We have been in an extended Advent since March, yearning for God’s transforming power to come and kick butt, er, sweep through our world. COVID has put us all in a state of exile from our former lives, and we hear Isaiah’s words with extra longing this year. Restoration? Bring it on. Good news? Very welcome. Binding up the broken-hearted? Yes, please.
As we hear these words from the prophet, the third person to wear the mantle and name Isaiah, they drop into our lives with extra force this year. He’s speaking to people who have returned from a long exile, promising that there is more to God’s fulfillment than what they currently see. In our exile from our past routines, Isaiah’s word of hope is an Advent gift.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
Read the scripture here.
We can imagine the surprise of the exiles of Isaiah’s day, who return to a Jerusalem they have never known. The grandchildren of the original exiles, they have been hearing about the wonders of Jerusalem all of their lives. Their grandparents, and then their parents, talked about the glory of the city they left behind. When this generation of people arrives in the city, only to find a place they need to rebuild, we can feel their bitter disappointment. Perhaps it would have been better not to come at all.
Speaking into their sorrow, Isaiah has a bold word from God. God is there “to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” In fact, they have work to do. “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations.” As we look to the time after COVID, we also will have similar work to do. We will need to build up the economic lives of people who have lost their jobs, and perhaps their homes. We will need to learn how to socialize again. Small children will need to grow used to seeing people’s whole faces. Students and teachers will have to start where they left off, recognizing that the fortunate have managed to keep up with their classes, and many others have not. The arts will have to rebuild to offer plays and concerts and exhibitions again. Churches will have to call back people who have come to love having church at any time, anywhere, with their pajamas on. All of us, once it’s safe, will have former devastations to build in our communities.
The sermon might explore where we are in exile. Some people haven’t seen family members since March. Others haven’t had a hug, or felt human touch in all that time. Church members feel exiled from the building, and from singing and familiar gatherings. What is exile like for us?
Or, the sermon might look at what we expect our return from exile to be like, and how we may be disappointed. Like the original exiles, we may not get what we’re imagining. We think life will return to the best version of normal when there’s a vaccine, widely distributed, and it may not happen the way we hope. How will we manage to live with long-term, low-grade disappointment?
Speaking for God, Isaiah says, “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” COVID’s ravages have fallen unevenly on us, doing more harm to people who were already on the edge, economically. God has tangible measures for restoration in mind here. This word of hope has a practical side. The sermon might look at the call for economic justice, and how we share in bringing that to life for people.
The year of the Lord’s favor is the Jubilee Year, when debts are erased and people are restored to a more even economic footing. In that, the prophet promises “the day of vengeance of our God” combined with comfort for all who mourn. The sermon might look at where God’s vengeance is needed, and where comfort is required. Why do the two travel together? What is God asking from those of us whose retirement plans are soaring right now?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week, for the third Sunday of Advent? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Senior Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, where the members come from over 30 countries. Drive-in communion is her favorite COVID innovation.
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