Third Sunday of Advent
December 15, 2019
It was just about as bad as you can imagine. It was summer, presumably hot. The soldiers were ragged, exhausted, spent after two years of constant warfare. Their mighty defensive walls had crumbled under the continuous assaults of their enemies. They knew it was over, time to cash in their chips, surrender to their enemy. Believe it or not, it got worse from there, it went from bad to catastrophic.
And so the Babylonians came storming into Jerusalem in July of 586 B.C. The king in Jerusalem at the time, Zedekiah, fled to the hills, only to be captured by the enemy. Zedekiah’s sons were killed before his eyes, then the Babylonians blinded him and dragged him off to Babylon. Parents, this is not one of those bible stories you should read to your children at night.
But would you believe it, things actual got worse. From catastrophic to calamitous. All the other fortified cities in Judea were burned down by the Babylonians. The wealthy people of Judea were dragged off through the wilderness to interment camps in Babylon, the poor were left behind to tend to the land, and the rest were killed. Over the course of seventy years, the population in Judea would plummet from two hundred and fifty thousand to twenty thousand (Bright, “A History of Israel: Fourth Edition,” 344). The exile of the Jews into Babylon was just about as bad, or worse, as you can imagine.
The exile of the Judeans to Babylon is one of the defining moments in the Old Testament and in the history of God’s people. 586 B.C. is the watershed event, when everything changed. It was so disruptive, so mind-bendingly awful, that the prophet Ezekiel says the Spirit of God just up and left. If you think that the Old Testament doesn’t have anything to do with your life today, think again. Because you know the story.
You’ve had these days, these weeks, these years, this life. Everything is circling the drain and headed down the tubes. Woe begets woe. That family member starts drinking and doesn’t stop. You pay tens of thousands of dollars on your student loans and still have tens of thousands to go. One event in Columbine, Colorado years ago becomes a near weekly occurrence today. It goes from bad to worse to catastrophic to calamitous to game over real quick. It’s exile. Those are the heart-rending episodes that define our lives. When the Spirit and the hope just up and leave and we are cast into the outer darkness. Exile.
That’s precisely where the prophet Isaiah picks up this morning. All throughout Isaiah, the prophet is warning the people that this day of doom, this exile, this expulsion from their homeland is coming. Isaiah knows that things will go from bad, to worse, to soul-crushing. But that is not it for Isaiah.
Like that first shade of pink on a cold morning’s sunrise, Isaiah excitedly prophesies about something else, something new. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Isaiah says that God has not forgotten, God will take care of the Babylonians. And that one day the Israelites will go home. There will be a highway, Isaiah says, stretching from Babylon back to Jerusalem straight through the desert. And on the journey back, you won’t have to pack any water, because the desert will be flowing with streams. You won’t have to worry about lions or tigers or bears because God will have shut their mouths. And if you have a terrible sense of direction, Isaiah says, even if you are fool, you will be able to find your way home again. Home from exile. The people will go straight from the internment camps in Babylon, through the wilderness and then home again.
On the surface, this fits so cleanly with our neat, tidy, little ideas about God in modern Christianity. Things were bad, so bad. But God was good, so good. God fixed it so I’m happy now. But this sounds awfully cheap to me.
Think back to those Jews, on the long road from Babylon back to Jerusalem. They’ve been gone for seventy years, it’s probably the children and grandchildren of those who were exiled who are going back. They don’t know what it’s like in Jerusalem and Judea, they grew up in Babylon. And what are they going home to? The villages and towns have been burned. Their fields are now tended by strangers. Their Temple, their capital, Jerusalem has been destroyed. Though Isaiah is shouting about a crocus blossoming in the desert, the people are going home to a land of ash and rubble.
And you, you know this is true. The credit score never seems to rebound. Even if you’ve gone through cancer, that fear will always be lurking at every doctor’s visit. The emotional, physical, and psychological damage we do to ourselves and to our families will be with us forever. The locked doors at schools and the security at airports snaps us back to land of ash and rubble. Like Zedekiah, horror upon horror will be seared into our memories. Nothing will ever be the way it was before the exile.
And notice, that Isaiah never says it will be like the way it is. No, Isaiah says, it’ll be better. The blind, they’ll see. The deaf will hear. The voiceless ones, they’ll sing for joy. Isaiah is not telling the people of Judea that they will go home and everything will be just the way it was. Oh no. The people of Judea will go home and God will make something new out of it. The only way to the empty tomb is through the cross. Jesus is risen from the dead, but he still has the scars to show what he came through.
The danger is when this nostalgia has crept into every other part of our lives. The real spiritual danger is if we tell ourselves that we are going back to Jerusalem and everything will be just the way it was before. It’s now part of our culture, that we believe that the past was better and that our whole life together should be an attempt to reclaim the way it was before.
But God holds up for us an incredible vision, a promise, of the whole creation being made new in the future. God’s vision, Isaiah’s vision, is that we will stream out of our Babylonian captivity to be healed, restored. The vision is that even the heaven and the earth will be made new again in the future. We believe in a God who says that the way things were in the past and the way things are now, are not how it will be forever. So why do you and I long for a time gone by? Rather than hoping in the future why do we settle for the past?
In short, we refuse to believe that God will make something new out of us. We’re stubborn, we’re obstinate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - nostalgia is a form of atheism because it shows that we are refusing to trust in God’s promise for the future.
Look, you walk into church during Advent and this is what you are going to hear. It’s what we have to hear. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. Not that God would help us become what we were, but that God would lead us into something better. Because Advent is a time in which to prepare for the future.
We need look no further than our parish church to see this in full relief. In 2014 you envisioned a bold new future for our church. It was crazy, that an Episcopal parish in this current day and age would dream of building a new church. Yet here we are, because you refused to settle for the past and because you believed in God’s dream. And so again we will pray, commit, engage and ponder anew what God has in mind for us. We will have the courage to take one step forward on the holy highway, one step with the Lord Jesus so that we fully embrace what God is creating anew among us.
My friends, wherever you are in this journey of life, there is only one way forward, and that is forward. Wherever you are in exile right now - if it’s physical, if it’s a relationship, if it’s financial - take that first step forward on the highway that God has made for you so that the rebuilding can get under way. You can walk out of the Babylon you are in and as Isaiah says, “the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” We, as the church, as the people of Jesus Christ, have one way and only one way to go, and that is forward into God’s future.