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Hope in the Ruins

Isaiah 64:1-12

· advent

Isaiah 64:1-12

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

so that the mountains would quake at your presence—

2 as when fire kindles brushwood

and the fire causes water to boil—

to make your name known to your adversaries,

so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

4 From ages past no one has heard,

no ear has perceived,

no eye has seen any God besides you,

who works for those who wait for him.

5 You meet those who gladly do right,

those who remember you in your ways.

But you were angry, and we sinned;

because you hid yourself we transgressed.

6 We have all become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

We all fade like a leaf,

and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

7 There is no one who calls on your name,

or attempts to take hold of you;

for you have hidden your face from us,

and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

and do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.

10 Your holy cities have become a wilderness,

Zion has become a wilderness,

Jerusalem a desolation.

11 Our holy and beautiful house,

where our ancestors praised you,

has been burned by fire,

and all our pleasant places have become ruins.

12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?

Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

*****

The novel Brideshead Revisited begins with the narrator, Charles Ryder setting up camp with his platoon at an abandoned English manor. It’s early spring but in the throes of World War II the changing season brings no comfort. When the world is devouring itself, “April is the cruelest month.” Charles walks the grounds, giving orders and correcting mistakes. The buildings are nearly in ruins but they’ll do for soldiers. As he’s walking back to the officer’s quarters, Charles asks one of his men what the place is called, and when he hears the answer it was like someone switched off the radio; without the background noise everything took on a sudden clarity: He knew that name. He’d been here before. The house had decayed so much over the years—he had changed so much—that he hadn’t known where he was, but this was the family home of the man who had been his closest friend and his sister, Charles’ first love. The walls were cracked and overgrown with ivy, the grand fountain where they’d sat talking deep into the night was empty now, its bottom caked with cigarette butts. He’d been here before. He’d even been happy here once.

And so, in the middle of catastrophe, Charles remembers. He remembers how he’d met his friend Sebastian at school and come to spend the summer with his family, a beautiful summer filled with food and art and visits to London and afternoons lounging by the fountain. How Julia had been engaged to another man but Charles had fallen in love with her anyway. How Sebastian began drinking, and then kept drinking, always drinking, until he became miserable to be around and eventually disappeared. He remembers how Julia rejected him because she felt that she was somehow choosing between him and the Church she thought she’d abandoned. They’d been so happy together but over the years their lives decayed, some of it their own fault, some of it because the world was hurtling headlong into another war. At one point, Charles is talking with the youngest sister, Cordelia, who is a nun, and she looks out over her home and quotes the prophet Jeremiah (and the Mass) looking over Jerusalem’s destruction: quomodo sedet solo civitas. How lonely stands the city. They had been happy there, but now Charles stands in the ruins, not unlike the Israelites after their long exile.

When things have fallen apart, Jerusalem has been a symbol of loss and hope, hope lost, but also the possibility of hope found again. Every year at Passover, Jews conclude the Seder meal with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” No matter how far away they are, no matter how unlikely it is that they’ll make pilgrimage to the city, they make that statement of hope that we’ll be together again, remembering each other and what God has done for us. Jews who are in Jerusalem on Passover say this too, because sometimes even in Jerusalem, we need hope:

10 Your holy cities have become a wilderness,

Zion has become a wilderness,

Jerusalem a desolation.

11 Our holy and beautiful house,

where our ancestors praised you,

has been burned by fire,

and all our pleasant places have become ruins.

When Isaiah speaks these words, the children of Israel have returned from exile. For decades in Babylon they said to one another, “Next year in Jerusalem” but this year it actually came true. They were allowed to return to their home, to go marching back to Zion! But when they arrive, they find a wasteland. The city of their hopes is in ruins. They got what they hoped for, but then again, not really. All our pleasant places have become ruins.

And so in that time when hope is fulfilled and lost both at once, Isaiah is filled with longing, anxious longing:

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

so that the mountains would quake at your presence—

2 as when fire kindles brushwood

and the fire causes water to boil—

to make your name known to your adversaries,

so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

God we need you to do something about this. This can’t be right, we need you to make it right. How can Jerusalem be like this? This is everything we hoped for, to come home, but it’s still not right! Tear open the heavens, be present with us, let the mountains quake like they did at Horeb. Stir stuff up, make this city a place of hope again! Remember, you’ve done it before: “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”

Hope must be renewed. We have to ask for it again and again, practice it and look for it in unexpected places, because we have never really arrived. It would be so nice if all of our lives only had one big crisis. And even if it lasts for 10 years, we just have to get through it, and then it ends—we get what we hope for—and then everything is good. But this isn’t how the world works is it? This isn’t how our lives work. You finally found a job, but then you found yourself working 12 hour days to keep it. You get the degree, but then the debt notices started coming in. New people started coming, but then our community started changing in fundamental ways. The Civil Rights bill passes, but then people use it as an excuse to say “Racism isn’t a problem any more.” Hope was fulfilled, but not really.

