The flaps on the wings of the Boeing 737-800 series lifted, and the loud breaking made the toddler behind me scream. All of us wanted to scream but figured we would let the toddler do it for us. I recognized the flat landscape approaching, and my spoiled rotten child of a stomach screamed for Kansas City barbecue. Our time at the airport was supposed to be only about an hour and half. That is not enough time to order an Uber and get the famous Arthur Bryant’s. My taste buds were aching for the decade when we could get great barbecue anytime we wanted. The intense desire for meat reminds me of the repeated theme of exile in Scripture.
It is a complete mystery to me that when the rabble complains about the foods that they miss from Egypt, they specifically mention leeks. I have never craved leeks. The foods that they mention: “the fish … the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Numbers 11:5) are all more tasty and interesting than the manna, a God-given mystery staple (a literal translation is “what is it?”) of the wilderness years. “For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen” (Nehemiah 9:21).
The story of God and God’s people in Scripture begins with a good creation. This is also where it ends. The story in between is the story in which we now live. It is a story of exile. It is a story of God who creates, gives, forgives and restores. It is a story of human beings who turn from God, return to God, and are restored and made good again.
In the beginning, God created all — including the man and woman — and called human beings “very good” (Genesis 1:31). As God gives human beings dominion and gives every plant for food, creation is clearly blessed, and all of it is good. Among the good things to eat, there are cucumbers, melons and even leeks. The only food that is off limits is from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16–17). The first exile happens after the human beings eat from the tree that was off limits, and God drives out the human beings (Genesis 3:24). They settle east of Eden and multiply. The generations continue, and they had everything they need to survive. The food is good and tasty.
The generations include Noah, Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah are told to leave their country. It is through this couple that God promises to bless all of the families of the earth. Finally, at around age 90, Sarah has Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah’s sons Esau and Jacob compete for Isaac’s blessing.
Nearing his death, Isaac requests a tasty meal from his oldest son, Esau. With some help from his mother, Jacob makes what his father likes and is blessed by Isaac. The family is in exile.
What kind of spices did Isaac like? Did the family bring them there? Had they adapted to eating from what they could get locally?
The story of God’s people continues. In and through the stories of Jacob, Joseph and Moses, we see that God continues to shape and rescue His people. They are not satisfied with what God has provided for them. They have been delivered by God, saved from slavery to the Egyptians, and God’s gracious favor is leading them to their own land. However, when we read that they eat nothing but manna for 40 years, most of us quickly side with the rabble. We know what it is like to crave meat!
Indeed, the wrestling that we experience in terms of living here and now as God’s people has a lot to do with meat. Meat is but one of many human desires. We feel hungry and desire food. We feel tired and desire rest. Feelings point to desires and desires point to God. The most basic human need is to be connected to our Creator and other humans. All desires point human beings back to our roots.
The people of God enter the land that had been promised to them, and they continue to be dissatisfied. They notice that other peoples had kings, so they demand a king (1 Samuel 8). Most of the kings who rule God’s people are not good. Some of them are plain evil. They do not seek God.
In response to this, God sends prophets to call them back and remind them of the truth. All of their needs would be supplied by God. They need to seek and remain connected with God. They do not listen to the prophets. Immediately following the reign of King Josiah, all kinds of leaders (kings, priests and prophets – Jeremiah 32:32) turn away from God. The city of Jerusalem and the temple in 609 B.C. are not listening or obeying God.
False prophets are very popular. Real prophets are being killed. The land, the poor and the young are being violated and trampled. It is a shameful period, but the people have become so entrenched in wickedness that they are no longer even able to see this for themselves. God calls Jeremiah to prophecy to this time and place.
In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, Jeremiah charges the leaders with schooling others in their wickedness. “You founded schools of sin, taught graduate courses in evil! And now you’re sending out graduates, resplendent in cap and gown — except the gowns are stained with the blood of your victims! All that blood convicts you. You cut and hurt a lot of people to get where you are. And yet you have the gall to say, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong. God doesn’t mind. He hasn’t punished me, has he?’ Don’t look now, but judgment’s on the way, aimed at you who say, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’” (Jeremiah 2:33–35).
Jeremiah speaks the truth to everyone even though they refuse to listen and try to kill him. Evil and falsehood reigned in Jerusalem. God’s judgment is executed by Babylon. Finally, the city and the temple are destroyed in 587 B.C. The glorious place that has gleamed with the radiance of God is now a pile of garbage. Their glory is wrecked! People are deported to Babylon.
