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Jeremiah 31:7-9

It was 11 years ago that Jack Shepherd uttered the words absolutely no one expected.

“We have to go back, Kate! We have to go back!”

In the season finale LOST’s 3rd season we find out that a small portion of survivors have made their way off the island back home. They’d been trying for months to get off the island. The island seemed to defy conventions of reality.

The survivors of Oceanic flight 815 are exiled on strange land. There are strange people with strange practices. The survivors are surrounded by peril. They lose friends. The land is so strange that the survivors seem to have become different people. Their former lives of brokenness haven’t followed them. Diseases are cured. Disability is healed. And after nearly 100 days a remnant of the survivors make it back home.

The shock came when we learn that Jack Shepherd, the leader of the survivors, wants to go back to the island! He is one of the few who made it home! Why he would want to go back is anybody’s question.

It becomes clear, though, that just because they’ve made it home things aren’t great. The thing they’d been fighting for the whole time doesn’t seem to be the resolution they anticipated.

We learn over the next season that those who return home fall back into their old ways. Jack falls into alcoholism and addiction. Kate falls back into perpetual lying. Hurley winds up in a mental hospital. Sayid becomes a hitman. Leaving exile didn’t make everything right which leads Jack to the absurd exclamation, “WE HAVE TO GO BACK!”

It begs the question, what is “home;” back in their familiar land or on the island of exile?

You can surely see where this is going… We have to acknowledge that the promise and hope of Jeremiah 31:7-9 are sandwiched by exile, by return, and by brokenness.

At the time of this writing Israel is exiled in Babylon. She’s been conquered and been taken captive to a land with strange people and strange practices. They are not home. The promise of Jeremiah 31 sounds unbelievably hopeful, and it is, but perhaps not in the ways expected.

You see, just returning to Israel from Babylon isn’t the fix the Israelites anticipated. When they return home they fall back into their own ways. Israel was most faithful in exile.

Kings become tyrants. Wars are waged. Marginalized people are overlooked. Zedekiah takes over as King of Judah, but only with the permission of Nebuchadnezzar.

In a strange turn of events, Jeremiah tells Zedekiah that Judah will be handed over to Babylon (Jeremiah 37:17). Jeremiah is Jack saying, “WE HAVE TO GO BACK!”

Any preaching over Jeremiah 31 needs to take into consideration the greater context. Those who returned shortly after Jeremiah spoke these words probably thought this was in reference to their coming home. And maybe it was, but could it be that “returning home” from exile isn’t merely a going back to former times?

The Israelites, like Jack and the survivors, want to return to life as it was before exile. But there is never any going back. Never! The deliverance of YHWH doesn’t look like making things as they used to be.

So is it with the Church today. At least in the West. We find ourselves in a form exile. We inhabit a land with strange people and strange practices. The things we used to take for granted have shifted beneath our feet. We’ve not been exiled to a foreign land, we’ve been exiled in a home land that has become foreign.

And for many of us who are keenly aware of our own exile, the words of Jeremiah 31 should be great words of joy! God will restore our former glory! God will bring us back to the place where we were in power and had authority.

But the truth of Jeremiah 31 for the Church today is that simply “going back” means we will fall into our old ways of unfaithfulness. The Church is most faithful when she is in exile. She neglects the law of love when she is in power!

For Judah as well as the church, the promise and hope of the Lord is eschatological. It is when the Messiah comes.

Preacher, the great hope of the Church is not that we go back to former times, but that we step into the future reality God has for us. The salvation of Israel wasn’t leaving Babylon, it was the coming of the Messiah. The salvation for the church isn’t leaving Post-Modernity, it is the coming of the Messiah!