    “We sinned, because you hid yourself, we transgressed; even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” The places we hope to go are usually just the sites of our next struggle. And so Hope is a constant struggle because even when we get what we hope for, the decay, the slow unraveling continues. How lonely sits the city. Our pleasant places have become ruins. God tear open the heavens, do awesome deeds we do not expect. Give us hope again. O come o come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, who sits in lonely exile here.

This is why we practice Advent. Every single year. To remind ourselves to hope. That hope comes in unexpected ways and places. That it comes again and again. That even though the world is always hurtling headlong into some new innovative way of destroying itself (and you), when the child comes a hole is torn in the world, a crack opens up and new possibilities for life emerge from it. And we have to remind ourselves that this is possible again.

We need Advent. In this season, when the stores have put out their decorations right after Halloween, it is easy to run on to Christmas, or at least capitalism’s sentimental imitation of Christmas. Be cheerful! Sing Joy to the World! Shop and don’t be sad! But this season is a lot more complicated than that because our lives are a lot more complicated than that. Sure we enjoy the lights and the parties and days off work. But we also remember. We remember parents and grandparents and siblings and friends who aren’t here with us. We remember words we wish we could take back. We remember children who have moved far away. Some of you have to face the constant cheer without someone you love for the first time this year. If you sing joy to the world it will be in a minor key. Some of you are scared, scared that your health insurance—which already doesn’t cover enough—is going to cover even less, scared that forces beyond your control are going to take and take from you and there’s nothing you can do about it, scared that a madman is going to launch a nuclear weapon and trigger another stupid war. Some of us sit in the midst of lonely cities of fear and grief. The vines crawl over our memories and the wilderness of the world alike, and for all the light in the shop windows, these are the heaviest days of the year.

During Advent we say that Christ is coming, but also that Christ is not here yet. We say that the lonely city will be rebuilt, but we admit that it is in ruins now. During Advent, Mary rejoices with us as she rejoiced at the news of the child in her womb; and she huddles with us in our worry, as she worried that Joseph would send her away. Advent is a time for people who are in between, who are looking for hope, who know that a deep grief abides beneath the cheer. If you find yourself out of step with this season, that your life is a bit more complicated than the Hallmark movies, Advent is a time when you can be honest about that because God does not meet us in our fantasies that we are OK: God meets us in the Deep.

The beginning of hope is honesty. I’m afraid sometimes people want church to make everything pretty, especially this time of year. Don’t be so sad. Cheer up. The gospel is Good News! But at no point does the Bible say, “The Good News is that things weren’t actually so bad after all.” No! The light of the Gospel throws sin into sharper relief, so that the Good News begins with naming and even mapping out the ways that sin has organized our world, infected our thoughts, turned us against God, our neighbors, and ourselves. The Good News is that things were even worse than you ever thought they were, but God can build something new out of the ruins. The heavens can open, powers that seem as immovable as mountains can quake, and we can set tables in the wilderness of our decaying world. A baby is coming. A baby who will bring new creation, who will cast the mighty down from their thrones, who will clear out Wall Street with a whip, who will lift up the poor and the poor in heart, who will walk with you in the ruins of your life and us in the ruins of our world, and begin to build something new. That is the hope of Advent, a hope in the ruins. It is all that bad, but the child is coming, like a light in the darkness.

At the end of Charles Ryder’s story, he visits the family chapel at his old friends’ home. While the rest of the grounds were falling apart, the chapel’s paint was still bright and its walls sound. Hardly anyone had worshipped there for years, but a lamp still burned before the altar, a small, flickering flame that gave light to the rest of the room. And Charles thought to himself: “Something quite remote from what the builders intended has come out of their work and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle…It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.”

That is hope, a candle flickering in the ruins. The walls might have crumbled and the roof caved in, but the candle flickers still. The windows are broken and the doors off their hinges, but the candle flickers still. The shadows grow long, but we remember that they are cast by a light, however small, a light that does not go out. At Christmas the light will catch and begin to grow, but during Advent we sit with the candle. We acknowledge it, we shield it, we are amazed by it. When things are miserable we admit that they are so, and we can admit this because hope gives us courage to face the misery and say, “Not forever. These fallen stones can be arranged in new patterns, and the very rocks will cry out. Blessed are the lowly, for they will be raised up.”

So friends, do not hide your lowliness, your fear, your grief this season. They are the shadows seen in the light, the light of hope, that I pray flickers like a candle in our hearts and stirs us to build something new from the rubble. Amen.

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