Posted by: Dan | May 27, 2004

Fire in the Wilderness and God in Exile

It all goes back to an experience I had late last December.

I had taken the bus back from London, where I had spent a few days with my family. The bus got in early in the evening but winter was full-blown and the darkness of the night had already settled around the city. I decided to walk home, since I was still living downtown at that time. I started walking on Dundas street passed lighted restaurants and Christmas decorations that hadn’t been taken down yet. Over Christmas I had spent a lot of time thinking about the glory of that moment, of what it meant to have God break into history in that manner. I had spent a lot of time longing that God would break-in again in the same way. That another exodus would occur. The verses I couldn’t get away from were in Isaiah 63 and 64:

Look down from heaven and see from your holy and glorious habitation; where are your zeal and your mighty deeds? The stirrings of your heart and your compassion are restrained towards me. For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not recognize us. You, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. Why, O LORD, do you cause us to stray from your ways and harden our heart from fearing you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Your holy people possessed your sanctuary for a little while, our adversaries have trodden it down. We have become like those over whom you have never ruled, like those who were not called by your name. Oh that you would tear the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence – as fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, that the nations might tremble at your presence. When you did awesome things which we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. For from days of old they have not heard or perceived by ear, nor has the eye seen a god beside you, who acts in behalf of the one who waits for him. you meet him who rejoices in doing righteousness, who remembers you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, for we sinned, we continued in them a long time; and shall we be saved? For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name who arouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the power of our iniquities.
But now, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter; and all of us are the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD, nor remember iniquity forever; behold, look now, all of us are your people, your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful hose, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire; and all our precious things have become a ruin. Will you restrain yourself at these things, O LORD? Will you keep silent and afflict us beyond measure?

Powerful words. Words that I felt (and still feel) define our experience as the people of God today in Toronto (in Canada, and even North America).

As I neared my home I walked passed the housing projects at Dundas and Spadina. As I was passing them I noticed a fire breaking-out on the sidewalk about twenty feet in front of me. I quickened my pace and discovered a cardboard box stuffed with paper. It had only just started to burn and was only really getting going by the time I stood beside it. So, I stomped it out and kept on walking.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was strange that a box would be burning in the middle of the sidewalk. It was especially strange that I didn’t see anybody light the fire and then run away – I was close enough that I should have seen somebody. I couldn’t shake the feeling that God was trying to teach me something.

It wasn’t until a few hours later when I was sitting at home on the couch that everything clicked. The key was the story of Moses and the burning bush. I started thinking: what if Moses had reacted differently? What if, instead of approaching reverently, Moses had spent all of his time trying to extinguish the fire? He would have missed God’s presence, he would have been so preoccupied in doing the right thing, doing damage control (who knows, maybe that fire could have spread and damaged his flocks or their grazing lands…) that he would have missed what God was doing. And then I thought about how I had just stomped the fire out and kept on walking feeling like I was being a good citizen – look at me, putting out fires. That’s when I came to a realization: I was so preoccupied with thinking about exile that I just couldn’t see God’s presence at all. And that’s when it hit me, that’s when something huge clicked:

God goes into exile with his people.

And that, well, that changes everything.

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