ISAIAH 61:1-3 AND JOHN 1:9-13
Well known author, and artist Jan Richardson, speaks of a trip she made to Rome. “One of the things that fascinated me,” Richardson says, “was the presence of ruins.” For the city of Rome is a city where past and present inter-mingle. The Forum is an especially rich source ancient ruins: basilicas, arches, temples, etc. Verse 4 of our passage from Isaiah 61 says, “they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” What must it be like, do you think, to grow up there amid the ruins? And what must it feel like to hear a proclamation of renewal, and gladness, and joy? For here in Isaiah, the prophet proclaims the Lord God’s promise of healing, and rebuilding. Have you ever been to a place like Rome or Greece where people live in proximity to the ancient sights. Can you imagine what it must be like to be “perpetually reminded” of our place in history.
We can look at these ancient ruins through a slightly romantic lens, using our imagination to smooth the sharp edges. We can ponder the events that brought them about, and wonder about them, without too much heartache because we are so far removed from them. Richardson suggests this is “because we are largely removed from the visible past and we don’t have to wrestle with it so much.”
But what about the ruins that we carry inside, individually and collectively? It can be harder to see those ruins but they often manifest themselves in people and families and communities and even churches who have struggled in various ways. Sometimes it is a struggle of a family or a person to avoid abandonment. Sometimes it is a struggle against loss, or betrayal.
In her commentary on Isaiah 61, Richardson asks, “What does it mean to rebuild those ruins? When it comes to the losses and devastations that we harbor within us, how do we discern what God might be inviting us to restore?” And further, how can restoration give us hope for a future? What might we have to do to receive or invite or participate in restoration? What is involved in restoration? If it is restoration of a structure, one of the first things that must be done is to determine what is and is not salvageable. Rebuilding sometimes requires starting afresh and with something completely different. It is not much different when we talk about rebuilding or restoring someone’s internal landscape. Yet, this is one of God’s specialties – taking what seems to be a total ruin and restoring and rebuilding and renewing; replenishing and proclaiming good news to the oppressed.
This got me thinking about what has perhaps fallen into ruin in my life and what God might be inviting me to rebuild. This morning I want to share with you a very personal experience in the hopes that it might help me and help you. So, things have significantly changed in my personal life and in my home. Probably more drastically than I have shared with you. Many of you know that my mother passed away in October, and you may know that I spent a good deal of time in taking care of her and had done so since my dad died in 1998. You may not know that my daughter and granddaughter, who have lived with me for the past six years, moved into their own home about the time my mother died. Suddenly, I found myself alone, all alone, they even took the cat with them. And I realized that I have never lived completely alone AND there hasn’t been a time in my adult life when I was not been somebody’s caregiver. Even though I am a “roll with the punches” type person, I was in no way prepared for this and the emotions that went along with it. I never expected it to be as huge of an adjustment as it has been. Now don’t worry because I’m gonna be fine. God and I are working through this, and if I have learned one thing it is that God always has a plan for what happens next and I know that my future is secure in Him. But even so, the other day I found myself, in my big empty house feeling very alone. I felt incredibly sorry for myself, despairing, down in the dumps, depressed. Maybe you know what I am talking about, maybe you have been there or felt something similar. I was talking to God about the crazy jumble of feelings I was experiencing, and frankly, I was kind of just wallowing in my self-pity. “I feel so alone, nobody really loves me,” I told God, very sniveled. You know what I mean. What happened next, I can only explain as God’s response. Almost at that instant my phone rang and it was a friend just saying hello. That was nice, but then my sister called. Same reason – just checking in. Then my brother and sister-in-law called. And when the call ended, I knew. I knew that God was sending me messages of his grace and his love, of his desire for me to have a hope and a future. But you know what my first reaction was? My first reaction was to be annoyed at the interruption of my prayer aka rant. Until I realized, Oh my goodness! This is God calling. This is God answering my whiny prayers. But I was still in a funk and almost missed the next two things that happened, because honestly I was kind of enjoying my misery. (have you ever been there?) Adding to my misery was all my Christmas stuff just sitting in a big pile on the living room floor with the Christmas tree still in the box. Then last Friday after school, the kids that I bring to church on Wednesday night came over and put up my Christmas tree and decorated it. Just like that. It looks great! Then I came home Monday and all of the rest of the decorations (that were still piled in a heap on the floor) had all been arranged all over the house. There were decorations everywhere! And then I saw a note tucked into one of the decorations, I pulled it out and it was a sweet note from my precious daughter who had done all of this decorating, saying, “You are SO loved.” It was a note from God saying “you are so loved.”
You know, we so often get into that place where all we see is our despair, the places in our lives that have fallen into ruin, those broken places that we think are unsalvageable and we don’t (or maybe can’t) notice the many, many times that God tries to say to us, “you are so loved.” “You are so loved.” We miss God’s declaration of restoration, God’s desire to redeem to rebuild. Our vision for the future can become clouded and we don’t grasp or recognize that hope. And so we don’t receive it, and if we refuse to receive then it cannot move us and healing cannot begin. God is speaking today into even the most down-hearted situation and saying, “you are so loved.” Maybe you got a phone call from a friend, maybe you saw an encouraging post on facebook, maybe someone at the doctor’s office looked you in the eye and said, “take care,” maybe the clerk at the grocery store was extra kind, maybe someone said, “I’m praying for you,” or “I care about you.” It might be something bigger, it might be something smaller. It might be a cup of coffee, a cookie, and a chat at coffee fellowship, it might be worship, it might be right here. So if you haven’t heard it in awhile, if you haven’t felt in in your heart. Let me say it to you, “You are So loved.”
Can you receive that and let it work its way into your heart? Can you let it rebuild those places that have lain in ruin? Can you take it in and let it reassure you that you don’t need to worry about your future?
This whole thing we celebrate here at Advent of Jesus coming into the world as a baby, as one of us, wasn’t so that we could light candles and eat Christmas cookies. It was to give the world hope. It was to say, “You are So loved.” When we receive this, our future is secure in him.
And then, pass it on!