What Does True Restoration Look Like?

Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Extended Advent

+In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen.

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.  Isaiah 61:4

Good morning! I don’t know if you have ever noticed this, but things don’t always work out the way we expect them to.  A good friend of mine is perpetually disappointed by this fact. He is in his late seventies now with decades of living in the rear-view mirror but, even so, he is always taken by surprise that matters don’t go as planned. He is a deliberate, planful person. He thinks ahead. He prepares. He always has a contingency plan. So, he thinks, things should go as expected, right?

It doesn’t matter – the result is always the same – disappointment. That, and surprise. One would think that someone who has almost reached the end of his eighth decade would have learned that things don’t always work out as expected. I get being disappointed when that happens. But surprised? Really?

Lots of things don’t work out the way we expected them to. Maybe we took a job that was supposed to be fulfilling, but now going to work is something we dread. Maybe we studied hard for many months for a big exam or an evaluation but still didn’t pass. Maybe we thought we’d be married by now or at least be in a committed relationship, but we aren’t even dating anyone. Maybe we poured our heart into a project or relationship only to get fired or break up. Maybe we aren’t as close with the kids as we were before.

And then there’s this Year 2020 which, thank goodness, is almost over. It certainly did not work out the way any of us expected it to! Who could have foreseen that a virus would upend our world so completely – affecting national economies and people’s jobs, closing borders and restricting travel, shuttering businesses and darkening theaters. . . and sending technology stocks like Zoom and Amazon and Shopify to dizzying new heights? No, things do not always work out the way we expected them to.

Every year, on the day before Thanksgiving, a friend of mine maintains a tradition about disappointments. She calls the tradition, “Giving Thanks For All The Things That Aren’t.” Since sermons are a from of spoken communication, I need to tell you that when she writes that phrase out, every word begins with a capital letter: Giving Thanks For All The Things That Aren’t.  Let me read you what she posted on Facebook this year:

Welcome to my annual day-before Thanksgiving tradition, which is Giving Thanks For All The Things That Aren’t.

The jobs I didn’t get, the jobs I didn’t take, the dudes I wasn’t into, the dudes who weren’t that into me, the tumors that weren’t cancer, the car wreck that wasn’t fatal, the breakups and the breakdowns, everything that seemed like a mistake or a crisis at the time. 

Every single time it has made sense years later and I am grateful. I hate pop theology “everything happens for a reason,” but I do believe in the presence of God waving through the seemingly random events of life that become the wisdom of the path unfolding. So today, I Give Thanks For All The Things That Aren’t.

I suppose you could say that it’s my friend’s version of that old Garth Brooks song about all the things he thought he wanted so badly, only to discover that, as he sings in the refrain: “some of God’s greatest gifts/Are unanswered prayers.” And I do think it’s possible to see things that way in retrospect. . . but it can be awfully hard to do when we’re in the middle of disappointments and broken dreams.

Back in 2016, when all our disappointments weren’t COVID related, Christine Hassler, a life coach and speaker, created the term “expectation hangover” to describe the negative reactions that people experience when things don’t work out as expected. Hassler wrote, “your disappointment might be the best thing that has ever happened to you.” And, like any life coach worth the title, she offered a treatment plan with insights and exercises to help her readers navigate disappointment and channel their expectation hangover into creating a meaningful life.

I’m sure that much of what she offered then was helpful to people. And I certainly believe that it’s possible to redeem personal disappointments by finding opportunities in them for growth and self-improvement. But I need more than tips from a life coach when “the things that don’t work out the way I expected them to” are on the massive scale they are now – when Giving Thanks For All The Things That Aren’t requires coping skills way beyond my capacity. What am I supposed to do when that happens?

I hope you won’t be surprised to hear me say that we are not the first people to feel the kind of disappointment we’re experiencing now. Let me tell you about another time when a different group of people was suffering some serious “expectation hangover.” It’s the time and situation reflected in the Isaiah passage today. Here’s a little background about today’s lesson/ It comes from the third section of Isaiah.

