Ode to the exile generation

A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany.  It sprang from an odd source: Episode 178 of a podcast called The Bible for Normal People, “Pete Ruins Isaiah.” Pete Enns is an Old Testament scholar determined to bridge the great gulf fixed between the ivory tower and the pew.

Pete’s real shocker was his treatment of Isaiah 53: “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his stipes we are healed.” This isn’t a prediction of the vicarious death of Jesus, he told his audience. The “suffering servant” portrayed in this passage is the nation of Israel itself.

About the servant songs

Isaiah 53 is just one of four “servant songs” in Isaiah, Enns pointed out.  In the other three, the “servant” clearly refers to Israel.

More precisely, Isaiah’s “servant” is the exile generation, those who watched in disbelief as the armies of Nebuchadnezzar leveled Jerusalem and crushed the temple of Solomon to powder. Exile was a sporadic process.  It began in 597 and didn’t end until 581 BCE.  The leading families of Israel were periodically rounded up and dragged off to the rivers of Babylon. Every member of this exile generation watched loved ones die under the most wretched conditions imaginable. They lost their national identity. They lost their temple. And they lost their God.  Or so it seemed.

The big question: “Who are we?” The answer: “We are lost.”

Isaiah begged to differ. Galvanized by the rise of Cyrus the Great (circa 539 BCE), the prophet saw nothing but blue skies ahead.

Pete’s ruination of Isaiah may have gone a bit too far. Many Jewish scholars detect notes of messianic promise in Isaiah 53; they just don’t see Jesus as the fulfilment Isaiah had in mind. And, just because the prophet was thinking of the exile generation as he excitedly put pen to papyrus doesn’t mean the first Christians were wrong to apply his enigmatic language to the death and resurrection of Christ. How could they have done otherwise?

But few serious scholars would challenge Enns’ conclusion: The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the exile generation.

I have long been aware of the scholarly consensus on this issue, but, until this week, I had never wrestled with its theological implications. When I did, I got my epiphany.

Healing and wholeness out of exile?

Isaiah was making an audacious claim. God was using the horrors of exile to bring healing and wholeness to Israel.  Doesn’t that run counter to the “Deuteronomic history” that stretches through the books of Samuel and Kings? Didn’t the exile generation deserve exactly what they got?

Not necessarily? When Isaiah cries that Israel has “received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins,” he is implying that, like a parent exasperated with a disobedient child, Yahweh went a little overboard with the punishment. The exile generation was comprised of sinners, to be sure, but were they uniquely sinful?

Isaiah didn’t think so. The sons and daughters born in Babylon were every bit as disobedient as their grandparents. “All we like sheep have gone astray;” the prophet laments, “we have all turned to our own way, and Yahweh has laid on him (the exile generation) the iniquity of us all.”

The generation that witnessed Nebuchadnezzar’s horror show suffered for the sins of Israel — past, present and future. And it is precisely because of this suffering, Isaiah says, that a future of healing and wholeness is opening before us.

The epiphany

Finally, we arrive at my epiphany. My congregation, Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, has its own exile generation. For the past 40 years, the men and women of Broadway have suffered through one crisis after another. Each successive trauma has produced an exodus of gifted and dedicated members. And, counter-intuitively, God has used Broadway’s exile generation to bless people like me beyond measure.

Most churches have an exile generation.  These are turbulent times.  But every church’s story is also unique.  When Broadway’s exile generation was young, the church was a flagship congregation within the Southern Baptist Convention. With thousands of members, a jam-packed sanctuary, a well-attended Training Union, vibrant Girls in Action and Royal Ambassadors programs for the youth, a world-class ministry of music, and a tight relationship with Southwestern Seminary, Broadway was a religious powerhouse.

In 1952, Broadway dedicated a sanctuary modeled on Chartres Cathedral. The church boasted a powerful Casavant organ, several Christian education wings and gorgeous stained-glass windows. The congregation was highly educated and prosperous. We had a robed choir of 70 trained singers, gifted musicians and renowned ministers of music. Professors and students from Southwestern Seminary provided a bountiful source of teachers and leaders. The pews were filled with business leaders and the occasional deep-pocketed oil tycoon. In the fulness of time, the congregation added a swimming pool and a roller-skating rink to its menu of delights.

Concerns dating back to the 1980s

To celebrate Broadway’s centennial, James Leo Garrett wrote Living Stones, a 1,000-page congregational history. The sanctuary was still full most Sundays when Garrett wrote, but he was concerned about declining participation in denominational meetings, lagging Sunday school and Training Union enrollment, and a retreat from aggressive evangelistic outreach. If the church continued to drift from the growth formula that made it great, Garrett warned, the future would be bleak.

