Building up ancient ruins

Building up ancient ruins

Sermon for the third Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Athird candle has now been lit on the Advent wreath, symbolizing light coming into the darkness; hope intruding on despair. Over the course of this season of preparation and expectation, week by week we add one more light to the wreath until finally next Sunday it will be fully alight. Not, mind you, merely as our countdown to Christmas—lovely as that season surely is—but as a sign of our openness to God’s intention to set all of creation on fire with newness.

For those who were here last Sunday, you’ll be aware that for the second week in a row our Gospel reading focuses on the figure of John the Baptist; last week from Mark, this week from John, with both saying very similar things. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord;’” “the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” God is on the move here and now, the Baptist is saying. Get ready.

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We also heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, taken from close to the end of that remarkable book. Though written some 500 years before the birth of Christ, in these verses Isaiah is proclaiming something not unlike John’s message that God is on the move, and that something powerful—and perhaps powerfully unsettling—is at work in the midst of the people.

Recall, for instance, that it is from this portion of Isaiah that Jesus reads aloud in the synagogue at the beginning of his Galilean ministry, and of which he says he himself is the fulfillment—“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) And though at first this impresses his audience, by the time he’s finished his teaching they’re actually looking to do him in.

In the opening section of our reading, the prophet speaks of the building up of ancient ruins, the raising up of former devastations and the restoration of ruined cities (Isaiah 61:4), and it is pretty clear that what Isaiah has in view here is Jerusalem.  Jerusalem after it has been laid low by the Babylonian army, after its temple and palace had been leveled. Once experienced as the city that embodied the very glory of God, for decades after the ruthless Babylonian war machine marched in the city looked more like what we see in the Haiti of today. Have you seen the images that came out of Port-au-Prince, with the once grand presidential palace in ruins and the cathedral collapsed in on itself? The stories of people trying to scrape out homes amongst the devastation, with little food, tainted water, and both disease and violence running rampant? If you read the book of Lamentations, it is pretty clear that life—and death—in Jerusalem was an awful lot like that.

News of the horror was carried to the Israelites who, a few years earlier, had been carried off to exile in the prison ghettoes of Babylon. Arrival of that news smashed any hopes those exiles had harboured of being able to return home to Jerusalem. The dream was over, the glory of God would no longer to be found within the walls of that holy city, worship of God could no longer be tied to the temple.

And so in those prison ghettos the people had to learn how to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land;” they had to unhook their faith from the temple and from the once glorious city, and live it out through practices and psalms and old stories of new hope. As you can well imagine, at least some of them threw in the towel and let themselves be absorbed into Babylon.

But you know, there were these other voices that began to dream and sing and speak of how God would carry them home again; how Jerusalem and its temple would be rebuilt, making things even better than before. In the chapter immediately prior to what we read tonight, the prophet sings of Jerusalem as being at the centre of the political world:

Your gates shall always be open;
day and night they shall not be shut,
so that nations shall bring you their wealth,
with their kings led in procession. (60:11)

In this reconstituted and reimagined Jerusalem, what was once bronze and iron will now be gold and silver… imagine! (60:17)

The reality, though, is that when after some seventy-five years in Babylon the people were allowed to return home to rebuild the city, it was a much tougher slog then anyone had really thought it would be. And this is precisely where tonight’s reading from the 61st chapter of Isaiah comes in, with its message of “good news to the oppressed,” the binding up of broken hearts, liberty to the captives, and release to prisoners. Isaiah’s task is “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” which is actually a reference to the year of Jubilee as set out in Leviticus 25, in which debts were to be released, land returned, and the community restored in such as way as to level the distinctions between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The community—the people—must be restored, rebuilt, and reimagined before buildings can be reconstructed.  To those who mourn in Zion, there will be “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” sings Isaiah. “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” God’s glory will be seen first in a people restored, for it is only in God that they can, “build up the ancient ruins” and “raise up the former devastations.”

But back to Port-au-Prince for a minute. On the outskirts of that ruined city there is a little Baptist community called El-Shaddai, for which you will hear us pray from time to time. Our connection to that community is through the Plourde/Waring family, which has a longstanding relationship with that church’s medical and educational ministries. This little Haitian church community has steadily sought to incarnate or enflesh the glory of God in their corner of that troubled nation, and in the aftermath of the earthquake have not only reconstructed their buildings but they’ve actually expanded and improved their ministry centre. Maybe it isn’t quite like replacing bronze and iron with gold and silver, but something quite precious has been built in the midst of the rubble. Pierre, Krista, Daniel and Nadine can tell you a good deal more about all of this, but it is pretty clear this could all happen because before one cinder block was placed on another the community—a people together—was first restored and reconstituted. Their first act had to be to place themselves in openness before God, which is really the defining Advent posture.

You see, Advent openness, readiness, and expectation is not a passive waiting for something to happen. It is a willingness to be still before God long enough so as to hear Jubilee claims, experience deep longings, feel exuberant hope, and then get on with the day to day work of raising up the “former devastations”; quite literally doing that or supporting that in places like Haiti, but also in the broken and devastated places in our own selves and in company with the brokenhearted sisters and brothers with whom we walk. That is the posture—and the calling—of a people who live in the time between times, waiting and watching and working with deep Advent expectation.


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