Easter 4: Mercy During a Time of Exile

by Rev. Brian J. Thorson
Lessons: Lamentations 3:22-33, 1 Peter 2:11-20, John 16:16-22

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Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week we heard from the prophet Ezekiel, who lived during the time in which Babylon was attacking the Holy Land, stealing their possessions and deporting their people. Ezekiel wrote his book during his time of exile in Babylon. The portion of Ezekiel we heard was encouraging, for God was promising restoration to His people who had been chastened by their exile. We heard the language of God as Shepherd, who will gather His flock, which brings back to mind the comforting words of King David in Psalm 23.

This week we heard a very encouraging passage from Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations. This Old Testament reading is filled with hope, for we hear that the steadfast love the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end. God is good and brings salvation to His people. He does not cast His people off forever. While He may cause grief, God has compassion and does not willingly afflict His people.

Yet these encouraging words of Jeremiah in Lamentations 3 were written during some extremely difficult times. As I mentioned last week, God did not bring this punishment and destruction upon them arbitrarily. Instead, God continued to warn His people to turn to Him in faith, instead of listening to false teachers to their hurt or adopting the idolatrous worship of their pagan neighbors. Finally, God raised up Babylon to chasten His people.

First, in 605 BC, the mighty Babylonians attacked Judah and plundered the temple and deported many people, including the Prophet Daniel. In 597, the Babylonians attacked again and deported more Jews, including the Prophet Ezekiel. Finally, in 586 BC, the Babylonians attacked yet again, conquered the lands, and destroyed Jerusalem. They even destroyed the Temple.

Those who survived the destruction of Jerusalem were deported to foreign lands, separated from their homeland, family, and friends. They were in a foreign culture surrounded by foreign people—no loved ones, no familiar faces, and few who spoke their own language.

It is this backdrop in which Jeremiah the Prophet wrote the book of Lamentations. This book of the Bible can be described as a funeral for the city of Jerusalem. In this book, Jeremiah describes how Jerusalem had been destroyed, how her inhabitants have gone into captivity, how sinful the Israelites were, and how God’s anger burned against them.

But in chapter 3, Jeremiah makes a bold move. He begins to praise and thank the Lord—even though his city is in ruins. He speaks of the goodness of God and he places his trust in God.

How do you respond to God when faced with difficulty? If you endured what Job endured by losing his cattle, his servants, and even his children in one day, would you respond with thanksgiving and praise? Will you say that the Lord is good? Will you say His steadfast love never ceases? Will you hope in Him?

Or, as COVID-19 and the complications of preventing the spread of the virus destroys jobs and investments, takes lives, and ruins many fun-filled plans this spring, are you singing praises to God, thanking Him for His mercies which are new to us every morning?

When we go through hard times, we are often brought closer to the Lord, for we cannot place our trust in the things that made for easier times. Instead, we are forced to trust in our God who created us. And when we make it through those hard times, we often praise God for the miracles He worked, the blessings He gave, and the kindness He showed to us. But it is far more difficult to praise Him when we are still going through the hard times.

And yet, that’s what both Jeremiah and Ezekiel did. And that’s what they teach us to do. We can describe this past month and a half as a time of exile. To be exiled is to be barred from our native land. We are in exile from our home—the house of God—His Church.

We rejoice that our time of exile from the Lord’s house is coming to an end. We rejoice that next Sunday we can legally gather in God’s house yet again as a congregation. At the same time, we grieve with our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in states where there are no provisions to allow churches to gather together again in worship. God’s people are growing restless and long to be together—where Christ is shepherding His flock.

While some aspects of next week’s divine service will be changed to engage in social distancing to slow the spread the of the disease, we know that God will bless us with His presence when we are gathered together to hear His Word and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

Yet, even during this time of exile, we continued to call upon the name of the Lord, sing His praises, and acknowledge His love and mercy. For God’s Word has not been removed from us. Not even the Lord’s Supper was taken away from us. We are still blessed with the opportunity to come to His house to be absolved and receive Christ’s Body and Blood for our forgiveness.

In fact, that’s what we do throughout our entire lives here, for the Bible describes our time here as a time of exile. In our Epistle lesson, St. Peter calls us sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11). That is, we are living in a foreign land, barred from the perfection of Paradise.

Adam and Eve were not sojourners or exiles when they lived in the Garden of Eden. But after they sinned, they were removed from the Garden and an angel blocked the entrance to the Garden. They were then sojourners (that is, wanderers) and exiles. Yet, they were not lost. God promised to them a Savior who would defeat Satan and reconcile them to the Father. God continued to be with them and He richly blessed them.

We continue to live in a sin-filled, fallen world. Our sin separates us from God. God intended us to be His people, who live in righteousness and purity.

Our Epistle teaches us to be subject to our governing authorities, to honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the emperor. Workers are to be subject to their employers. Yet many grumble and complain against the authorities God has set in place above us. Many save few kind words when the wrong party or person is in office.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this should not be so among you. Instead, God calls on you to honor those set in positions of authority.

Now, when St. Peter describes us as sojourners and exiles, he also describes us as beloved. We are beloved in the Lord. We are God’s dearly beloved. That is, He loves us.

There’s a reason for calling us beloved. They are found in the preceding verses. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

This is how God treats us sinners! He saved us through His Son. We are called by Him to be His children. As His children who belong to Him, we can see why He would call us beloved. And we can also understand why we are called sojourners and exiles. Simply put, this fallen world is not our permanent home. It is a temporary place for us to dwell until that time He calls us to be with Him in Paradise. And then, when Jesus returns, He will make all things new. He will raise our bodies up so that they will be perfect in every way. And we will dwell with Him in the recreated Heavens and Earth for all eternity.

Such joy there will be! Jesus says, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). While Jesus spoke these words to His disciples about how He will die and rise so that there will be a time in which they won’t see Him, but then there will be a time when they will see Him, these words can also apply to the time of the Resurrection. For we will see Him face to face when He returns to judgment and our joy will have no end.

But even now, we have joy. As we prayed in our Introit (Psalm 66:1-9), “Shout for joy to God all the earth. Sing the glory of His name.” For God is truly present in His Word. He loves us and hears our prayers. His mercies are certainly new to us every morning.

And we are filled with joy that Jesus did what He was sent to do. The Father sent Jesus to pay for our sins. He became a Man to bear our sin in His Body. He shed His innocent Blood as the ransom payment for our sin. He died to set us free from our sin and give us the gift of everlasting life.

And while He died to take our sin away, His existence did not end in death. Instead, He rose triumphantly from the grave. He lives and reigns to all eternity. And so, we have joy even amid any type of hardship, suffering, sickness, or trial. For Jesus has overcome sin, death, and the grave and grants us everlasting life. He is with us always, even to the end of the age. He will never leave or forsake us. He blesses us with His love, mercy, and peace.

Truly, “the Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam. 3:25-26). Our time of being sojourners in this fall world is short. The time of our exile is temporary. The Lord is good to you, even if you do not always feel it. For the Lord has redeemed you and has spared you from eternal death. He has promised you the gift of eternal life. Great is His faithfulness. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen