The Bible describes the consequences of sin and the promise of redemption as a pattern of exile and return. Adam and Eve sinned and were exiled from the Garden of Eden as a consequence. Then God called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and brought their descendents in the Promised Land, a place where God’s redeemed people were to live in harmony with God. The exile of sin was ended when God gathered his people back to him in the land.
This pattern was repeated when Israel became unfaithful to the covenant. The consequence of Israel’s sin was that God sent the people into exile in Babylon and, indeed, throughout the world. God promised to redeem his people once again by sending the Messiah to re-gather Israel. This is the focus of the prophecy in our lesson from Jeremiah. God promised that his chosen king would do a new work of re-gathering that would replace the Exodus from Egypt as the center of Israel’s faith:
They shall no more say, The LORD liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The LORD liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land (Jeremiah 23:7-8 KJV).
The Gospel for today picks up this theme. Jesus, the promised king, re-gathers and feeds Israel with the loaves that symbolize the Bread of Life. At the end of the feeding, Jesus says, “Gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost.” St. John tells us that they gathered up twelve baskets, which represent the re-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel.
By the time of Jesus, the exile of Israel had, in one sense, ended. Israel lived once again in the Promised Land. However, something was still not right because the fullness of God’s blessing had not yet been restored to the nation. Jesus revealed to Israel that exile was not merely a matter of geography. It was quite possible to live in the land, claim membership in the people of God, attend the place of worship and, nonetheless, remain distant from God. As God said through Isaiah, “This people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but have removed their heart far from me” (Isa 29:13).
Jesus revealed a paradox that existed in Israel. Many who were religious leaders and held positions of authority that presumed a certain status with God were, in fact, distant from God. And many of those labeled “sinners” were, in fact, closer to God because they were willing to acknowledge their sin and change. As Jesus went about Israel preaching the gospel and re-gathering the remnant of Israel, it was a rather motley crew of people who actually responded to the call to repent and be saved.
There are important lessons here for us. We are the new Israel, the people of God. Jesus has gathered us back from our exile from God that was cause by sin. He has brought us back into union with the Father through his death on the cross. Yet, we cannot assume that we close to God just because we are called Christians or come to church. I can’t assume that I am close to God just because I’ve been a priest for twenty five years and people call me “Father.” We cannot assume that we are close to God just because we’ve been Christians for a long time or because our family has a great history or name in the church. We are close to God, we return from the exile of sin, only when we hear the word of God and do it.
In the Anglican tradition, today is called “stir up” Sunday based on the collect, which says,
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may, by thee be plenteously rewarded.
Advent begins next Sunday. It is time to get ready to get ready for the coming of Jesus. It is instructive that the collect asks God to stir up our “wills” and not our emotions. Our “wills” are the ground of our decisions and behavior. It is the part of us that determines, “What do you want to do?” This is different than asking what you feel like doing or what you think you ought to do. Your will is what you really want to do in your heart of hearts.
Many people stumble in the Christian life because their practice of the faith depends upon their emotions rather than their will. Since eventually we will not feel like doing what God wants, a faith based on emotions will lead inevitably to unfaithfulness. Many stumble because they know they ought to want to do what God wants, but they really don’t want to.
We’ve begun a season of fasting and prayer in our church. This leads nicely into Advent, which is the season that prepares us for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and the end of time. Though fasting has been practiced by Christians throughout history, fasting is strange in American Christianity. Why is it that we are so afraid of fasting? I think the answer is obvious. We like our food, drink and stuff too much and we are reluctant to embrace a practice that calls us to habitually turn away from these things. We are comfortable in our habits and patterns and our will is not to change them. The problem is that when we are controlled by our appetites, we exist in state of exile from God.
In the feeding miracles, there is a common pattern. Jesus leads a multitude of people away from the hustle of life and into a deserted place where there is nothing to eat. While people are in a state of hunger and need, Jesus reveals himself to them in the feeding miracle. This is the pattern of fasting. We remove ourselves from food and the noise of life in order to enter into a state of hunger that will be filled by Jesus, the Bread of Life.
The condition of being full of the stuff of this world, the condition of satiety, has always been spiritually dangerous. It led to the Original Sin and it led to Israel being exiled from the land. When we are full of stuff, we tend to drift away from God; we tend to be exiled from his presence. Fasting reverses the pattern. We enter into a voluntary exile from the stuff in order that we may be re-gathered into God’s presence and filled with the fullness of God.
When we are fed with the Bread of Life we desire more of it. That is to say, through fasting, God stirs up our wills so that we may begin to will the will of God more completely. There is great individual benefit when one person turns from things to God. But there is great corporate benefit when a whole church empties itself in order to be filled with Christ. As we pray on this Sunday before Advent,
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may, by thee be plenteously rewarded.