Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4
There was a certain romance to the ruins of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat that Jon and I encountered when we visited Cambodia last summer. Some of these massive, ornate 12th-and 13th-century structures stood relatively intact, but there were others that were practically hidden in the jungle, overgrown with trees that had literally taken root in and around some of their walls. With them there was just enough structure left to be able to tell that something big and beautiful had been there, but enough stones and rubble on the ground to make you feel like you were Indiana Jones or someone, intrepidly exploring the wild jungle and discovering the ruins of an ancient place for the very first time. There seemed to be a certain sense of authenticity in the ruins—even if it was a false sense of authenticity—that you didn’t get at the temples that were farther along in the process of reconstruction.
Still, the temples that were more intact than others gave you a sense of this glorious history of the Khmer Empire, and we could imagine what these majestic structures once were, and what kind of city must have surrounded them, and what kind of kings must have brought them into being.
The city of Jerusalem had once been great, too. King Solomon had built the Temple out of the finest stone and covered it all over with gold. He built a palace for himself from the finest cedar trees from the forests of Lebanon. He had hired the best artisans to carve golden cherubim and pillars decorated with pomegranates. And, for a time, there had been prosperity and peace. It was Zion—the city of God.
But by the time the prophet Isaiah wrote the words we read today, the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. Jerusalem may have once been great, but the Babylonians were greater, and one day they had marched into the city of God, taken the elites captive and sent them into exile, ransacked the city, and destroyed the Temple where God was believed to reside. The city was left bombed out, so to speak—empty, poor, without leadership, left to pick up the pieces. Perhaps trees grew, their roots encompassing those finest finished stones that had once formed walls.
Eventually the exile ended and the captive Israelites were allowed to go home. But as they say, you can’t go home again. Think of that sinking feeling as you come home to a place that you can never really come home to, as you realize that everything that mattered to you has changed. Gone was that glorious Temple and the city of God that had risen up around it. In its place were ruins. And there was no romance to these ruins, because they were their own.
Pretty bleak for Advent, right?
Well, imagine one person standing up in the midst of the rubble and daring to imagine that this city could be great again. Imagine one prophet daring to proclaim that God could once again be seen in this city that looked like it would never live again.
That is an Advent kind of hope.
The Old Testament texts that we sometimes read at Advent are full of rich imagery like this, but we don’t often spend a lot of time with these images and how they illustrate our sense of anticipation and our preparation during the season. For one thing, the prophetic texts can be a little tricky to read in the context of Advent. They are about Jesus and not about Jesus at the same time. The Hebrew prophets were writing and speaking to their own historical context, about kings and war and exile and peace. They didn’t know about Jesus or have him in mind.
But we do believe as Christians that Jesus fulfills their prophecies, possibly in a way that no one, not even the prophets themselves, expected. They proclaimed that God would bring hope and peace in the midst of exile and oppression. They just didn’t know what form that would eventually take. But as long as we’re careful not to read in things the prophets aren’t saying, these rich images do tell us something about Jesus, about what they were waiting for, and what we’re waiting for in this season of waiting.
It’s hard to think of this image of ruins and not think of someplace like Syria. Neighborhoods where people sat with friends at cafes and kids rode their bikes in the street are now rubble, bombed out by ISIS.
Or it’s hard to think of this image of ruins and not think of someplace like Ferguson. Places where people shopped or got their hair done are now torn down and burned down by people’s rage against injustice.
Or it’s hard not to think of a place like Baltimore, pretty close to home, for much the same reasons.
We may look at these pictures and ask along with the prophet Ezekiel, can these dry bones live? Can this bombed-out, burned-down, smashed-in rubble once again be a city with culture and parks and places to eat and go? Can it once again be a neighborhood with business and life and neighbors?
It is a heavy time in our world right now, and sometimes a “yes” to that question almost seems like too much to believe. Even Pope Francis recently said that our celebrations of Christmas this year are a “charade” when “the whole world is at war.” But maybe that is why we need to take the time to observe Advent before we get to Christmas: these are pictures from a world that desperately needs God and salvation to show up.
One problem with starting to think that there’s no way these places can live again is that it’s pretty limiting of God and what God can do. But also, when we sink into despair, we begin to think there’s nothing we can do about it. We pray for peace and we pray for justice, but the job is simply too overwhelming to begin.