Revival of Hope
During this crucial time of exile for God’s people, they reflect on how they landed in exile. The truth of their lives becomes clear. They formulate Scripture and turn back to God. In hindsight, they are able to see that God has created them; that God has delivered them from Egypt and provided for them in the wilderness. God is good and just and has been faithful to them even as they have not been faithful to God.
After a generation of exile in Babylon, there is a revival of hope. Jeremiah speaks this hope. “This is the brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them — write it on their hearts! — and be their God. And they will be my people. … They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I’ll forget they ever sinned!” (Jeremiah 31:33-34 MSG).
Returning to the land, though under Persian rule, is exciting. It is also disappointing. The rebuilding of the temple, city and wall is an arduous task. This experience causes an ache for a new work of God. Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah anticipate an era when God’s Word would penetrate deep into human experience. The human heart, the source of human desire and connection with God, is where change happens (Ezekiel 34, 36 and Jeremiah 3).
In the past, Israel had experienced kings, priests and shepherds who were wicked and set up schools to teach wickedness. Most of the lessons that we learn about living as exiles from the people of God are the “what not to do” variety. In terms of food, we learn that the great company of Israel would have done better not to have listened to the rabble who demanded meat. We learn from them that spoiled rotten bellies can be told “no!” We can learn that daily provision of food and clothing and meaningful work are gracious gifts from God. We can learn how to be grateful at the end of a long day of travel when our feet do not swell.
All of our desires belong in our conversations with God. This lesson about living in exile can be learned from Jeremiah. We come to God with everything including complaints, needs, desires and requests for ourselves and others.
How might these stories be different if, at their point of need, they asked God? If they had asked God to help them sort out these matters, might they have found a way to remain faithful? We are told that we are to intercede for a world that is held captive to evil and falsehood. The desires of our suffering neighbors teach us compassion and invite us to long for a new city where all will be made right. Being an exile means learning to live in two places at once.
Jesus comes to them and to us as fulfilment of this hope for a good King. He is also called a high priest, a rabbi and the Good Shepherd. “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15).
Indeed, finally there was — and is — someone who changes the human heart and addresses our deepest desires. Jesus preaches, heals and welcomes all who listen to follow. His message is that the kingdom of God is open for business. Jesus is now restoring all things. In the end, Jesus will completely and finally restore all things. This is the source of our greatest hope.
As those who have decided to become students of Jesus in kingdom living, we recognize that however good life is here, this is not our ultimate home. Scripture says that we belong to the new city and the new earth. The kingdom of God is our present reality, and it is where our allegiance lies. We have a King who is alive and well and who gives us whatever we need for living in this worldly reality. This does not mean that we get everything we desire. God is so good that giving us everything we desire would be against His way. Some things we request are not good for us. Some of the good that God wants to give us, we are not prepared for. We are not far enough along in our training to receive from God all of His good and perfect gifts.
In addition to reading the Gospels and learning how Jesus lived, it is also helpful to read the Epistles. Living in the kingdom of God, or walking or living according to the Spirit (Galatians 5-6; Ephesians 2-4, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter), fills these early writings of the church. These writers present it as a training process.
My tastes buds were trained to eat Kansas City barbecue. When I first moved there, I had absolutely no desire for it. I had been raised on spicy food. Because I have been away from New Mexico for almost 30 years, my body cannot tolerate spicy chilies and sauces like I used to. Just as our bodies are trained to eat at regular intervals, we need a regular regimen that reorients our thoughts, moments, and relationships back to Christ and His kingdom. Our native land is always here; it is always here because of the presence and power of Christ with us.
After hearing a knock, I open the door where there is a teenage girl standing. She says: “I smell meat! Can I have some?” I laugh and offer her some pork from the slow cooker. It is not the pork I usually make. It is not spicy. God is not distant from the particular conditions of her life, the trauma in her family, and that craving for meat that brought her to my doorstep. The wreckage of the world is right in front of us wherever we find ourselves. The needs of the world — wherever we find ourselves exiled — can only be faced and dealt with as I live in the kingdom of God and here in this moment.
Roberta Mosier-Peterson, D.Min., is the lead pastor of the Gerry (New York) Free Methodist Church. Her Northeastern Seminary doctoral dissertation was adapted into “Lived Experience,” a documentary film covering the ministry experiences of women pastors. Go online to fmchr.ch/livedexper for the documentary and pastortiedye.blogspot.com for more of her writing.