Restoration Amidst the Ruins

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

I am fascinated by ruins. I think it started where I grew up. I grew up in a small town that used to be a fairly sizeable community, but as the nearby city continued to grow and expand, and as more people started working there, the community began to decline, as well. It’s not a unique story, it’s a story which has played out in countless communities across the nation, and we might even be able to recognize some of that even more close to home.

The main industry in town was once a sawmill. There was a river that went right through was dammed up, and that provided power for the mill, and the logs would float down the river. I’ve seen old pictures of that sawmill, and it was a significant industry. By the time I was born, the sawmill was long gone, but there were still remnants of it, not the least of which was the dam, that had been broken down over the years and became a waterfall. As a child, we spent a lot of time down by the river — which makes me sound a bit like a hillbilly, when I think about it— but anyway we often went to the river to fish. On the other side of the river from the public access, there was still the foundations of a building, and sometimes when the river level was low enough, the water wouldn’t make it over the dam, and you could actually walk on it. And I would love to walk out on it and what is usually covered by water is what looked to be stairs, going from, what looked like just the river, and leading up to, what at that point was just the upper part of the river. Down below the waterfall were big chunks of stone and concrete. I spent a lot of time looking at all that, wondering what it was like, wondering how these pieces fit together, wondering what it was like when the sawmill was still there. As I got older, and started doing some historical digging I found some photos of what it was like, and I would make copies of the pictures and take them down to the river and try to recreate them in my mind. 

Finding ruins fascinating is not unique to me, not at all, a lot of people like it. I like ruins because I like to imagine what once was, try to imagine in my mind what it would have been like in its heyday. One of the first things that I often do when I move to a new place, is to try to find all the backroads and side-streets. The largely abandoned places that look like they were forgotten by time. It helps to get a sense of not only where a place is, but where a place was. And I would wonder what this place was, and I would imagine what it must have been like, and often, I go and do research and try to put the pieces together. Perhaps in some way, it is also a way to honor these places that feel so forgotten, by trying to remember the life that had been there, the people who had spent their lives there. And so it is fascinating, but it’s also deeply sad. 

It’s deeply sad because these ruins were something. Maybe they were businesses. In days gone by, someone would start young working for a company, and they would be able to spend their entire careers there. They felt like they mattered the company, and the company respected them and cared for them. A lot of these ruins date to that era. And so this was a place where so many generations of people had spent their lives, and they worked and earned money to buy a home, and maybe grow a family, and retire in a respectable manner. It was a place teeming with life and conversation. Perhaps they were a row of homes, and these homes saw the fullness of domestic life. Saw families come in and out, saw families grow and shrink. Absorbed laughter and tears. 

Perhaps it was an old church building. Maybe it was a church that closed, or a church that moved from the city when the population became less white and people were scared and left the cities in droves. Church buildings are places where people encounter the Divine, where they are baptized and incorporated into the body of Christ which extends beyond time and space. Churches are where people gather around the sacramental table and encounter the living Christ in a tangible way. Churches are places where people, for generations, sing and pray and weep and express joy and everything in between. But these church buildings are just shells of what once happened there, with only the echoes of the past remaining. 

And so these are also deeply sad places, because they are windows not just to the past, but they are windows to what used to be, and what used to be is much more painful than the past. 

***

We find ourselves again, now, in the final part of Isaiah, after the exiles have begun returning. And this wasn’t just a city that they moved to, this was the place that was given to their ancestors by God, this was their ancestral homeland and the sign of God’s presence and favor. It was returning to this place that kept many people going in exile. While in exile, some focused on looking to the future and making a life for them where they were, and they stayed where they were. But others so badly longed to go back to their ancestral homeland, and as often happens, I think they probably wanted to go back to the glory days about which they heard stories, or for the older people, that they remembered from their youth. And few things are more painful than trying to return to a history that once was–or as is usually the case, once was in one’s nostalgic memory, but never quite in reality. 

And so they would come back and what they found was a shell of what once was. It wasn’t empty, people lived there the whole time, but the glory days of the kingdom were long gone, and there was no way of rebuilding the once grand structures that were there. And so they sought to try to recreate what once stood there, and recreating something is never quite possible, and recreating something legendary is impossible. And so no matter how much they would work, they never seemed to be able to rebuild the land to the glory that once was there—or that they remembered there through their rose colored glasses. 

And so what we have here is not the initial shock and devastation of the invasion of Babylon, this is the, perhaps, more painful reality that they will never go home again. They are in a place that looks a bit like home, that echoes of home, that rhymes like home, but what they had wanted to get back to doesn’t exist any longer. They can go to the place where home was, they can build buildings that look like their home, but the realization that they can never truly go home is an incredibly painful and sobering reality to try to live into. 

And this is the context into which the prophet speaks these words. With these words, the prophet is seeking to draw the people into the future, rather than trying to recreate a past. Now, let me be clear, a future includes the past, so future and past are not opposites, but rather it the question of whether our orientation is forward while knowing where we came from, or is our orientation trying to grasp at a past which cannot ever be reclaimed. And so I imagined that it felt like it was hopeless and filled with despair looking at the world that has collapsed in on itself. 

***

We don’t have to look far around us to see ruins. Literal or metaphorical. I know that I felt it when I picked up the Enterprise this week to see the word that the Home Front isn’t coming back. I know most of us knew this, but it’s different to hear the final word. This place, after all, has long held such an integral part of our community. The village has vacant lots where life once teemed, and main street is seeing a third vacant building along with the former Key Bank and the former Veronica’s. 

Not that our community is in ruins, but there is, for many of us, remnants of the community which once was, but is not, and probably won’t exactly be again. 

Over the course of this pilgrimage with the pandemic, our church community has lost people significant to our church, pillars of our community, who were here when we were together, but will not be with us when we can gather again. And ruins are not just physical, but familial and emotional, as well. 

We look around us and our church is smaller, and our communities don’t teem with life as they once did, and our family circles are missing more people, and the economy is shaky, at best, and the schools might not be as good as they once were, and it feels like we are looking at ruins of a once proud city. 

But the prophet came to them, not to cover their eyes from what they saw, but to try to open the vision to a new future. A future which includes the past but is something new, different, renewed. 

They shall build up the ancient ruins, and they shall raise up the former devestations; they shall repair ruined cities…

And so the prophet invites them into a future, yet unseen, but a future which can be imagined, even in spite of what they see. And this is the call of Advent. Advent welcomes us not to the sentimentality of mulled cider and spiced candles and roasting chestnuts over an open fire, but Advent welcomes us into a vision of wholeness and restoration for the entire cosmos. We are invited to imagine a reality yet unseen, a reality in which looks like a lush garden, when all we see is an arid desert. This was the hope for the ancient people so long ago, and this is the hope for us, too, the completion of a hope that began with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and the hope that continues to call us forward, in joy, even among ruins. With the confidence that the ruins are not the final word. 

Published by Matthew van Maastricht

Matthew serves as the pastor and teacher of the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. He is a Fellow of the Reformed Church Center at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and teaches for New Brunswick Theological Seminary. His particular interests are church history, the Reformed confessions, and church polity. The views expressed here are his own.

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