The Theological Paradigm for the Church in the midst of COVID-19 is Exile

This blog is a sequel to this blog where I sketch out the practical reasons why the Church has to prepare itself for the long haul. Given that that is the case how should the church reflect on this season of life?

(If you’ve read the title of this article you can probably see where I’m going with this, but…) Where in the Bible do we get stories and reflection on a chaotic societal upheaval which had a seismic impact on every aspect of daily life? Which Biblical narrative is about being suddenly torn away from everything that is normal, being cut off from loved ones and being left dislocated in a strange new space? Which portion of scripture contains the visionary insights of the people of God as they come to grips with this new normal and start to see the opportunities to live as God’s people in a strange land? You guessed it – Exile.

Ezekiel 1 (For a great overview of the book see here)

The book of Ezekiel starts with him sitting on the banks of the river outside Babylon, Ezekiel is in Exile and he sees a vision of four living creatures each of which has four faces and four wings. Of the four faces, one was a human face, one an ox, one a lion and one an eagle. They each had two wings spread out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body.

You should go and read the vision for yourself but the point here is that he is seeing Cherubim (Ezekiel 10:8-15) the same sort of cherubim which are described as being in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24), that were found the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1) and where prominent throughout Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:23-35). This is an image of the presence of God associated with the Holy of Holies, the place where God’s presence dwelt. But there is a crucial addition in Ezekiel’s vision:

“15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 17 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.

19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. 20 Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”

These Cherubim have wheels!

006-ezekiel-calling

The presence of God is going mobile: just because Ezekiel is in a strange and foreign land doesn’t mean YHWH won’t or can’t go with him. The good news for the people of God who find themselves in Exile is that they have not left God behind.

1 Peter 1

But you might be asking, haven’t Christians always seen themselves as living in Exile? Yes. Ever since Peter addressed his letter in the New Testament to “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout [modern day Turkey]” Christian’s have recognised themselves as exiles. We called to live as foreigners, with a different ethic as part of a different Kingdom.

But Christians today are experiencing a different kind of Exile. An Exile from our church buildings (which are significant even if we know they shouldn’t be), from the communion table, from our communities (physically at least). This is a new experience for most western Christians but let’s remember that this is a painfully familiar experience for many persecuted Christian’s around the world from whom isolation is the norm.

This will continue to be a hard season for the Church, but remember that the majority of the Old Testament was written, edited or compiled during Exile. This season of exile from our Churches, communions and communities can be an opportunity for theological reflection as we discover the God who comes with us and provides for us in Exile.

The Church today as it reflects on the experience of social isolation and spends the next months learning how to be in this new normal must discover that God has come with us. If we spend this crisis hoping or waiting for a return to the way Church used to be then we will have wasted our Exile, our opportunity to discover the new thing that God is doing.

Recognising that we are with YHWH in Exile Brings Hope away from Home

At the centre of Ezekiel’s vision, sitting on the moving throne, carried by the Cherubim on wheels, “was a figure like that of a man” (Ezekiel 1:26). Ezekiel in his day recognised the Glory of the Lord and feel on his face in worship. Christian’s have always looked back at this passage and recognised that figure to be Jesus. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, even in Exile with the Israelites, even as we are separated from those we love and where we wish we could worship.

  1. We are in this for the long haul
  2. God always goes with his people into Exile
  3. God is with us in this
  4. Don’t lose hope, He is doing a new thing

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