Forty-three years ago, I was in Britain, about to go by bicycle around Britain and Europe. I was 24 years old, had been a Christian for one year, and had made money selling murals to the new Calgary Airport. I was on one of the many treks of my youth.
As soon as I stepped off Freddy Laker Airways in London, from every speaker the same #1 song was blasting out to a reggae beat:
"By the rivers of Babylon
There we sat down
Yeah we wept
When we remembered Zion...
Now how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
Being a new Christian, I didn't know that this pop hit was using the words of Psalm 137. Strange land, indeed. Three thousand years prior to this, Israel was in exile in Babylon for 70 years. They were a defeated and homeless people, asking themselves and God why this disaster happened. How could they remember Jerusalem if it was wrecked? How could they still have faith if the Temple was gone? How could they sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
Psalm 137 ends by asking God to destroy their enemies with violence. The exile did end. Israel did eventually return and rebuild. But nothing was the same as before. The exile and afterwards turned to be one of Israel's most fruitful times for its faith in God. If God could get us through that, then even if we were being punished for our sins, God restores and forgives. Life with God goes on. There is always the promise of God that redemption and even better times will come.
Slowly this became the hope of a Messiah who would once and for all trounce Israel's enemies. Things would be even better than they were under King David. God did send his Messiah. It was Jesus. But in many ways he was not who people expected. His new kingdom was not about human power but God's grace, not about defeating enemies but forgiving them.
We are going through a short exile from what is familiar: barred from gathering with others, no longer worshipping in our familiar temple we call church, not to mention some lives lost due to the Covid 19 virus. While I don't see this time primarily as a judgment on our sin, I do see this time as a dislocation, an exile from how things were. And I even see this time as fruitful, as Israel's exile was fruitful in hearing God's word, reflection on our common life, and in realizing again how important family and church really are. Will what matters most survive our present exile? The new normal ahead of us may well challenge old habits we hoped to return to.
Here's what I remember from that summer of 1978: We CAN sing the Lord's song in a strange land.
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