This is a bad news/good news sermon. First the bad news. Earlier this week an acquaintance of mine, someone I worked with several years ago, posted on Facebook that it felt to her that while everyone else she knew was scurrying around hanging up bright lights and making and buying beautiful Christmas presence and humming carols while they worked, she was caught in a deep and painful depression this December. Her last parent had died this year, her one son had reached a place of independence and moved out. She liked her job, but it wasn’t inspiring her as before. She felt alone, isolated, sad….as if in exile….exiled from life.
I spent time this week checking in with various church members and others I know who are sick or facing surgery or just finding getting old hard. One friend who who suffers from a variety of ailments including increasing paralysis wrote he finds it hard some days to feel hope…when he and his wife can’t drive anywhere, he feels exiled along with the aging castaways in his assisted living home.
Some news reports this week contributed to my feeling of woe. I was especially impacted by the news that the US Congress is planning to try again to pass legislation that would make it legal for people and corporations to discriminate against LGBTQ persons on religious grounds—claiming freedom of religion gives freedom to discriminate. As a Christian religious leader, as I read this report I too began to feel marginalized, exiled from public life and culture.
Finally, today is the 11th of December—we are moving quickly to the longest night on December 21, where darkness seems to envelop our world. It is not quite so bad here in Southern California, but I remember when I lived further north, in central Canada, I felt exiled to the dark….for months.
Here we are this Sunday morning—each of us in a different place emotionally and spiritually---and I would bet that at least some of us have felt these past few days or weeks like we are sinking into place of exile…..emotional, cultural, maybe even spiritual exile. And now for the good news: in the midst of this sense of exile God shouts an audacious call to joy. Yes, joy! Joy in the midst of exile In the middle of this exile of depression and anxiety, the threat of discrimination, the longest night of the year, God proclaims the reversal of fortune and the welling up of joy. Listen again to the words of Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom….the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” When Isaiah, or more likely a student or follower of Isaiah, composed these words, he was most likely singing to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon, who were longing to return to Jerusalem. For approximately 50 years the people of the Kingdom of Judah were in what we call the Babylonian Exile, also called Babylonian Captivity, the forced detention of Jews in Babylonia following Babylon’s conquest of the kingdom of Judah in 598/7 and 587/6 BCE. The exile formally ended in 538 BCE, when the Persian conqueror of Babylonia, Cyrus the Great, gave the Jews permission to return to Palestine. Some date the end of the exile as 516 BC, the year when the rebuilt temple was dedicated in Jerusalem. So how did the Jewish people survive the period of exile? Although the Jews suffered greatly and faced powerful cultural pressures in a foreign land, they maintained their national spirit and religious identity. Elders supervised the Jewish communities. The time of exile was likely also the period when synagogues were first established, for the Jews observed the Sabbath and religious holidays, practiced circumcision, and substituted prayers for former ritual sacrifices in the Temple. Prophets like Ezekiel and the author of 2nd Isaiah kept alive the hope of one day returning home, returning to Zion, returning to the flourishing kingdom of God. Isaiah’s portrait of the restoration of God’s people in Chapter 35 is powerful and beautiful. The restoration is so thoroughgoing that the natural world participates in the new life: the desert blooms and flows with running streams. And in this place of restoration, the new Zion, violence is banished and even the humans who have known the greatest physical suffering and social marginalization are healed: “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” In the midst of exile God calls to us and says: take heart, you will be restored, you will sing for joy.
I want to acknowledge that it is hard sometimes especially, in the midst of a sense of exile, especially deep mourning or depression and anxiety to receive God’s call to joy. When Stephen and I lost our son Max at birth, I went to church the next Sunday—which happened to be Palm Sunday. I was in profound exile, when a well-meaning volunteer cheerfully handed me a palm frond and shouted with a big smile on her face “Hosanna,” “hosanna.” The last thing I was capable of that Palm Sunday morning was shouting anything cheerfully—I was so lost in my sadness I couldn’t even pretend to be cheerful. And I refused to say anything…..until I remembered what hosanna means. That is doesn’t mean “praise God”—as I suspect the smiling volunteer thought. It means “save us, God.” “Hosanna” is the word for people in exile who can’t find their way to back to joy on their own and need God to do that for them. Hosanna—save us God—is what we can call out to God this morning to move us from the feeling of exile to a place where we can begin to sense even just the inklings of the audacious joy that God promises. Exile--Hosanna—Joy is the pattern of our Christian journey.
Today we rejoice because we know that Isaiah’s powerful vision of the restoration of God’s people and God’s kingdom continued and continues through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose birth we move ever closer to as we move through Advent. Which leads me to our Gospel reading---which to my mind is one of the greatest and most important passages in the New Testament. It is the story of how John the Baptist, now imprisoned, confirms for himself and his followers that Jesus Christ is the one, the Messiah and son of God. The question for us today is: How do we who are in the church know that Jesus Christ is the one, the Messiah who fulfills the promise of restoration that Isaiah portrays so beautifully in Chapter 35? The same way that Jesus’ contemporaries knew. Take a look at our Gospel reading. When the disciples of John come to Jesus and ask: “Are you the one who is to come?” How does Jesus answer? [Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”] Jesus is in healing. Jesus is in restoration. Jesus is in renewal. Jesus is in the restoration of the poor. Jesus is in liberation from bondage of sin and exclusion. [Which means Jesus is NEVER in discrimination].
How do others today, those who are outside our walls come to know that Jesus Christ is the one? They come to know that Jesus Christ is the one not just by what we tell them, but by what we do. When we do the work of restoration, people will see and will come to know Jesus Christ. This is why doing ministry together and in our personal lives is so important. Any time we do an act of restoration, people can see Jesus Christ: when we support people struggling with alcoholism and other addictions, we help people see Jesus. When we help people who are out of work get back on their feet, we help people see Jesus. When we help people get an education or find secure and supportive housing, we help people see Jesus. When we help people who have a different physical ability participate with dignity, we help people see Jesus. When we tend to the sick and love the dying, we help people see Jesus. When we help to rescue people from oppression and enslavement, we help people see Jesus. When we do acts of restoration, people can see and come to know what we know….that Jesus Christ has come to restore us all. To make the desert flow with water and the lame leap like a deer.
This IS the Good News of Jesus Christ. [Not the rigid, proof texting moralism of Christian conservatives. Not the Christianity that calls for discrimination.] What we hear today—God’s audacious call to joy, Jesus’ actions of restoration—this IS the Good News of Jesus Christ. And we who understand this Gospel of Jesus Christ, who feel it in our bones—we must claim our public voice and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, proclaim where Jesus truly is. Here right now. Out in the world. Restoring us from exile, restoring all of us for good. Now and forever.