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Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
10 December 2023

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8


My mother once said that there was nothing wrong with my wife, except that she was Canadian. Likely this was around the time we decided to return to Canada.

My father’s reaction was the opposite. When I told him that we were moving to my wife’s homeland he said to me, “I always knew you would do that.” I had liked living in Canada yet I also liked living in Germany, so my father’s response puzzled me. Moving to Canada had not been a given for me and I wondered how my father could have known something about me that had eluded me. When I asked him how it was that he knew, he answered, “Because that is what I would have done.” His answer told me something about him but not about me.
My father was born in 1931. He was eight when Germany invaded Poland. A year later the bombing of Germany began and with it the evacuation of children from below school age up to grade four from cities to the country. My father would have been about ten when he was separated from his family. The same would have applied to my mother.
When he returned four years later, miraculously the family home was still standing but 70% of the city had been turned to rubble. Food was only available on food stamps. He suffered from depression, though no one diagnosed depression in those days, and I imagine in light of the situation, depression was common if not normal. A few years later (perhaps in 1949), when my father was apprenticing, he was offered the opportunity to spend one year of his apprenticeship in England. An offer he had declined most reluctantly on my mother’s pleading. They were dating at the time. When he answered me that he would have come to Canada, it seemed he had regretted that decision in all the years since.

After having moved to Canada and serving a congregation in which a third of the members were German speaking I thought again about my parents’ and grandparents’ lives, about how my parents’ childhood had been marred by war and how my grandparents had seen death and destruction unfold twice within a time span of only thirty years. And, remembering my father’s “because that’s what I would have done,” I thought it surprising that anyone who had seen what they had seen had remained.

Those who had remained were not in exile, unlike God’s people to whom today’s reading from Isaiah is addressed. And unlike those who had been deported to Babylon, what Germany had done was singularly evil. There is no comparison to the holocaust. But what both catastrophes (i.e. military defeat and the collapse of political order) had in common was that they were self-inflicted, and that they were self-inflicted did not diminish the people’s suffering, nor did it glorify war, for wars always cause suffering to the innocent.

I am telling of my parents’ and grandparents’ experience not because it is the best analogy for the catastrophe Israel had suffered that had resulted in the deportation of the entire leadership of Judah. It may be the very worst analogy one can make for it tells nothing of the hate, vitriol, deceit, and mass murder of the Nazi regime. I am telling of it because it is a catastrophe in whose shadow I was raised and which continued to be part of the family narrative. Telling us about the hunger years that followed the war, my mother often told of my grandmother going to bed with a cookbook for her bedtime reading.

Yet aside from the experience of catastrophe, there is one commonality. It is the question of identity. Who are you when you live in a foreign land? Who are you when you can no longer worship at the temple? Who are you when you live in a culture that is alien to you and hostile to your faith?
My father, shipped to a camp where he was indoctrinated without access to alternate narratives believed the propaganda he was fed. And because he was isolated and believed the propaganda, he did not see the end coming; and when it came he was lost and did not know what to believe. It took him almost his entire life to find out and to let himself be found by God.
On the other hand, for Judaism the exile in Babylon proved fruitful in discovering its identity apart from temple and land, and holding on to God’s faithfulness.

Exile and the question about identity go hand in hand, and so the question we may ask ourselves is whether exile is a metaphor that resonates with us personally or corporately.
Our personal exile can be an exile of our own making, decisions we made that gave a trajectory to our life that we may regret. It could also be our health or age that may make us feel as if we were in exile, as my uncle quipped before his 87th birthday last week that the older he got the more often did the bus depart before the scheduled time, and that there was also something wrong with the mirror. But more deeply may affect us a loss of independence that we did not choose. And should that happen to us, are we still the same, has our identity changed, and what it it that makes us who we are?

Corporately, the question may be whether the church today is in exile, after all some us us remember the church being at the centre of society not so many years ago, while today we find ourselves closer to the margins. I will always remember the reply of a young woman who lived in the residence of the Vancouver School of Theology who, upon hearing that I was studying for the ministry, overcame her speechlessness by saying, “That’s different.”
If the church did indeed find itself in some sort of exile, it may help us figure out what it means to be the church. Would we then be able to see that we come to church because the Holy Spirit called us to be in community with God and one another and that this is a place not simply of our choosing but of belonging? Would we understand that our common worship opens our life toward God in a way that effects all of our life, so that we may find God in unexpected places, not here alone? If we were in exile and we had to figure things out anew, would we see that being a followers of Jesus is not foremost about being good instead of bad, but about loving God and loving what God loves, which is all people? And would our morality and ethics then not be concerned primarily with our own failings but with the flourishing of all people and all communities? And would we then also see that part of being a follower of Jesus is about resistance, resistance to perceiving the world through the lenses of a cost/benefit analysis, of efficiency, of winning, of being entertained?, for those perspectives leave little room for God, for people and marginalized communities, for the planet, for finding God in suffering, or for our own flourishing.

When Jesus called his disciples, he did not call according to ability. He was neither looking for priests nor for looking for managers of the Kingdom. He called people into a relationship that would transform them. They had been fishermen and tax collectors but now they were his friends, they were God’s friends. Their identity did not come from their status or abilities, not from their understanding of the economy, of how to run an efficient organization, or from their grasp of world politics. They were defined neither by what they could do or by what they could not do, or from what they did or wish they had done. Their identity came from being God’s friends. That is how their lives were redeemed.

The same is true for us. May we live into our identity of being God’s friends.


Christoph Reiners

Pastor Christoph was ordained in Vancouver in 1994 and has served congregations in Winnipeg and Abbotsford before coming to Our Saviour in the fall of 2016.