Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-29
Peace be with you!
The year my younger brother, Ryan, graduated from high school, four of his classmates died in a car accident during a bad snow storm on their way to the Wisconsin Dells from Mukwonago, Wisconsin. Although none of the four classmates were close friends with Ryan, their deaths marked a dark time for his class. Four deaths at once do not happen often in a small town. When they do happen, the whole community experiences psychosocial issues, including emotional and attachment issues. The world becomes smaller. People take stock of what is important. And of course, loved ones experience the biggest loss as they find a hole left in their lives.
I cannot imagine the feelings a mother or father goes through when their child dies. Loss is big around the holiday season, in contrast to the jolly images we see on TV. In my circle of clergy friends in recent weeks, I have heard the news of quite a few of their congregation members’ deaths, ranging from four to eighty years old. It often seems as though people die more around the holidays, although it probably is not true. People die every day; however, the news of deaths around the holidays always seems to hit home harder.
The passage from Isaiah this week is about the Israelites finally returning to the Promised Land after the Babylonian exile. The Israelites should be celebrating their return. However, the Israelites feel distance from the Lord, because he had abandoned them for breaking their covenant with him. The Israelites had lost their way with the Lord.
There are several things the Israelites are mourning for. First, the Israelites mourn for the relationship they once had with the Lord. The loss of an important relationship can certainly leave an individual feeling empty, but this was the most central relationship in Israel’s life. No wonder they felt lost! Second, the Israelites mourn for the way things used to be. The Babylonians destroyed the temples, the synagogues, the homes, the markets. Nothing about the Promised Land is as the Israelites remember.
“This is not right.” This is a terrible feeling that leaves people hopeless and lost in an unknown world. Imagine being one of the parents of the four kids who died in the car crash. Imagine going to set the table for a family dinner and setting an extra plate out of habit. Imagine the first holiday without your child. Imagine the empty feeling of having someone missing. It is a lonely feeling. Part of you knows you have to move on; another part of you worries that if you move on, you may forget. It feels like a double-edged sword.
This desolation is much of what the Israelites were feeling as they returned home. They are back in the Promised Land, but it is not the Promised Land that they remember. They wonder how they can bring the glory back to the Promise Land. God tells Prophet Isaiah and the Israelites that they must celebrate their new life in the Promised Land. The future holds so much hope. Nothing can be rebuilt until people celebrate the new life which lies before them. Once they celebrate, the Israelites will be able to enjoy the beauty of the Promise Land. Then the Israelites will be able to rebuild the temples and synagogues. This will allow the Israelites to take pride in their work and to rebuild their relationship with the Lord.
It is interesting to hear God yearning to be in a relationship with the Israelites as they reenter the Promised Land. God desperately wants to share his love and grace with the Israelites, so much so that God makes a new covenant with Israelites. This new covenant introduces new concepts of grace and forgiveness, which allows the Israelites (and us) to goof up and still be in a relationship with the Lord. God loves his children so much that he will do whatever it takes to be in a relationship with the Israelites and with us. The Israelites are not the only ones who are healing from the broken relationships, but so is the Lord. When we sin, we wound God because he deeply cares for us. But God’s love is unconditional and he reaches to us even when we least deserve it. By doing so, God demonstrates his faithful love for his children.
At Ryan’s high school graduation, all of his classmates wore a four-leaf clover on top of their caps with the names of the four who died. Before everyone walked up to receive their diplomas, the principal called up the families of the four classmates who died and presented each of them with the would-be graduate’s diploma. It was a moving presentation. I would like to think the graduation gave the classmates and families closure as it was a commencement of the future. Hopefully the classmates and the families were able to celebrate the future as they celebrated the lives that were with them physically for a short time and now are with them in their hearts forever.
Come, oh Lord, Come.
Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for the celebrate celebration of life as we look towards the future with you, our families and friends, and individuals we have yet to meet. Remind us to celebrate, even in the midst of sorrow and grief, as we step forward into the future. We may not always understand why pain is in the world, but your comfort and love carries us through difficult times. Thank you for the new covenant you embraced with the Israelites. Amen.
Thanks to the Triune God – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Please answer the following reflective questions in the comments below. Please agree to disagree and be respectful to each other. (If you have not already done so, please also take a moment, to sign the comment covenant.) You can answer as many questions as you would like.
1. When have you felt distance from the Lord?
2. How do you celebrate in midst of pain and sorrow?
3. How has the Lord written a new covenant with you?