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Going into Exile

Going into Exile

By Nell Sunukjian

How would you like to be going into exile? Leaving all you have known—your home, your beautiful yard and fields, your places of repose and safety, your income earning ability?

Two of my friends are going into exile this fall. One, the pastor of a church, is being exiled by leaders who had a different ‘vision’ for the church than he had. Never mind that he had served there faithfully for over a dozen years—yes, he had preached the Word, and yes, he had visited the sick—but, well, it wasn’t enough. He is facing the exile of not having a job, not knowing the future and not being able to see what God has ahead for him.

My other friend is going to prison. He was falsely accused, but the charges stuck and now he is facing exile—several years in a ‘nice’ prison. You know, the kind Martha Stewart was in while serving her sentence. Where you can pick dandelion greens in the field and add them to your dinner. But there’s a huge fence around the dandelion field.

And I’m reading Jeremiah.

He was watching his friends go into exile, not innocently, as those above, but as a consequence of their sins.

He had warned them again and again that they would be conquered by the Babylonians if they didn’t repent and turn back to the Lord. But they refused to listen. Instead, they listened to the prophets who prophesied lies, “Peace and safety,” they cried in Jeremiah 14.

Jeremiah was given the task of preparing Judah to go into exile. And what unusual preparation it was. “Go in readily,” he told them! “You must go—the sin of the nation is grievous. So go, weeping, but with hope.”

And that’s when Jeremiah wrote those famous words in chapter Jeremiah 29:11,  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The Lord was telling Judah through Jeremiah that he had good plans for them, BUT the plans involved exile. Not what we usually think of when we think of good plans. Here God is promising that exile is not the end; exile is the beginning of the new future.

Listen to what the Lord instructed Judah during their exile. They were given specific instructions about flourishing in their captivity. Yes, flourishing! They were told to build houses and plant gardens. They were told to marry and have children. And then to marry off their children. They were told to increase, to flourish, to multiply, to hang on to hope and not to give up. Why? Because God had a new future for them and it was good.

My friend, Ann, went into exile when she learned from her husband that he had been repeatedly unfaithful to her for four years. He very much wanted their marriage to continue, and so did she. They walked in exile together for several years as they figured out the beginning of their new future—a future would include Bill’s infant son from the affair. They didn’t leave their home or their church or their family, but they chose an exile of rebuilding, years of resting from ministry to invest in each other and to heal, and to hear God say again and again to them, “I know the plans I have for you. This is not the end; it’s the beginning of a new future.”

Together they built a new future that includes his now-grown son whom she loves dearly. Their new future includes deeper sharing and connection to each other than they had previously enjoyed. Their new future includes his restoration to ministry in their home church as he teaches a large adult Sunday School class with the blessing of the elder board. Now they are telling their story of recovery from adultery, as they did in my class, “Family Issues in Women’s Ministry.”

There are times in all of our lives when we go into exile. I thought I was going into exile when we moved here to southern California 17 years ago. I was leaving a lovely home and beautiful natural outdoor spaces. We were ending a productive ministry, and I couldn’t see the future. Though it looked full for my husband, Don, who would be teaching at Talbot School of Theology, it looked empty for me.

After we moved in, I tried to find where to put down my roots—could I work at our new church? (Need computer skills and I had none). Should I substitute teach? (Not even taking applications). Get a master’s degree in education? (“No, you should be teaching women,” my friend Shelley said).

So I enrolled at Talbot and almost immediately God opened the door for me to serve in Family Ministries at our new home church, EV Free Fullerton, which in turn led to me being called to serve there for over a decade as Director of Women’s Ministries. Exile? I think not!

And so for my pastor friend. This exile was not his choosing, but he must go. Yet it is not the end; it is the new future for him. The Lord says to him, too, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.”

What about the man facing prison? This exile was not his choosing, but he has to go. But it is not the end for him either. Jeremiah 50:33 says, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: “The people of Israel are oppressed, and the people of Judah as well. All their captors hold them fast, refusing to let them go. Yet their Redeemer is strong; the Lord Almighty is his name. He will vigorously defend their cause so that he may bring rest to their land, but unrest to those who live in Babylon.”

So I say with confidence to my friends, “Go into exile. It’s not the end; it’s the beginning of the new future God has for you.”

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.