Last Sunday on this program we spent some time with Isaiah. Let's go back there again today - but not to the same Isaiah as last week because, as you know, there were at least three writers (and probably more than that) who over a long stretch of years all wrote using the pen name of Isaiah. The book itself is actually more-or-less three books that are related to one another. Last week we read a passage written to Hebrew people living in exile in Babylon. It came from the 40th chapter of the book, part of what scholars call "Deutero Isaiah" (or, the second section of the trilogy). This morning we read from the 61st chapter, which is located in "Trito Isaiah" (the third section of the trilogy). Today's passage, unlike last week's, is not written to people living in captivity, but rather to people who had been liberated from that and had returned home - which had been their fervent dream and hope and prayer for generations.
However, once they finally made it back to Israel, it was not exactly the sort of Disney World landscape they had imagined. The people who were back home had never really seen home before. They had just heard tales of it passed down from their grandparents and great-grandparents who had once lived there. And the memories those ancestors had shared with their grandchildren had been, let' say, exaggerated. We often have a tendency to make the memories of our childhoods larger and grander than they were. Every summer I make a pilgrimage to my hometown. I haven't lived there in over 40 years. My boyhood memories are warm and wonderful, memories of a house more than adequate for the family that lived there, located on a spacious piece of land, nestled to a beautiful forest out back. In truth, that's still how I envision my boyhood home ... until I drive past it every summer. But then I see something a bit different from what I remember. I see a modest-sized house on a modest-sized lot that backs up not to a forest, but to a small run of woods that feeds into a housing development less than a block from our backyard. Reality and my remembrance of it are not the same.
So, it was for the Israelites once they returned home. And, in fact, it was even worse than that because during their absence things had fallen into disrepair. Houses that stood unoccupied had deteriorated. The Temple had been destroyed. How did Isaiah describe it in the passage we just read? He spoke of seeing (and I quote): "the ancient ruins ... the places long devastated ... the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations." Even in their liberation from Babylon, the people of Israel faced challenges of monumental proportion in order to make things right again, in order to make home feel like home.
Those words (the work of making home feel like home) remind me of a man I knew several years ago who went through an unfortunate but not unusual midlife crisis, including the predictable desire to feel young and attractive and free again. And, so very briefly, he found someone who made him feel that way, which led to several months of separation from his wife. It didn't take long at all, when he was away from his family, to realize that more than anything else he wanted to be back home, that his fling had been shallow and lacked substance, and most all that love (the rea deal) for him existed with his family. In time, he convinced his wife to allow him to return. They went through some counseling together, and he professed (quite sincerely) that she would never have to worry about his fidelity again. And yet, he said to me, "I learned over those first several months after I returned that trust is not given, it has to be earned. Every time I was late coming in from work, I could see the worry in my wife's eyes. So, whether she asked for it or not, I always felt compelled to provide a good and honest explanation for where I had been and why I was late. Over time our marriage was rebuilt, and our relationship, I think, is stronger now than it ever was. But it didn't just happen," he said. "It was in every way a labor of love. It took a lot of work to make home feel like home again."
A woman visited our church recently for years who was a lead soprano with national touring opera companies and, for a while, even with The Met. Few people who have ever lived have the voice she was given from birth. Some time ago, however, she went through an extended season of illness that required surgery, follow-up treatments, multiple hospitalizations, and long months of rehab. When a handful of us asked, "Now that you're healthy again, when can we expect to see you back on stage?", she answered, "It will be a long time. You don't just stand up and sing, however strong your voice once was. When they are unused for this long, the vocal chords are like any other muscles that change and atrophy and grow weaker. So, now I have to work at it again. I'm back with a voice coach," she said, "back doing all the exercises that I hadn't done in years because I was singing every night. I'm back into training like an athlete before I will be ready to do again what once was second nature for me."
