By Rev. J.C. Austin
“I’m hitting a wall,” she said; “I think everyone’s hitting a wall. We are not ok.” I didn’t know her or even recognize her name; her tweet simply showed up in my Twitter feed because I think a couple of the people I follow liked it. And that’s all she said; no further words of wisdom or encouragement or anger or anything else.
Yet hundreds and hundreds of people had responded to that simple confession and statement, and every single one of them with some version of, “yes, we are.” I think people were just relieved at the honesty and the courage to name it, and once it had been named they could admit it, too.
For most of us, this current moment isn’t the first wall we’ve encountered in the nine months of this pandemic, but it is an unusually high and thick one, built from the cumulative drain of the last nine months, the level of stress we are under in this moment with ongoing controversies about the election and the exponential spread of the virus, and the loss of so many cherished holiday traditions and expectations, precisely when we want them the most.
For us Christians, this week in particular is difficult, because we are on the Third Sunday of Advent, which is traditionally associated with the theme of joy. That’s why the third candle on the Advent wreath is pink; it symbolizes the warmth of joy in the midst of the more serious purple candles that call us to wait for the Lord and prepare for Christ’s coming. But how are we supposed to rejoice in the midst of all this?
Well, Isaiah helps point the way for us once again. This is another classic Advent passage, because it is the passage that Jesus himself declared he had come to fulfill when he began his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord 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.”
That’s often where we stop when reading this passage, though, because that’s where Jesus stopped when he was reading it in the Nazareth synagogue and using it to summarize his purpose. But the problem with always stopping there is that it can become a rather abstract promise, seeming to be a general word of God’s commitment and care to all those who are poor or marginalized. Which is true, but before it is good news in general, it is first good news in a very specific context that is clearer when you keep reading, and that helps us understand why and how this is a promise in general. Because the Anointed One described by Isaiah continues to explain their purpose beyond the more familiar verses with what follows: “to comfort all who mourn,” he says, and “to provide for those who mourn in Zion,” he continues specifically.
What he’s talking about is the people of Israel, many of whom have just returned from a generation of exile when they were taken away by the invading Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem. And they have made their way home to find…ruins. Much of Jerusalem, including the Temple, is still in ruins from the onslaught of the Babylonians. They are quite simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the destruction and loss: the destruction and loss of lives and livelihoods and expectations and dreams and time itself. Sound familiar? They are dazed and anxious and exhausted; they have hit a wall, and they are not ok.
What Isaiah does in this passage that is so important is that he provides hope without denying that reality. In fact, he names the reality specifically, and then specifically says that God will transform both them and that reality through what the Anointed One is coming to do: “to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” Because their reality at the moment is ashes and mourning and, above all, a faint spirit as they wander the ruins of Jerusalem.
But God is going to intervene in that reality and change it, and that is what will enable them to “greatly rejoice in the Lord.” You see, Isaiah avoids the pitfall that captures so many when talking about joy in the midst of difficult circumstances. Isaiah never suggests that they should simply look on the bright side, or that they can and should somehow conjure up enough strength and joy from within themselves, if they really have faith. Isaiah understands that strength and faith and joy are all themselves gifts from God, and it is only in receiving them that we then have enough of them to rise up in the ruins.
There’s an extraordinary song by Bruce Springsteen that mirrors this in many ways, bringing together the reality of grief and loss with hope and joy. Instead of just explaining it to you, though, I’m going to let you actually experience something of it, since we can do that in this digital worship. Before I do, though, I want to suggest you listen for a few important things.
First, listen for how he describes both the reality of loss and the whispers of hope in the first two verses. Second, listen for how the chorus seems to change in meaning before and after a series of literal prayers that he calls out. And third, listen for the role the multiple voices play in the fullness of those prayers. With all that in mind, here it is: this song is called “My City of Ruins.”
The first time you hear, “Come on, rise up!” it sounds like a plea to an unresponsive listener, the city of ruins. But then he goes into that almost-chanted prayer in which he prays with his hands for strength, for faith, for love; and those enable him to them pray for those who are lost, and for the whole world; and then the repeated pleas for strength build up in the second chorus which is now no longer a plea but a prayer itself that is being answered as it is offered: “come on, rise up!”
And it does so, I think, because it takes multiple voices to get there. When I first thought of offering this song, I realized that I literally couldn’t do it alone, because the prayers are grounded in the offer that the background voices make: “with these hands.” So I used what’s called a looper pedal to be able to include those multiple voices by looping multiple tracks.
The truly good news for us, though, is that we don’t need to loop our individual prayers; we offer them together as a community in harmony, and we offer them with our hands: hands clasped in prayer, and hands open to offer comfort and help and support to others. We do so not because we have enough strength in ourselves, but because God gives us what we need to do so. We do so not because we have enough faith in ourselves, but because God gives us what we need to do so.
We do so not because we have enough love in ourselves, but because God gives us what we need to do so. And that is how we can pray for the lost, pray for this world, pray for us and for the ruins in which we find ourselves to come on, rise up, and to help lift and rebuild those ruins in the very midst of them, with the hands we have to offer in prayers and praise through action, not just through words.
I can think of no better example of this right now that the ministry and witness of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. Some of you know that the historic 19th century building of Middle Church, a dynamic multicultural, multigenerational church in the East Village of Manhattan, was burned out the other day by fire; everything from their organ to their Tiffany windows is a total loss.
The fire did not actually start in Middle Church’s building, though; it began in an adjacent building and spread. When church members heard their building was engulfed, they raced to the scene and watched in horror. But as the fire continued to spread, they saw that their next-door neighbors, the residents of a shelter for formerly incarcerated women, were being evacuated from their own building and taken elsewhere.
A church couple, two women who had been married in that now-burning sanctuary, realized that in the evacuation their neighbors hadn’t been able to take any personal items with them. So they left their burning church home behind and picked up some toothbrushes, hand sanitizer, and Kleenexes, then took them to where the women had gathered. Then, realizing that this wouldn’t be enough, they started taking the women shopping in shifts to get them toiletries, a change of clothes, shoes, coats; they did so much so quickly that their credit card companies flagged their cards for fraud, literally unable to comprehend the scale and authenticity of their compassion.
Other church members joined in, saying later, “we take it very seriously: love thy neighbor as yourself.” Another said: “I see my house burned down. And so there’s nothing immediately I can do for that. But is there a way I can help folks around me? That…is what needed to happen.”
The thing is, that kind of care didn’t need to happen in and of itself; nobody would have been surprised if they simply stood among the ashes of their building and sank down in the ruins. No, it needed to happen because the people of Middle Church are clear that they draw their strength, their faith, their love from God, rather than merely inside themselves, and that those gifts cannot be burned up or taken away.
So they felt both empowered and called to rise up in the ruins rather than sink down in them, and with their hands to pray in word and action to bind up the brokenhearted right in the midst of their own brokenheartedness; to give a garland instead of ashes, a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit, to rejoice in the opportunity to love and serve their neighbors right in the middle of the ruins and ashes, because that is where God was already present and at work.
So: with those hands, with those hands that you have, how will you pray today? With those hands, will you clasp them in prayer for strength, for faith, for love, for yourself or for others? With those hands, will you pick up your phone or open your computer or grab a pen to offer love and support to someone who is brokenhearted or mourning?
With those hands, will you gather supplies for those who are in need in our community through our own Supporting Our Neighbors ministry each week during Advent? You see, with those hands, the options are almost limitless for how you can offer and live out your prayers for this world. So come on, rise up; rise up; rise up and yes, rejoice, because the Spirit of the Lord is upon all of us, and neither we nor the world will ever be the same.