The Exiles are Coming Home

Isaiah 40:1-5

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” Isaiah says. “Tell her that her warfare is ended.”

Many of the scripture readings for scripture reading for the Advent season come from the time of Judea’s exile following the Babylonian War. Our reading from Isaiah 40:1-5 is one of those.

I identify with the people of Israel as they lived in the time of exile. I think that we, like they, live among the ruins.

Babylon conquered in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, burned some of the city to the ground, tore down its wall and destroyed its temple – the place where God had chosen for his name to dwell. The Babylonians carried away the city’s leaders, its educated sons and daughters, and its craftsmen to serve the Babylonian empire. Those who were left behind in Jerusalem were its poorest, its weakest, its most vulnerable, and they were reduced to a brutal way of life.

After the fall of Jerusalem, the captive people of Judea lived in exile in Babylon for 70 years. Likewise, Jerusalem lay in ruins for 70 years, its residents languishing in their misery. Imagine Atlanta or Petersburg still being in ruins in 1935. Or Berlin or Tokyo still being in ruins today. That’s the life of the people to whom Isaiah was writing.

Isaiah’s message was simple. The disaster of Israel’s war with Babylon is coming to an end. The time of God’s judgment is over and the time of salvation is at hand. The exiles are coming home. And all the world will marvel at God’s salvation of his people.

The exiles are coming home. There’s a vast desert between Babylon and Jerusalem. Most travelers between the two sites moved up the Euphrates River and down the Jordan valley. Isaiah says there’s not time for that. Build a highway across the desert. Fill in the valleys. Tear down the hills. Bring out the bulldozers and make the way smooth. Everyone grab a shovel or a pick-axe. Get the road ready because the exiles are coming.

That’s a metaphor, by the way. They didn’t really build a highway in the desert. The people of Jerusalem were so poor and weak that they couldn’t even rebuild their own walls, much less a desert highway.

The point is simply this. God has spoken. Nothing is going to stand in his way, not even the wilderness that separated Jerusalem and Babylon. Babylon cannot hold God’s people any longer. The exiles are definitely, definitely coming home. God’s promise is sure.

It is ironic, is it not, that today the great and powerful city of Babylon is in ruin? It’s a pile of dirt and some dusty old stones near the city of Hillah in Iraq. The Persians conquered the Babylonians. The Greeks conquered the Persians. The Romans conquered the Greeks. Today, the lands in which both Babylon and Jerusalem sit are both still languishing in misery.

Do you know the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley? (I learned of it because it was the title of a Breaking Bad episode.)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

That’s the fate of all earth’s empires.

To me, there’s something hauntingly beautiful and sad about the ruins of civilization. You can look at them and think, “This used to be something. People used to live and work here. Whatever the sins and problems of this place, there was also goodness and beauty. This place was a living community, and now it’s just ghost – an eerie reminder of what was, and what might have been.”

We still live in the ruins. I think that’s true if you are talking about the world and its economy and politics. I think that is true if you are talking about our communities who are searching for safety and prosperity. I think that’s true if you are talking about families who face hardships and tragedy. I think that’s true about our own interior lives, as we struggle with our own demons, sins, disappointments and mortality.

We live among the ruins, and we’re still waiting for the true fulfillment of Isaiah’s hope. We’re waiting for the exiles to come home, but not to a Jerusalem built of stone and mud. Jerusalem was, in fact, rebuilt and restored as Isaiah foretold, but the Romans destroyed it again in 70 AD. Jesus predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem and its temple. “Look at this marvelous building,” his disciples acclaimed. “Not one stone will be left standing on another,” Jesus replied.

The cities of this age all fall into dust. What we are still waiting for is the New Jerusalem seen by John. We look for the appearing of the New Jerusalem, the one coming down from heaven, with the river of life running through it and the tree of life that brings healing to the nations.

We still live among the ruins. We still live as exiles waiting to come home. But we don’t wait as those who have no hope. We don’t pretend that we come into Advent not knowing about the birth of Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection and ascension into glory.

The restored Jerusalem envisioned by Isaiah is in our midst. Jesus said, “Tear down this temple and I will raise it back up in three days.” Of course that temple was his own body: crucified, risen and exalted to the right hand of God where he serves as our great high priest, having made the one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sin of the world. When we come to this table, we come to the temple not made with hands. We share in our Lord’s broken body and shed blood, offered for the sake of the world.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.

With Isaiah, we can proclaim words of comfort to the world. The age of salvation has begun. It began in a stable in Bethlehem. It continued in the waters of the Jordan, in the hills of Galilee and in the streets of Jerusalem.

Now, it reaches out to all the earth by the power of the Holy Spirit, inviting everyone to repent, believe and share in a foretaste of the God’s coming Kingdom. The story literally ends in a New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.

But the end of the story is found in its beginning. The end has been certain since the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. For Mary, as for Isaiah, God’s victory was certain – as real today as it will be when Christ appears in glory.

He has shown strength with his arm; 
     he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
     and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,   
     and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
     in remembrance of his mercy,
     as he spoke to our fathers,     
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

The exiles are coming home. The New Jerusalem is on its way. Comfort! Comfort God’s people. Proclaim the good news to those who wait for its appearing.

Christ is born, Christ has died, Christ is risen and exalted and in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christ will come again.