As I write this, the country is closing down. Those who may be vulnerable to infection have been advised to stay at home, pubs and restaurants have been told to close, and we cannot gather for worship.
The response of many churches, circuits and districts has been to find ways of connecting us remotely, to care for one another and to worship together. But many of us are feeling a strong sense of dislocation and despair. And, for some of us, our natural reaction in such times is to turn to our Bibles for encouragement.
The Bible is certainly not silent on such experiences. But I’d like to home in on two fairly significant themes that have been resonating with me over the last week or so. The first is exodus and the second is exile.
A band of slaves, pursued and afraid, lands on the far side of the Red Sea to see their enemies swept away and freedom suddenly theirs. The story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness begins with exhilaration, jubilation, adrenaline pumping and a new adventure dawning. I doubt there are many who feel like that about the Covid-19 crisis, but there do seem to be many who are rising to the challenge with maybe just a slight sense of challenge and adventure. But in the 40 years that would follow, the Israelites began to wonder whether what they had lost was so bad after all.
Yet what lay ahead was the promise of something amazing! I find myself looking back longingly at a time when we only had Brexit, austerity, rising crime and floods to deal with! And perhaps we hope for a future which may, despite all the pain, feel better and more hopeful. Will this force us to rethink our investment in the NHS, our treatment of those in poverty, or the blind eye we turn to parts of the world with far greater mortality than the virus will bring? Will our worship be renewed and reenergised? And will we have discovered a new and deeper community spirit, through being denied each other’s companionship for so long?
The reality is probably that the promised land will not be flowing with all the milk and honey that we optimistically hope for, but maybe, as we land on the far side of the Jordan, we might find reason to rejoice – which will not, as is so often the case, and was so for Israel, later look back to the time of wilderness or suffering as somehow a golden era to be mourned in turn.
A large proportion of the Hebrew Bible was probably written during the Babylonian exile – a time of grief, frustration, anger. You just have to read Psalm 137 to see how deep the emotions could run. Without their Temple, their sacrifices, their usual patterns of worship, how could they even be God’s people? But even amongst the grief, that question of despair became a question of practicality – how, in practice, could they be God’s people? So we see the codifying of laws, a tightening of purity regulations and questions of Jewish identity. Some of the more legalistic parts of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) were probably written during this period. And in the midst of this, there comes also the call to buckle down and make a go of it: “Build houses and live in them,” Jeremiah tells the exiles. This is for the long haul, so there is a need to make the best of it.
But this is not just about strategies for survival in the present reality of exile; what will happen at the end? The concern with purity of life and worship is about a desire to keep faith away from the normality of life at home, but also about a concern that life could pick up where it had left off, once exile was over. The grief was for a way of life and worship lost, that might never be recovered. The Jeremiah approach recognised that there might not be an end close enough to be in sight.
Throughout, there is the question that remains for us now, in our much shorter, but still real, exile: what about the return? The canon is not neutral; the order of the books in the Bible is not accidental, but reflects something of the theology of those who put it together. The Jewish Scriptures end not with Malachi, as the Christian Old Testament does, but with Chronicles, and the promise of return to Jerusalem. But would the exiles actually return, and would life return to normal? The question for us as a church must be, not only how do we cope with the exile, but how do we welcome one another back at the end, and to what? What will our church look like, and will we want to return?
Like the Israelites in the wilderness, and the exiles in Babylon, our task – our challenge – is to keep faith. God has not left us, even when the doors are shut.
 Jeremiah 29:5