Message by Rev Jenny Carter
December 17, 2017
(Based on Isaiah 61:1-11, John 1:6-14)
I know a lot about time because I googled it. So I know that: Time flies. Time heals all wounds. Time is an illusion. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Time weighs heavy on idle hands. Time is nothing. Time is everything. I’ve learned that money cannot buy time, yet somehow “time is money”. There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want. Time is a game played beautifully by children. Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not. So, after all of my research, I now know that you can take time, ask for time, keep time, and even kill time – but time, it seems, keeps marching on – and we somehow get dragged along with it.
We have a funny relationship with time. Sometimes we treat it as the precious thing that it is, and at other times we live as if time does not apply to us. Sometimes we think the good times will never end, and when they do, we curse the bad times. Which is quite understandable of course. Nobody likes the bad times.
Yet bad times, difficult times, even devastating times, come to us all. They come to us as individuals, they come to us as members of a community, and they come to us as a nation and a world.
This was certainly the case with the nation of Israel. In ancient times this little country had lots of tough times. They had civil wars, and political infighting, and quite a few bad kings over the years, (in fact they had a lot of really bad kings). For most of the course of their history as a nation state, they were either taken over, or lived under threat of, one foreign nation or another. Sometimes they just had to pay tribute to some foreign king – but at other times – they had to pay with lives and their homeland – which is what happened to them with the Exile in Babylon. They had lost everything – even their freedom. Devastating times.
But today’s reading, words from an anonymous prophet writing as Isaiah, takes place after the Exile. The people have returned home. King Cyrus, who defeated Babylon, has set them free and they have returned to their homeland. A homeland that none of them had actually seen for themselves – but a homeland they would have seen through the eyes of their grand-parents and great-grandparents – and what a glorious vision of a homeland that was. A beautiful temple, a large and sprawling metropolis called Jerusalem, quaint villages tucked amid verdant hills – and a river winding through it all. This was to be a glorious return of a glorious people – to a glorious country.
Except that it wasn’t glorious. While their imaginings of their home might have been grand, what they found once they got to Judah was not much more than a pile of rubble. Buildings pulled down. The Temple razed to the ground. Other people living in their families homes. It was, without exaggeration, a scene of devastation. And they cursed the times in which they were now being forced to live.
And then the prophet speaks the words we just heard. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, … to raise up the former devastations, to give a garland of joy instead of ashes, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, the year of jubilee.”
Hopeful words – joyous words – words not simply meant to just comfort or inspire – but words that invite the people to remember. To remember not what they have lost from the past, but to remember all that they have in the current time. They have God and they have a holy covenant. They have a mission and a purpose. They have the way of jubilee, where people once sold into slavery due to not being able to pay their debts, are given their freedom. Family property seized illegally, or because of non-payment of debt – returned to the rightful owners. The people will be restored. That is the holy promise of God. The people will be restored.
The returnees needed those words. They needed them because when they first returned to their homeland they were surrounded by devastation – not just the rubble that was once their cities and their homes – but the rubble of all their dreams – how were they to live now? How does one live when the dream has died, and one is surrounded by the burned remnants of it? They must have wondered if it was worth their time to even bother with any of it. The dream was the best of times, the reality the worst of it. They must have wondered of what good restoration was, when surrounded on all sides by devastation.
What they needed help remembering is that the promise of restoration is not an “in the future” kind of promise. The prophet is reminding the people that their restoration to their homeland has already happened – arrival in Judah was the first part of God’s promise kept, the second part of the promise kept was their remembering how to be God’s people. Once they remembered, then they could set about re-building their lives, their homes, and their country. While the people did not arrive home to the glorious image they held of beautiful cities, just government, and a Temple full of spiritual and earthly riches – they were restored to their home. The work of rebuilding their families and nation now fell to them. But the rich soil of justice and liberty and faith, (all of the things that are laid out in their covenant with God) would be the ground that would nurture the seeds of life they could now plant.
There is no one in this room that has not experienced some form of devastation. Most of us have suffered the death of a dream – where we have worked so hard and for so long, invested our whole selves to realizing the dream – only to have all of our hard work turn to smoke and escape our grasp. Marriages sometimes end, our loved ones can get sick, people we cherish can die, jobs can be lost, churches can close, houses can burn down, and floods can come in and sweep what remains away. Seemingly overnight our beautiful dream turns to a scene of devastation. We look around and see only the remnants of the dream, and we, like the returnees, can wonder if it’s even worth our time to try and fix things, or if we have enough time to try again.
So what does Isaiah have to say to us, those who are currently experiencing the shift from the best of times, to the worst of them? Well, his or her first insight is that restoration is always going to be something different than we may have imagined. Restoration means we are restored to our life – but it will most likely look nothing like the old one. It will be new. It will be up to us to create.
Yet if we spend all of our time, all of our energy, trying to recapture what once was, or make alive again the now dead dream, we will be stuck in the former devastations. Certainly, we take the time we need to mourn our losses, but there does come a time when we need to put those losses behind us, look at the rubble that remains of them, and see what we can make of it all. We do this knowing that it will take time – and knowing too that the rubble can never be fashioned into “what was”, but it can be fashioned into something exquisite, and life filled, and beautiful. You see time moves on, we cannot rebuild a past life or a past dream – we can only build a new life and new dreams.
Isaiah’s second insight? That the soil from which your new life will emerge, the very foundation of it, springs from remembering who you are, and what is truly important in life. So make sure you have a foundation of love, justice, kindness, and compassion – for self, for others, and for the world in which you live – upon which to build your life.
And now, for Isaiah’s third insight – and why this is read on this, the Sunday in Advent where we celebrate joy. God works always and ever to raise up the former devastations. That the rubble which may exist in our lives, and certainly exists in our world, are not the end of the story for any of us. The worst of times will pass – they always do.
And while what will eventually rise from the rubble will be different than what we once had, or imagined – it will be good. It will be able to support new life and new dreams. This is the joy. The joy of planning for, and working for, a new life. A new life for you. A new life for your community. A new life for the whole world. Deep change can bring great joy. Hold on to that – especially if you are living through “the worst of times.” Take the time to remember, and to trust, and to dream of your world made new. It is coming.