Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8,19-28

3rd Sun of Advent

St Barbara’s 17.12.17

Rev Tulo Raistrick

On Thursday morning at St Paul’s cathedral a memorial service was held to mark six months since the Grenfell Tower disaster in which 71 people died and hundreds more were made homeless. The service highlighted once again the human tragedy of that night in June, the rawness of the grief that people still feel, the anger at the injustices that have been exposed. The service brought back images of that blackened tower block that people in that community live with day in, day out.

Returning to scenes of devastation can be incredibly hard, to sift through the rubble, to spot the occasional object of a normal life no longer possible, to search in vain for precious heirlooms, to despair at a home, at a life, lost. As it is for the residents of Grenfell Tower, so it must be for those returning to cities such as Mosul in Syria, trying to piece together lives in places that have been totally razed to the ground. Or for those who returned to the site of Ground Zero in New York. And closer to home, those who walked the streets of central Coventry after the bombings 77 years ago.

Similar feelings must have been felt by the people of Israel as they returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem in the sixth century BC. They returned to find their city a ruin, devastated by war and fire, all their great buildings reduced to heaps of rubble, their homes looted, ransacked, destroyed.

And God inspires his prophet Isaiah to speak words into this context. Isaiah speaks of the poor – and indeed, many of those returning to their homes would have been poor, facing a prospect of rebuilding their homes with little money and no reserves. He speaks of the “broken-hearted” – and who could not be broken-hearted at witnessing the devastation of their homes, at seeing the city in which so much of their pride and hope resided in ruin and rubble. He speaks of the “captives and prisoners” and how many of those returning must have felt still the fear of being beholden, under the control, of a great super-power. He speaks of those who “mourn and grieve… who despair”, and indeed, there must have been huge grief, not just for the way of life that had been destroyed, but for the many lives of those who had died. Looking around, they must have wondered, “how can we possibly rebuild our lives? where can we even begin to find the strength and hope to make a go of it?”

The first thing to note here is that God knows the level of grief and upset. He understands. It is he who inspired the prophet to speak these words that acknowledge the depth of people’s pain and suffering. So often God is portrayed as a remote and distant being, with no conception of our lives. But nothing could be further from the truth. God knows. He understands.

If God was capable of understanding in Isaiah’s day, then how much more in our own. For in those intervening years, God has come and lived among us, he has shared our lives. As a baby he knew what it meant to be vulnerable, with no roof over his head. As a young child he knew what it was like to flee from his home in fear for his life. And as an adult he knew what it was like to lose loved ones and to grieve at their loss.

I have been struck again recently by those extraordinary words in the Gospel of John: “Jesus wept”. At the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, Jesus breaks down not with quiet tears but with howls of anguish. For all of us who are going through times of grief, they are words that speak to us of a God who understands, who has been there. We can be honest with him, we don’t need to bottle it up, or pretend otherwise – he knows, he understands. It is good to tell God how we really feel, for he knows already.

God knows what our lives are like; but he also has a vision of a better future. For each of those descriptions of sorrow and struggle, God inspires Isaiah to see a response of hope and transformation. “Good news” will be preached to the poor; the wounds of the broken-hearted will be bound up; freedom and release will be proclaimed to the captives and prisoners; those who mourn will be comforted. A time will come when instead of ashes on the head there will be a crown of beauty; instead of mourning and despair there will be gladness and praise. The ruined walls will be rebuilt. Each one of the descriptions of pain and sorrow will be reversed, will be transformed.

These are not easy words to say to people when standing on top of a rubble heap that was a tangible reminder of all their frailties and sorrow.These words are not glib or triumphalist. How can they be when they come from someone from within the same community who has lived through the trauma of exile and return? They are words that paint a vision of a better future from someone who also knows how bad things can be.

I remember during some of the darkest days of apartheid South Africa how a number of my black friends, in the midst of the most horrific racism and abuse, suffering and violence, tenaciously held on to a vision of a better future – a future where there was racial equality, justice. Their vision was never glib – it had been honed by years, decades of suffering and struggle – but nonetheless is was a vision of hope, of a belief that transformation was possible, that out of the despair hope could flourish; that from the pain something good could be redeemed.

Bishop Graham Tomlin, speaking at the Grenfell memorial service, put it this way: “Our hope is that the name of Grenfell will not be just known as a symbol of sorrow, grief or injustice but a symbol of the time we learnt a new and better way to listen and to love.”

|saiah offers a vision of transformation, from the individual level to the international, from the emotional to the economic. He speaks of the grieving being comforted, of the broken hearted being embraced with compassion. But he goes on to speak of a “year of the Lord’s favour”, a year of Jubilee, when all who had lost property, maybe having had to sell it off due to poverty, would have it restored and returned to them, when all those who had known injustice would receive justice. This was a radical re-ordering of relationships, of bringing about fairness and equality in the relationships between rich and poor. His vision of transformation goes on to include urban regeneration – the re-building of cities – and international co-operation, the sharing of wealth between nations. This is transformation touching on every aspect of life.

Today we live in challenging times. Economically we face major uncertainties over the outcomes of Brexit; politically, we seem more vulnerable than ever to the whims of presidents, whether they be American or Russian. Our world is torn apart by war; our environment by systemic abuse; our social services and health care by chronic funding shortages. More than ever, we need Isaiah’s vision of whole life transformation – of justice in economic and political relationships; of compassion for the poor and the oppressed.

It was this manifesto that Jesus took up and proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth at the very beginning of his ministry. He had come to bring life in all its fulness. What better words could he quote than those of Isaiah.

So look up, take heart and hold onto the vision of a better future – a future of transformation that Christ has come to bring.

But one more thing to note about these words. The prophet proclaims: “The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…” etc. This is a vision that God fulfils not by the click of his fingers, but by calling and equipping individuals to share in this task. That was the calling he gave to the people of Israel; that is the calling that Christ takes up; and it is the calling that each one of us is given too. As John the Baptist urges us, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Re-hear the first two verses of our reading again, and this time hear it as God commissioning you to join in his work of transformation: “The Spirit of the Lord is on you, because the Lord has anointed you to preach good news to the poor. He has sent you to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour… to comfort all who mourn.”

What does it look like in your life, I wonder, to be someone who brings good news to the poor, who brings comfort and solace to the mourning and broken-hearted, who works for political and economic justice? This is our calling, but we do not do it alone. We are a people, a community, called together by God. And we are a people enabled, anointed, by his Holy Spirit.

God knows what our lives are like – be honest with him.

God paints a vision of a better future – take heart and trust in him.

God calls us to serve with him – may we be filled with his spirit and join in with his work of transformation.