Over the past couple of weeks I have slowly been catching up with many of you since Christmas. Some of us travelled, many of us welcomed family and friends into our homes.
One thing I heard over and over was, like me, many had a fairly quiet Christmas. Of course, many of us (myself included) were also really really sick. The flu went through southern Ontario like wildfire! But, for others, the quiet was intentional. One young family had a completely candlelit Christmas dinner. Another talked about realizing that Christmas was “good enough”. Her table may not have come out of Martha Stewart magazine, but her family was there, and that was good enough.
I think, ultimately, this is a good thing. Every day we are under more and more pressure to participate in more activities and measure up with those who seem busier than us. We are exhausted. And I am so thankful that, this Christmas, many were able to rest.
And, now, as we move through Epiphany, man has it been hard to get back in the swing of things! Probably still recovering from the flu has been part of it. But Magi have been making epic journeys, Mary and Joseph have been running around the Holy Land looking for their sun, Jesus is partying and performing his first miracle, and I just want to curl up and watch Netflix.
And, yet, I can get really excited about the NFL playoffs…
Even if I had time to spend most of the month of January watching old TV shows and football, honestly, I wouldn’t want to. I want to be with my friends, engaging in the world. I want-to want-to get off my couch. I need someone to come in and get me really excited about something.
This is what I imagine the prophet Isaiah is trying to do. Many of us are accustomed to hearing the words of Isaiah set to the exciting music of Handel. In fact, he was speaking to a very weary people.
Now, placing the First Testament prophecies into an historical timeline can be tricky, because most were not written for the purpose of forming a linear year to year timeline, but to share the roots of the faith. Most would agree that Isaiah was written after the Israelites had been returned to Israel.
Here’s a very quick version of what happened. In the year 586 BC, Jerusalem was invaded by the Babylonians. Many Jewish leaders and prominent citizens were taken as prisoners to Babylon, which is in modern day Iraq at the delta of the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Over the next 50 years, many of those hostages settled down, were able to make a living and, eventually, a home even though the prophets promised they would return to their homeland.
So, when a new, more lenient emperor, Cyrus, came to power, the Israelites were freed to return to Jerusalem. Only a handful returned. The return, however, was not the victorious entry as was promised. They returned to destroyed fields, a ruined city, a pile of rubble where their temple had been, and enemies all around. They began the slow, difficult work of rebuilding. You can imagine, they became discouraged and desperate. There was no promised light, no messiah. Some began to follow a “strict legalism” in hopes of bringing God’s blessing. Others became apathetic and lost their faith. Other religions even began to creep in, and factions began to form. And into this apathy and cynicism (hmm, I wonder if we see much of that these days?) Isaiah was speaking:
For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still until her righteousness shines out like a light, and her salvation blazes like a torch. Nations will see your righteousness, all kings your glory. You will be called by a new name, which the Lord’s own mouth will determine.
Just a bit past our reading in v. 10, Isaiah continues:Pass through, pass through the gates; prepare the way for the people! Build, build the road; clear away the stones! Raise up a signal for the peoples.
Isaiah is raising the people up out of their complacency by telling them to live into the reality of their freedom. The people were sitting in complacency and despair. They had stopped longing for the joy of God’s kingdom, and just wanted to be comfortable, only, really, as comfortable as they had been in Babylon.
There are times when we are happy to sit in the comfort of what we have, especially as churches. We have what we have always had. We know it. It’s like wrapping up in a warm blanket. It’s familiar. The thing is, like being on the couch watching old movies, it is really hard to get up and shift gears.
One could say, if we wanted to play a bit, that even Jesus struggled to move out of his comfort zone. This morning we heard, according to the Gospel of John, about Jesus’ first miracle. In John, these early miracles are signs to those around that Jesus is the Messiah.
This morning, we are taken to a wedding Jesus is attending. It’s a wedding, and everyone is having a wonderful time. We can imagine Jesus, being with his family and friends. This is his home. He is comfortable. All of a sudden, Jesus’ mother (in the gospel of John, Jesus’ mother is never named Mary) and draws Jesus into the next chapter of his life. It seems like some generous housekeeping, help the groom with his lack of wine. But it is so much more. There is no turning back. Mary knows now is the time for Jesus to come. He says no, but, like the great mother she is, she leaves him to come to it on his own.
Once Jesus performed that miracle, the wedding was no longer a simple celebration. It was a transformative moment in Jesus’ ministry. There was no turning back. He is the Son of God. The kingdom had come. And the kingdom is here.
The challenge Isaiah presented to the people was to live into the reality of God’s kingdom. They had fallen into a place where they would rather stay in their ruin than move into an unknown kingdom. After all the hopes for a fairy tale ending, why would they try to seek something better?
The prophet doesn’t speak about what they must do. He speaks about who they are, God’s delight, in a loving relationship akin to marriage. Of all the nations they are surrounded by, they are the only people who are in a loving relationship with their God.
We gather today in the joy of the knowledge that we are loved beyond measure by the God who created us. We gather in the name of a loving God who created us, gives us gifts so we can build one another up and care for each other and the world around us. It is often tempting to sit in our comfort, surrounded by God’s love like a warm hug. But there is so much more in store for us, and we can only have a taste of it if we live boldly and without fear.
Our epistle reading is a familiar one listing the gifts of the Spirit. Whatever list of gifts you read, it is clear that these gifts are meant for the building up of the Church and the glory of God. They are part of living in the kingdom. They are not a list of qualifications. They are signs of the kingdom. When we experience people sharing their gifts, we know the kingdom–God–is working and living.