And that’s why Advent is a time not just to remember how much we need God, but to cling to the hope that God will come and save us. Advent hope is not the kind of innocent hope that lets you keep believing that Santa Claus is real and there’s still magic in the world. It’s the raw, earthy, sometimes almost desperate kind of hope that God can make real differences in the lives of real people in real places. It’s the kind of hope that stands in the middle of the rubble and needs, wants, prays for, even challenges God to come make something out of these ruins.
Here and there, little by little, we see signs that it is true, that new life is possible. If you had seen New Orleans in the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, you might have felt that same sense of overwhelming despair, that things would never be the same again. In some ways they may not be, but little by little, New Orleans has risen from the ashes. People with faith in something put one stone on top of another. They shall raise up the former devastations. Of course, it’s even harder in Syria, Ferguson, Baltimore—where we are not just battling weather, but hearts and systems alike have to change.
And still, even in those places, among the burnt foundations and the smashed glass, Isaiah’s words ring out: They shall repair the ruined cities.
As I said, Isaiah wasn’t writing these words with Jesus in mind. His words are about exile and life after exile, but Jesus reminds us that exile is sometimes about more than where on the map we find ourselves and how far away we are from home.
It’s worth noting that these verses are what Jesus adopts as his own mission statement, in the Gospel of Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, just after his baptism and his 40 days of temptation in the desert. “He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day,” Luke writes, “as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.” And he said to them, “’Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” He drops the mic.
These are the verses that will define his ministry. He is here to bring good news to all the people who need it most. Real, particular good news, to real, particular people. He stops reading before he gets to the part about rebuilding the ruins, but for the people gathered in that synagogue who already know the scripture well, I imagine it must have hung in the air like an unspoken promise.
The Temple in Jerusalem, at this point in history, has been rebuilt, restored, and it is as glorious as ever. At a time much closer to the end of Jesus’ ministry than its beginning, his disciples will walk out of the Temple and look around themselves in awe and say, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” It won’t always be that way. The Romans will reduce those large, beautiful stones to rubble once again. But even in the meantime, Jesus can look around him and see the ruins that we don’t, the ruins all around him in lives that are hurting. The ruins of the lives of the poor, the captives, the oppressed. That is the rubble that Jesus stands in the middle of when he proclaims, “This is the year of the Lord.” These ruins will be restored. These dry bones will live.
I read an account of a young woman who at the age of 16 walked in to find her mom had attempted suicide. “The bottom dropped out of my world,” she said. When that happens, it tends to be ruins that are left.
Of course, looking back she could see the things she hadn’t before, or had dismissed. Her parents had recently gotten divorced, and she and her mom and sister had moved out. Her mom started sleeping more, and getting distracted mid-sentence. “Her thoughts of despair had started to overwhelm her,” this young woman wrote, “…but neither my sister or I knew this.” These ruins may be ruins of the less obvious kind.
There are those of us here who are weeping for the state of our world and praying “Come, Lord Jesus,” but there are also those of us—and we may be the same people—who have felt the bottoms drop out of our own worlds, who are weeping for the ruins of our own lives, who are wondering if exile is forever and not daring to believe that we will ever feel home again.
They may be the ruins of failed relationships, the ruins of depression or illness or addiction, the ruins of poverty or the ruins of fear or despair, the ruins of poor choices and sin and brokenness, the ruins of what once was or the ruins of what we thought might be. But they are ours, and God does not forget God’s ruined city.
This is our Advent hope: that God cares, not just in a theoretical, otherworldly, cosmic kind of way, but in a real, raw, tangible, earthy way, for real people and real places and real situations and real lives. That God cares enough to come down here and literally start picking up the pieces—going first when we can’t.
But did you notice the pronouns in this verse? “They shall build up the ancient ruins, it reads, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
They are the exiles who have come home. They are the oppressed who have heard good news. They are the brokenhearted who have been bound up in love and comfort. They are the prisoners and captives who have heard the proclamations of liberty and release.
It is our hope in what God can do that allows us to rise from despair and start—putting one stone back on top of another.
Come, Lord Jesus.
 Mark 13:1; cf. also Luke 21:5