Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126 or Luke 1:47-55, I Thess. 5:16-24 , John 1:6-8, 19-28
A few summers ago in seminary, I participated in a course called “Church in the City.” We traveled around Nashville exploring many diverse neighborhoods and heard many powerful stories of how churches were impacting the communities that they lived in. Throughout our lessons that summer, one scripture kept coming back to us—today’s lectionary passage from the book of Isaiah. Whoever this author was, he was speaking to people in exile, people who were longing to go back home, people who were desperate for a word of hope. And his word of hope was that good news was on its way—that they would soon be set free and that God would lead them back to Zion.
The verse that really struck us, however, as we read this good news is found in verse four: “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities…” Yes, God will lead them back, but they will be blessed with the opportunity to repair and rebuild and restore the devastation of many generations. That is what we witnessed in those communities in Nashville. Families that had been exiled by gentrification, individuals who literally had been imprisoned, churches that were broken down and falling apart, were returning to and reviving these neighborhoods, rebuilding the city around them.
This message of promise and hope from Isaiah was renewed this summer as my state of Iowa was devastated by flooding. Five months after the waters crested twenty feet above the flood stage in Cedar Rapids, many city blocks still look like a war zone. Many families have crowded into homes with friends or relatives or into the FEMA trailers delivered to the area. Exile is a very real concept to many of these close-knit neighbors who are now scattered across the city.
But little by little, they are returning to these flooded neighborhoods. Little by little, there are signs of rebirth. Whether it is another business reopening or another home that is gutted and rebuilt, the people of Cedar Rapids are raising up the former devastations. They are rising above the floods that threatened to overwhelm them. It has been amazing to witness how the good news and the grace of God have been present in the recovery. Strangers are going out of their way to help one another. Churches have become beacons of hope. There is a very real sense that while this was a terrible tragedy, while the way forward is unknown, God is there. And the people are not rebuilding alone.
There is a sense of pride, as there should be for the countless hours of hard work that have gone into making a dent in the devastation. But that pride is tempered by the knowledge that the job of the church is not to take credit, but to simply point to the gospel and the One who came to bring the good news to life. Like John the Baptist, we know that we are not the Messiah, but we are witnesses to the light of Christ that has broken into our midst. And we hold onto and proclaim the promise that “all will be well. You can ask me how but only time will tell.” (All Will Be Well, by the Gabe Dixon Band).