Fill in your own blank. Whether the topic is relationships, your profession, physical conditioning, re-entering the workplace after an extended absence, rebuilding a business or a church that has grown weak over the years, or any of a host of other endeavors, most of life is really not like riding a bike. You don't stay off for a while and then just hop back on and begin to peddle. When the Israelites returned home, there was a lot of work yet to be done at making things right again.
But (and this is the "good news of great joy"), they did not have to rely solely on their own strength to make right that which had gone wrong. Instead they were given the promise that Someone would come to them who would help them do all the heavy lifting, at least in a spiritual or emotional sense. God would send Someone who would say, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives ... to announce the year of the Lord's favor ... to provide comfort to all who mourn ... to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, (and) the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair." Centuries later, after Bethlehem's Baby had grown up and began to share his message of hope and renewal with the people of Israel, he returned to his hometown of Nazareth and led worship in the synagogue there. His sermon that day was clear, concise, and certainly to the point. He simply read this passage from Isaiah, closed the scrolls, looked at the people, and said, "Today these words have been fulfilled in your presence." Advent is a season when we look forward to the arrival of the special Someone whom God sends to help us make life right again.
But, there is this: It is a biblical truth that the One God sends is gentle and does not force himself upon us. As we read in Revelation, he simply "stands at the door and knocks." We have to decide whether or not to accept the grace and the guidance he offers to provide.
In these politically troubling times in our country, I find it interesting to read that 91% of the people in Washington who govern over us, 91% of the people who work in the Congress, the Senate, the White House, and on the Supreme Court, profess to be Christians - a word that means "those who are like Christ." I sometimes fantasize about what it would be like if those people in power who believe in Jesus would suddenly find the courage to follow him ... not just to acknowledge his reality, but even more so to obey his commandments even if those commandments, even if those commandments stood in stark contrast to their partisan loyalties. What would our country look like, and what could our country help the world look like, if people in power who claim to be Christians would courageously and consistently practice what they profess?
What would churches look like if we began to do the same? Wouldn't it be exciting to witness what it means to "rebuild the ancient ruins," as Isaiah put it ... to see what would happen if we would radically and dramatically begin to practice that which we preach? If we in our churches became as passionate about missions and justice and evangelization and worship and inclusiveness and kindness as we are about budget line items and what color carpet to lay down in the parlor, what miracles could our churches still accomplish in this world?
And even in our own personal lives, what potential lies untapped because we're determined to create our own dreams and forge our own paths without ever consulting the One who "stands at the door and knocks" but to whom the door is rarely fully opened? A man in a skilled nursing center, in his late 90s and confined to a wheelchair, spoke to me one of the most sobering statements I've ever heard. He simply said, "If I had it all over to do again, I would spend more time asking 'God, what do You want from me?' and less time asking, 'What do I want for myself?'"
Isaiah promised that God would send Someone who would say, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives ... to announce the Lord's favor ... to provide comfort to all who mourn ... to bestow on you a crown of beauty instead of ashes, and the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair." Jesus said, "Today these words have been fulfilled in your presence." It is hard work to make things right again, whatever those things may be, when we have allowed them to go wrong. But you and I are assured that we do not have to do that work alone. God sends Someone to us to counsel and comfort, to encourage and empower, with grace and guidance, to help us do all the heavy lifting in making life what it was created to be. But the temptation will always exist to keep his love and his expectations locked away in a manger out back. Why? Because this One whom God sends brings his own agenda for us, his own building plan, which means that sometimes the plans we have made have to be modified or even thrown out altogether. That takes a lot of faith and a lot of courage. But the alternative is to imagine sitting alone at the very end of the journey, looking back, and confessing, "If I had it all to do over again, I would spend more time asking 'God, what do You want from me?' and less time asking, 'What do I want for myself?'" Because ultimately, only that which God wants will bring life.
Would you pray with me?
O God of fresh starts and second chances, move again into our world through the miracle of incarnation. May we listen closely to the counsel of Christ that we might make life right again. In His name we pray, Amen.