel in perpetuity and promised to dwell in Jerusalem was shattered. There was no longer a descendant of David on the throne and God’s holy and inviolable capital was a wasteland, torn down stone by stone. Even the covenant with Abraham was in tatters: Abraham had been promised land, descendants, and blessing, and his descendants were now bereft of their land and accursed. The psychological and spiritual trauma of the Babylonian Exile cannot be underestimated.
In fact, it is the only thing that helps us to make sense of certain Biblical passages, like the 137th Psalm, which begins
Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?”
A lament that in Exile, driven from the land and from everything they had ever known, notes the mockery of their captors who taunt them: “Sing us one o’ them Jew songs!”and responds by asking the painful question: “How could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?”
It is a lament that ends with a verse usually left out of the lectionary readings or the musical adaptations: “Daughter Babylon, you destroyer, a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us! A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!” That’s a sentiment that can only make sense coming out of the terrible pain of loss and alienation in Exile.
In the Jewish tradition, the very name “Babylon” would come to mean “the enemy”, the evil empire, synonymous with oppression and persecution. This sense was picked up on by the early Church as well, and “Babylon” became code in the Book of Revelation for the Roman Empire. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!” writes John of Patmos, heralding the day when God will bring the system of Roman oppression down.
And Babylon has even entered the popular culture as a place of desolation and wickedness. Usually referring to places like Las Vegas. And even one of the first apocalyptic nuclear war novels—that I had to read in the 7th grade—was called Alas, Babylon.
Babylon is not a good place. Even though there would continue to be Jewish communities in Babylon long after the Exile was over. Communities that continue in Iraq to this day.
IV. SPIRITUAL BABYLON
It should be no surprise then that “Babylon” has also come to take on a metaphorical, spiritual meaning. In the Afro-Caribbean religious traditions, particularly that of Rastafarianism, the word “Babylon” symbolizes oppression, injustice, and hardship. And in the broader Christian tradition, it often represents a place of spiritual exile and alienation.
See, people will ask us how we’re doing and we’ll answer, “I’m fine” but in reality we’re in Babylon. Things are not fine.
But the church so rarely reflects that.
See, we have a real problem with our hymnal. And I’m not talking about those dreadful hymns written in the 80’s (or the dreadful hymns written in the 1800’s, depending on your point of view). I’m talking about the fact that the hymnal is terrible at lamenting. The hymnal is terrible at embracing brokenness and leaving it broken.
Last spring, our Lenten sermon series on campus was on the various “wilderness” experiences of faith: want, despair, tragedy, loneliness, and betrayal. It was really difficult to come up with hymns for “despair”. The hymnal simply refused to despair. All the hymns were about hope. Not one of them said that things were terrible. They all said that things may seem terrible, but in reality they’re okay because God is with us.
We keep acting like God is the fix-all product that we have to offer. The cure all to all problems that we ignore the reality that so many people out there—hell, so many people in here—are in Babylon. We seem ill-equipped to embrace that reality in the way we do church.
V. MAKING HOMES IN BABYLON
But that is what the prophet Jeremiah is telling us to do.
Prior to Judah’s destruction, Jeremiah had warned the people that they would have to accept the Babylonian yoke—that is, they would have to accept being under the domination by the Babylonians because of their faithlessness. The people and the king rejected Jeremiah’s words and believed that because God was on their side, everything would be fine. It was not fine. The rebellion that Judah launched against their Babylonian masters resulted in the destruction of the city, the Temple, and the beginnings of the Exile.
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because his writings are often laments that mourn over the destruction headed Judah’s way or the destruction that has already taken place:
“If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.” (Jeremiah 9:1 CEB)
In fact, the Book of Lamentations is the prophet’s own reflection on what has befallen his people:
“Oh, no! She sits alone, the city that was once full of people. Once great among nations, she has become like a widow. Once a queen over provinces, she has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night, her tears on her cheek. None of her lovers comfort her. All her friends lied to her; they have become her enemies.” (Lamentations 1:1–2 CEB)
“Is this nothing to all you who pass by? Look around: Is there any suffering like the suffering inflicted on me, the grief that the LORD caused on the day of his fierce anger?” (Lamentations 1:12 CEB)
But it was this same Jeremiah who, after the exiles had been taken into captivity, wrote the lesson that we heard earlier:
Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
That is: You’re in Babylon. There is no quick fix. There is no rescue right around the corner. You’re going to be there for a while. You’re going to have to live in Babylon. Accept it. Embrace it. And pray for it.
What if the church, were not a place that promised that everything was okay, but that acknowledged that everything was not? What if the church were a place where people could be broken without feeling like they were somehow being terrible Christians because they still feel broken. Even after coming to church and singing hymns about how everything is great.
We rarely consider the spiritual violence we might do to someone when we tell them that because they’re a Christian, everything is fine. And they know that things are not fine and wonder Does God not love me? Why don’t I feel better? Why am I still hurting?
Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection, writes of how worship might be reframed to embrace the reality of brokenness. He quotes a song by Pádraig Ô Tuama called “Maranatha” composed of words taken directly from the laments of Jeremiah, that could be a hymn for such a church:
You are strength but I am weak (3x) … Maranatha (3x)…
I’ve given up sometimes when I’ve been tired (3x)… Does it move you? (3x)
I curse the day when I received the light (3x)… When you deceived me (3x)
I’ve f—ed it up so many times (3x)…Hallelujah (3x)
I’ve found my home in Babylon
I’ve found my home in Babylon
I’ve found my home in Babylon
Here in exile
Here in exile
Here in exile
As Rollins writes, “This is not simply a song about suffering and the sense of cosmic homelessness—it is sung from that space, remains within that space, and renders that space palpable. It is a song that invites us to connect with the depth of our suffering rather than running from it or trying to cover it.” A song like this speaks to people who are broken, who are living in their own Babylons, and helping them to face that brokenness directly, without shame and surrounded by love and grace.
In another sermon I once preached about how God likes to use broken people, I reflected that it may be that God has no other option.
And so it may be for us that we have no other option but to make our homes in Babylon, because we inhabit a world that is broken, full of broken individuals. The church that would minister to those broken people in the midst of brokenness must be present in the brokenness.
Indeed, this was a lesson the Jews in the Exile learned. The Davidic covenant was in shambles but they realized that they had not left God behind in Jerusalem, but that God had gone with them into Exile. God could be known even in Babylon.
At its heart, Christian faith proclaims that our salvation is given to us by one who is the Incarnation of the very word of God. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. God’s eternal heart made real and present with us.
That means that we are called to live out a faith that is Incarnational. A faith that comes to where people are and is present with people where they are.
We are called to be a church that creates spaces not full of quick fixes but of acceptance of people as they are, broken and hurting. We are called to be a church that does not shy away from people’s doubts, fears, loss, alienation, and pain. But a church that embraces that same doubt, fear, loss, and alienation, in a community of love and grace. And in so doing, modeling the Christ who welcomed us as we were, who stood with us in solidarity, and through whose solidarity we are saved.
We are called to be a church that witnesses to the Kingdom of God, but a church that makes its home in Babylon.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4–7 • The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem. The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
Revelation 18:1–3 • After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was filled with light because of his glory. He called out with a loud voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a home for demons and a lair for every unclean spirit. She is a lair for every unclean bird, and a lair for every unclean and disgusting beast because all the nations have fallen due to the wine of her lustful passion. The kings of the earth committed sexual immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth became rich from the power of her loose and extravagant ways.”