December 13, 2020
Isaiah 61: 1-11
In a refugee camp in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, three women die after giving birth at their homes … around the same time … a baby who’s on a ventilator dies because there is no oxygen.
A doctor in the camp says that the hospital where he works is “totally non-functional” due to a lack of electricity, fuel for generators, oxygen and medical supplies. Medics are unable to perform emergency surgery or effectively treat patients for problems such as diabetes.
“Patients are dying outside and inside the hospital,” the doctor wrote in a message to the Lutheran World Federation.
An estimated 950,000 people have been displaced by the latest conflict in that country. About 50,000 people are believed to have escaped to Sudan.
So, nearly a million people are living as exiles.
Last week, the Lutheran World Federation and its affiliated organizations in other denominations sent a letter of solidarity to churches and people facing challenges created by the conflict … as well as by famine … climate change … and a locust plague.
The letter also commends churches and church-related organizations in Ethiopia for their response to human suffering and for their efforts to promote peace, reconciliation, and unity, urging them to continue this vital ministry.
And when the conflict is over … and the people are able to safely return to their former homes … their joy could be muted by the rubble and destruction that awaits them.
Like the refugees in Tigray, the people from Jerusalem and the surrounding area have been in exile … refugees who were forced to make their home among strangers in Babylon.
Despair must have been woven into the fabric of their daily lives.
The people’s hearts had been broken by the losses that they had been forced to endure … the loss of their homeland … the loss of family members and friends … the loss of the centre of their faith.
The exiles had been denied their heritage and the ability to be who God called them to be.
Now, after so many years, the people can return home. They have been released.
Some remain in their new lives, others make the journey back to Jerusalem and their former homes.
But home isn’t what it used to be … or at least what they had been told it was like.
When they arrive they could see that the centre of their worship life … the Temple and the surrounding city … had been destroyed … the walls around the city had been razed and wild animals had taken over.
The rubble is a tangible vision of the losses that had been inflicted upon them.
Now, through Isaiah, God speaks to the displaced people and gives them hope … and with that hope … comes anticipated joy of possibilities.
Isaiah tells the people that the current reality is not permanent … that the rubble and debris will be cleared away … that things will change.
That life will be different … but that life will be renewed.
Isaiah proclaims that is the year of the Lord’s favour … the year of Jubilee.
Jubilee comes every 50 years and it is a year when debts are forgiven … slaves are set free … people return to their homeland … the land is to be given a break and allow to recover.
It is a time of restoration … when justice is sown … allowed to take hold and flourish … like oaks of righteousness.
This message is reinforced centuries later when Jesus reads from Isaiah while he is in the synagogue in Nazareth:
Jesus tells the gathering, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring the good news … bind the broken-hearted … a provide to the needs of those who are mourning so that they can be strengthened in spirit … so that they can have a sense of hope.
Jesus was acknowledging the harsh realities of life … that he did it in a synagogue, underscores the fact that faith communities have a role to play in restoring communities and in the call to reconcile people.
Jesus will bring good news to those who are struggling in the midst of despair.
For them, their physical reality has become their spiritual reality.
In a sense, we are also standing in the midst of rubble … as we make the long, slow journey back from exile … wondering about the future … about how we can rebuild our community after months of pandemic … how lives can be restored … how our faith community can be rebuilt.
After all, it won’t always be like this.
There will be a time when our spiritual reality will form our physical reality.
Lutheran scholar Craig Koester discussed today’s passage from Isaiah in a recent podcast.
In the talk, he linked the return of the exiles to the challenges that contemporary congregations face.
Koester said, “The present crisis doesn’t define the future, but it does provide a moment when we can discern a vision … when we can reflect and determine what God’s vision is for the congregation’s ministry and what it holds for the world.”
So, who will lead the rebuilding effort? Who will discern the way forward as we move through and out of the pandemic?
Who will sow and nurture justice and compassion?
The wealthy? Those with status and power? If we take today’s lesson to heart, the answer is “no.”
The poor … the broken-hearted … the prisoners … these are the people Isaiah identifies as the ones who will lead the rebuilding effort.
They are, after all, the ones who have experienced the pain of hunger, exclusion and oppression at the hands of the powerful … and they are the ones whose experiences can be best inform decisions and discern where God is calling us … where the need is the greatest.
They are the people those best-suited to recognize an alternate way forward than “the way we’ve done things in the past.”
Rebuilding lives and communities when the conflict in Ethiopia is over … or when our pandemic-induced exile is over … will not be the work of one or two people … it will be through the partnerships of people whose lives are guided by the spirit of reconciliation … whose hearts are filled love … and who live into the call to share the gift of grace.
Partnerships in and outside faith communities … such as those ministering to the exiles in Ethiopia … will be important as we come out of our time in isolation.
The pain we have felt … that we still feel … isn’t permanent.
But it does provide an impetus to consider what we need to carry forward as we journey out of exile … what we can leave by the side of the trail and what will help us clear the rubble and shape a just community.
And the anticipation of the new life that awaits … a new life that calls for and makes such a community possible … gives us reason to be joyous as we journey back from our exile.