Garrett was a Broadway member and a theology professor at Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. As he researched Living Stones, the Southern Baptist Convention was erupting into civil war. A group of Texas-based zealots was determined to gain control of the denomination. The enemy was “liberalism,” and churches like Broadway were exhibit A. Liberal congregations, conservatives charged, had turned their backs on evangelism and the inerrant word of God. The result was Ichabod: The glory had departed.

Barring a return to its evangelical roots, Garrett feared that Broadway would eventually be forced out of the SBC.  And if that happened, the rich relationship between congregation and Southwestern seminary couldn’t survive.

Within Broadway’s membership, an influential minority shared Garrett’s concern. These people weren’t fundamentalists.  And they loved classical music as much as anyone. But they wanted to bring back the old days.  And that meant returning to old ways.

The local scene

From the 1960s on, the inner-city neighborhood around Broadway had been deteriorating. The church responded with an ever-expanding suite of social ministries. The conservatives were uncomfortable with this trend.  Especially when, in the cold of winter and the heat of summer, Broadway opened its doors overnight to unsheltered neighbors.

Shortly before Garrett completed Living Stones, Broadway ordained its first female deacons. This move exacerbated the church’s strained relationship with Texas Baptists.  Which made the congregation’s conservative wing nervous.

In the 1990s, Broadway developed a sister-church relationship with a nearby Black Baptist congregation. Joint worship services were well-attended. Broadway’s conservative faction had no problems with this trend. But then the pastor of the Black congregation launched a protest against the public school system.  As a gesture of solidarity, Broadway’s senior pastor joined the protest. That was a bridge too far. The sister-church relationship ended abruptly.

Little verbal omissions bothered the congregation’s conservative faction. Broadway pastors never seemed to mention Christ’s vicarious death on the Cross. They didn’t talk about the eternal consequences of unbelief.  They didn’t stress the importance of personal evangelism.

This factional tension wasn’t particularly noticeable to most Broadway members. Pastors and lay leaders worked hard to keep it that way. But every time the discontent bubbled to the surface, a few more conservative families would quietly disappear. As Broadway moved into the 21st century, the empty pews were impossible to ignore.

Disaster strikes

Then disaster struck. A number of Broadway members had been working with AIDS patients since the early 1990s. For a church devoted to social ministry, the epidemic couldn’t be ignored.  Gradually, as medical treatments improved, AIDS patients began to recover. Drawn by a mix of gratitude and curiosity, members of the LGBTQ community, mostly men, started showing up in worship.

The conservative faction wasn’t enthusiastic about this trend. But they could live with it as long as Broadway was a “welcoming but not affirming” congregation. Then several gay couples expressed a desire to appear as couples in the church’s new pictorial directory.  They were tired of living in the shadows.

That was the match that lit the fuse. A petition circulated demanding the pastor’s resignation. Someone quietly offered to pay him $50,000 in exchange for a quick exit. The leaders of the conservative faction had grown desperate. With each successive exodus, their ranks had thinned. If they didn’t make a stand now, the game was lost.

But these aggressive tactics horrified the congregation’s progressive leadership. Angry conversations broke out in the hallways after Sunday School. The rancor created headlines and lead stories in the local media.

The humiliation of Broadway’s exile generation was complete.

How does an exile generation find hope?

None of this compares with the plight of Isaiah’s exile generation, or to the struggles of most Black churches. Nobody torched the sanctuary. No one was lynched. We still have our majestic sanctuary. If anything, the choir is better than ever.

But Broadway’s exile generation can’t help comparing an uncertain present to a storied past. They were children and young adults when the current sanctuary was built in the early 1950s. If congregational vitality is measured in dollars and attendance stats, Broadway is a shadow of its former glory.

An entire generation moans in lonely exile here. There has been so much rejection. So many broken friendships. So much regret.

But whether this exile generation realizes it or not, they have done great things. They have sailed uncharted waters. They have broadened their understanding of Christ’s kingdom.  Repeatedly, they have refused to take the easy road.  They have found the courage to live with the consequences.

In the eyes of many—perhaps in their own eyes—the exile generation has been despised and rejected, a people of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Like Isaiah’s exile generation, they have grappled with the hard questions of meaning and identity: Where is God? Who are we?

The path to the right answers has not been easy. We worship a God who bears the sin and suffering of a broken world.  As God’s people, we share God’s burden.  Because it was rooted in faith, our pain has been productive. Kingdom living isn’t supposed to be easy.

Nancy and I have been part of the Broadway family for a little more than a decade. We are not part of the exile generation. But we, and hundreds of people like us, are reaping the benefits of a church’s struggle.

“Out of their anguish, we see light” (Isaiah 53:11).  Or, to paraphrase Psalm 126, others have sewn in tears, that we might reap with shouts of joy.


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