This part of the book reflects the period after the Jews returned to Jerusalem from their long captivity in Babylon. Their hopes had been raised by the glorious dream of a restored kingdom – a vision of God’s return to Zion – a time when valleys would be raised up and mountains and hills would be made low to pave the way home. When they arrived back in Israel, though, they were confronted with the Temple reduced to rubble and with the enormous task of rebuilding what had been laid waste. With their dream shattered, the people awakened to the sober realities of their situation.

Jerusalem lay in ruins. The enemies surrounding them fed a steady stream of negative propaganda to the Persian emperor about them. The bright future promised to them was clearly not going to magically appear. If the Temple was going to be rebuilt, they would have to do it. If the walls of the city were to be re-erected, they would have to put each stone in place themselves. We have to read the words of the first lesson with this struggling, disillusioned community in mind – a community who knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that things do not always work out as expected.

Here’s what the prophet said to them: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor . . . 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. . . . Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”  The prophet foresaw a time when everything would be restored – when the struggles of the people and their disillusionment will be a distant memory.

Jesus chose this passage from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah as the text for his sermon on the day he visited the synagogue in Nazareth. He was also speaking to a disillusioned people – people being held captive in their own country by a different empire. Jesus proclaimed a time of restoration – a hopeful time when all who mourned would be comforted. The Spirit of the Lord would “give people a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” When that time came, Jesus said, “the people [would] be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display God’s glory.” A Jubilee year was on its way – a time of freedom from everything that kept people in bondage.

What do we imagine it will be like when this pandemic finally comes to an end – when vaccines will make it safe for us to gather and when so much of what we have lost will be returned to us?  I ask that question, because I think we need to think about what restoration might look like?  I, for one, hope it does not mean “going back to normal” – to the way things were before the pandemic hit this past spring. I hope we will see revealed the enormous gap between the world as it is and a world as it should be.

Pope Francis talked about this in an op-ed published in The New York Times on the day after Thanksgiving. The piece was called, “A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts.”  In the article, the pontiff said that he hoped for much more than a return to normal. He wrote that in order “to come out of this pandemic better than we went in, we must let ourselves be touched by others’ pain.” Pope Francis imagined coming out of the pandemic better than we went in. Not the same. Better.

I know some of you have read what he wrote, but I wanted to share a few sections that spoke especially to me. Maybe they will speak to you as well. Pope Francis first addressed the losses we have undergone as individuals. He wrote, “In every personal ‘Covid,’ . . . in every “stoppage,” what is revealed is what needs to change: our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.”

But then the Pontiff went beyond our individual concerns to the larger societal issues, noting that, “The pandemic has exposed the paradox that while we are more connected, we are also more divided.”

In response, he issued a challenge: “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. . . . God asks us to dare to create something new. We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis. We need economies that give to all access to the fruits of creation, to the basic needs of life: to land, lodging and labor. We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that affect their lives. We need to slow down, take stock and design better ways of living together on this earth.”

Christmas is less than two weeks away. I spoke with my seven-year-old grandson this past week. His young life has been turned upside down since the pandemic began. Everything in his world has changed – from what school is like to having his parents, who are working from home, constantly around. Longing for “normal,” he keeps reminding his family of holiday traditions that they absolutely must keep this year – everything from setting up the train under the tree to cookie decorating. Even with these traditions intact, he acknowledged to me that, “Christmas will be different this year.” 

He’s right, of course. I’m sorry for him and for all of us who will bear the loss of Christmas as we know it, gathered together with the people we love, and singing Silent Night in a darkened church. But I also hope we can slow down, take stock and design better ways of living together on this earth in the coming year.  That we will build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations; and repair the ruined cities. That we won’t return to pre-pandemic “normal,” but, with God’s help, will answer the call “to embrace the reality that we are bound together by bonds of reciprocity” and a sense of the dignity that is shared by all humankind. That would be a true restoration and a time when we can all rejoice!     Amen.