Another post rescued from our old blog…
The theme of exile and return is one that runs throughout the Old and New Testaments. It first makes an appearance in Genesis 3, where man, on account of his rebellions and sin is exiled from Paradise. No longer would he enjoy the easy and fulfilling labor of tending God’s Garden, but would be forced to work land that resisted his efforts. No longer would he dwell in peace and safety. And, most important, no longer would he have free access to the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve, by their sin, had exiled themselves from dwelling in a right relationship with God. And therefore, lest they eat the Tree of Life and confirm themselves in their rebellion eternally, God sends them out, placing cherubim with a flaming sword to block their return.
The history of mankind since that dark day has been a quest to return to the garden, a quest which takes one of two paths. The first is to find or to create a paradise of one’s own choosing. This path is, in a word, sin. It is to continue down the path of rejecting the good God gives and embracing the supposed good one can find or make apart from His grace. It is a path doomed to failure. It makes not paradise, but hell.
The second path is one that man cannot find on his own. It is the path of faith. On this path God Himself reaches down to put one on the path, to lead and guide along the way, and to bring one at last back to the Tree of Life. This path does not appeal to man’s natural inclinations. And it does not have the appearance of good to the natural man. It is a path that is difficult, that requires suffering and sacrifice. Above all it requires the sacrifice of one’s own sinful will and desires, subjecting them to the will and grace of Christ. It is a path not of prideful climbing up to paradise, but of kneeling in humility that one might be raised up by God. But it is a path that brings one at last to the true Paradise as one is given to eat again of the Tree of Life, and to fellowship with God forever.
This world in which we live is our place of exile. Though we build houses here, raise our children here, and make our lives here, it is not our true home. The writer to the Hebrews says of the saints:
“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
Those who have been baptized into Christ and given faith are now citizens of a different homeland. And to that homeland we are always pressing. We live, therefore, in repentance; turning away from the sin that marks life in the world, and seeking the grace that marks life in the Kingdom – seeking Christ.
Our Lord has not left us to fend for ourselves on this pilgrimage home. He knows our struggles, having become a stranger and pilgrim Himself in His incarnation. He has fully suffered the pain and trauma of exile as hung upon the cross. And he has gone before us in His resurrection and ascension to prepare a place for us, so that we might be welcomed home at last and take our place among the saints around the throne of God, and eat from the Tree of Life.
And so He gives us outposts of the Heavenly homeland – places where He is present and brings the grace of heaven to us, where He even makes the Kingdom present on earth and where we find again the paradise of God. Here the flaming sword has been removed for us and we are given access again to the Tree of Life, even as we journey homeward toward it.
These outposts are the congregations where His Word is faithfully proclaimed and His Sacraments given to and enjoyed by the faithful. In these outposts, these oases, the faithful are refreshed and strengthened for the long journey home. In these places God Himself feeds His people from the Tree of Life, His own Body and Blood, in anticipation of our return at last from exile when in our true homeland we shall dine with Him eternally. +