Joy In the Exile

“Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything, and followed him (Luke 5:27-28).

Remember Lent? That six-week season that takes us to Easter Sunday? Well, we’re still in it. With all that’s happening, you can’t be blamed if you’ve forgotten that.

By my count it’s week 2 of a season we didn’t plan on called ‘hunker-down’ season, or something like that. Shelter in place. Shutdown. Self-isolate. Personally, I like the word ‘exile’ for what we’re living through. It doesn’t look like exile because exile means being forced from your home, and this experience is the opposite of that. Nearly all of us are practically barricaded in our homes right now.

But there’s a deeper meaning to the experience of exile. I learned this from Eugene Peterson’s excellent book, Run with the Horses. Peterson described exile as the experience of being where you never wanted to be. And that can go beyond geography. When the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem and took the people into exile, their grief wasn’t defined by a place on the map. The familiar, the cherished, the things that defined life and made it meaningful – all of that was taken from them.

To a degree, that sounds like where we are. We’re living in our own houses, but we are exiles. Right here in the USA. We haven’t gone anywhere, and yet we’re yearning for home.

Our Involuntary Fast

I can’t help but find it interesting that this global and national crisis is unfolding during the season of Lent. I did not grow up in a church tradition that observed Lent. Truthfully, I don’t recall ever hearing Lent spoken of. I was probably in seminary before I knew what it was. It is commonly associated with some kind of fasting or relinquishment. That’s not something I ever did. Even in churches that observe Lent, I’m not sure that the fasting aspect is widely practiced.

But this year, in this season of Lent, we’re all fasting from something. We might not have planned to. We might not like it. But some form of deprivation has found us. An activity, a social circle, possibly an income.

And I this most of us are finding it hard to celebrate. Yes, we are able to identify some positives in being home, being together, being better neighbors. But what we’re experiencing isn’t fun.

And that brings us to the story of Levi. We know him better as Matthew. He’s our focus this week as we make our way through Lent and think about the call of Jesus to “follow me.”

Embracing Interruption

Matthew was a tax collector. It was very likely a lucrative vocation, though among his fellow Jews (note the name: Levi) he was certainly resented if not outright despised.

As Luke tells the story of his call to follow Jesus, he uses a powerful phrase. “Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.” Don’t miss that. “Left everything.” The same kind of moment took place for Peter and Andrew. They left their nets. And then James and John, also fishermen, walked away from their Dad and the family business.

The call of Jesus represented a significant interruption to routine and work and income. But they embraced the interruption.

New Testament Scholar Leon Morris offers this commentary on that moment. He writes: “Matthew must have been the richest of the apostles. We should not miss the quiet heroism in [his response to Jesus’ call]. If following Jesus had not worked out for the fishermen, they could have returned to their trade without difficulty. But when Levi walked out of his job he was through. They would surely never take back a man who had simply abandoned his tax office. His following of Jesus was a final commitment.”

And let’s not miss what happened next.

Reason to Party

Matthew threw a party. Verse 28 mentions leaving everything. The very next verse takes us to the banquet in honor of Jesus.

Here are two things we don’t typically place side by side. Celebration and interruption. Joy and loss. But Matthew finds a reason to throw a party. Actually, the reason wasn’t hard to find at all. He was right there in the thick of it, enjoying the food and the company.

The reason for the celebration was Jesus.

I know you won’t be throwing a party anytime soon. But today I’d like to ask you to find something to celebrate in the place where you are. That might mean finding something or someone for which you are grateful.

And don’t forget this: Jesus is present. He is with you right where you are. Take time today to enjoy his company. A very practical way to do this is to spend some time listening to him in the scriptures. Jesus himself told us that his words were meant to give us joy (John 15:11). Invite him into the place where you are right now.

Open your anxious heart to the joy he wants to bring – even in exile.


In these days of exile, O God, we are inclined to worry and complain. We resent that we’ve been forced to let go of so many things. And yet, you are faithful, keeping your word to never leave us or forsake us. Make us joyful and content with your promise and lead us as we seek to follow you in these days. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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