In case you don’t remember your Jewish history…this scripture we read today was written when the people of Israel had returned from exile. They had been taken into captivity…and brought to a foreign country ….to Babylon…where they had been held for over 60 years. Unable to return to their homeland…living in a land that is foreign and unwelcoming…that is what exile means. And after 60 years…when they are finally allowed to return, a generation has mostly passed on…and the land they are returning to is one most have only heard of in the stories of the “good old days” told by their grandparents. But what they return to doesn’t resemble those “good old days” at all. Homes and places of worship lie in ruins. Everything has to be rebuilt. But, of course, the painful reality is that those “good old days” never truly existed. The truth is that before they went into exile…the prophets were railing against the Israelites for their rampant injustice and greed and idolatry. The poor were suffering, the rich were unconcerned. Foreigners were treated abominably and nobody cared. The “good old days’ were only good for some. So, that’s when they were carted off and learned what is was to be poor and to be a stranger. Now, they return hopefully, knowing better. Isaiah is here encouraging them to be better and they rebuild their nation….their whole community… their way of living together.
We can only imagine how daunting that must have been…and people being people, how contentious that it must have been. Because of course, there would be folks wanting a strong central leadership….and folks who wanted to do their own thing without interference. There would be folks who thought rebuilding the temple should take priority…and folks who thought homes and businesses should come first. There would be folks who felt that the laws of the Torah were enough to guide life together….and folks that felt the need for more laws…for talmud and midrash to further specify and articulate the finer points of the law and how they should be interpreted and carried out. The task of returning from exile is overwhelming. Discouraging. Depressing. And here comes Isaiah…spouting about “joy” in the midst of it all.
There are a lot of folks discouraged and depressed about the contentious world we live in. AndI I know I’ve heard a lot of talk about the ‘good old days”. But the painful reality is still true..history proves to us again and again….that they never existed. Our older people like to talk about “the good old days” of the 50’s and 60’s….you know — when blacks were treated as second class people…segregation was common…and lynching was a reality. When women couldn’t get a credit card or serve on a jury …and could be fired with no recourse for getting pregnant for refusing sexual advances. But hey — the churches thrived…so it was the good old days, right? Well…you should remember that it was in the 50s and 60s when most of the sexual assault in churches happened, both in catholic and lutheran churches and other denomoinations…and nobody did anything about it — the offenders were just moved on to new places. The good old days…are always a lie. They’ve never existed. The world has always been broken. I had the honor of doing a renewal of vows for a couple in my first parish on their 75th wedding anniversary. At the celebration, someone asked her about the “good old days”. She looked at them with disbelief — ‘you’ve got to be kidding’, she said. ‘The good old days, when there wasn’t enough food on the table? When you worked long hours and didn’t get paid enough to buy shoes for the kids? When the house was always cold and most of us didn’t get to go to school and the streets and vacant lots were filled with encampments of the poor, who died in the winter and nobody cared? Those weren’t the good old days…..no…these are the best days I’ve ever known,’ she said.
This year…it is so easy to long for the good old days…when there were not protests…when there was not a pandemic…when it didn’t seem like the republic was threatened by division. But those days don’t exist, my friends. Those days were marred by brutality and injustice, selfishness and greed…just like the good old days of Israel. Just like our own days. And we, like every generation before us…are faced with the “now” of how to face the daunting task of living together as God’s people…with all our differences. With all our grief and loss and hurt and anger. And Isaiah, with audacity, calls us to “joy”, in the midst of it.
We are sometimes under the illusion that joy is found “comfort”. That’s how the Chrsitmas carol goes, right? Comfort and joy? But joy is not found in comfort…it is found in something deeper. It is found in the deep place of knowing that goodness is stronger than evil. That love is more powerful than hate. That God is with us, that God loves us…and we will be okay, even in the midst of the mess.
I know I’ve told this story before….but I taught English as a foreign language when I was living in Cairo, Egypt. My students were Muslim refugees from Somalia and Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan. Most had arrived in Cairo on foot…knowing hunger and dehydration after walking thousands of miles…fleeing wars and starvation in their own countries. Egypt has always been home to vast numbers of refugees…and they lived together, dozens upon dozens in small apartments, scrabbling together day labor and other work, while hoping to get approved for refugee status. Anyway, one day we were talking about the word “joy” versus “happiness”. I wasn’t sure I was explaining it well at all… when one young man told me he understood. “Joy”, he said, “is when I cook spaghetti”. I was pretty sure then that I hadn’t explained it well…but then he went on. “When I lived in Sudan…men did not cook. It was women’s work. I didn’t cook. But now…I can make food for myself and for others, too. Spaghetti is cheap. I can make lots of spaghetti and we can all eat together…all of us. I can feed my friends. And also”, he added, “ I like the way it looks in the pot when I stir. It is fun to watch the spaghetti move in the pot. I feel good when I make spaghetti.”
Joy…in the midst of exile…in the midst of hopeless and hard situations…in the midst of struggle and grief…looks like spaghetti in a pot. Where community happens…where we care for one another… where we do work that we were told was “beneath us”. Where we see the beauty in simple things.
Joy in the midst of 2020….will be found in those moments of generosity and kindness. Where we take small acts to build a world that is better for those around us, instead of nursing our resentments. Instead of pining for the “good old days” that never were…that were days of suffering for so many….joy will be found in goodness that is stronger than evil. Love that overcomes hate. It will be found in God…who is with us…in the midst of the mess. God — Emmanuel. Jesus who comes to show us the power and hope of God that is stronger than death. Jesus, who shows us hope, by being humble, not arrogant. Jesus, who chooses ‘discomfort’ …not comfort…by taking the way of sacrifice and service, not looking to his own interests…but to the interest of others. Jesus … born in a manger…a child of Middle Eastern refugees in Egypt… who makes spaghetti in a pot for his friends and delights in the beautiful pattern of the noodles. Joy is ours in 2020. Joy is ours in Jesus. Not because the world is good. But because God is good. And God’s love never ends. Amen.