A sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4 by Nathan Nettleton preached at the House of Hope, 12 January 1992
In a number of ways we find ourselves, here in St.Kilda, facing a similar scene to what Isaiah was facing when he wrote this passage. This was the third Isaiah. Most people who have studied the book of Isaiah, have come to the conclusion that it is divided into three sections and contains the words of three different Isaiahs. The first one was a prophet in the time shortly before the Jews were taken as captives to Babylon. The second one was part of the generation that lived in Babylon. And the third one, who’s words we are looking at here was among the generation of Jews who rebuilt Jerusalem after the Persians conquered the Babylonians and let all the exiles go home. The Jews were released in 538 b.c.e by Cyrus but the rebuilding work was still not making any significant progress sixty or seventy years later when the third Isaiah wrote these words, prophesying that they would rebuild the ancient ruins and repair the ruined city. For us in St.Kilda, particularly around the top end of Fitzroy Street in West St.Kilda, there are clearly some similarities to Isaiah’s time just in the fact that we are faced with some ancient ruins that could do with rebuilding. Actually, there are a few ancient ruins here tonight that could do with some rebuilding, but we’ll focus on the bricks and mortar type. The issues of urban decay and the need for rebuilding are clearly significant issues for St.Kilda and I know that Tim reckons that the City council that he is a part of will deservedly be judged by its ability to resurrect Fitzroy Street, the derelict heart of St.Kilda. But I think for us tonight, the more important parallels to Isaiah’s time lie in the reasons why the rebuilding was so slow to make progress.
If you look carefully at the verses that we read, you will notice that Isaiah doesn’t say that he has come in order to rebuild the city. He says that the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to announce certain things that will bring about certain changes in certain people, and that then they will build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations and repair the ruined cities. The problem was with the people, not with the ruins that had to be rebuilt. Mind you the ruins would have been daunting enough themselves. With a bit of imagination you can probably picture the reaction of the people when they first arrived back from Babylon. They were all familiar with the words of the second Isaiah about how they were going to go back and put the city and the temple back together and everything was going to be wonderful. But when they got there the enormity of the task hit them for the first time. What a mess. You see the Babylonians had basically bulldozed the place. Jerusalem was not much more than an overgrown heap of rubble that covered quite a few square kilometres. To make matters worse, foreigners had moved into the surrounding countryside and had now been there for fifty years or so and weren’t exactly putting up ‘welcome home’ signs for the Jews and moving out to make way for them. About the only bit of the city that was easily recognizable was the main altar that had once stood inside the temple, but was now sticking up out of the rubble like a mocking finger. What have we got ourselves into here? How on earth do you go about turning a rubbish heap into a city while the locals are roaming around taking pot shots at you? It was worse than getting a 15,000 piece jigsaw without a picture to follow. The sense of excitement and hope that made the trip home go so quickly drained away pretty quickly when they actually got there.
What you had left after a decade or so back in Jerusalem was bunch of very dispirited people still in makeshift accommodation among the ruins of a devastated city. People surrounded by a hostile world that didn’t want them there; people who knew what they needed to do to rebuild their future but who didn’t have the energy or the belief in themselves to actually do it; a people who had been released from captivity but in their hearts were still prisoners because they found the outside world so alien and bewildering that they longed to be back in the prison that was at least familiar and secure; a people who had been mourning for what they had lost when Jerusalem was destroyed but who now felt too crushed and weak and broken to face the task of resurrecting it. These were the people that Isaiah says the Spirit of the Lord sent him to: the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the prisoners, the mourners, the despairing. And people who fit those descriptions have been with us ever since. They were still with us when Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read these same words from Isaiah; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, the oppressed, the captives the brokenhearted.” And when Jesus left he passed the batten to us. “Love others as I have loved. Take my yoke upon you. Go into all the world and proclaim the good news.”
Now it’s our job. The Spirit of the Lord God is upon us, because he has anointed us to bring good news to the poor, the broken, the prisoners. And they are still with us now, especially here in St.Kilda. Spend some time around Grey street and Fitzroy street and you can see any number of them. People who’s eyes reflect the dereliction of the buildings around them. People desperate for freedom but unable to take hold of it when it comes within reach.
I was going to bring a friend of mine with me tonight. His name is Whacka and he wanted to tell a bit of his own story. Whacka has had a serious drug problem since he was fourteen. That’s twenty years ago. His drug habit led to an armed robbery habit and he’s spent ten and a half of the last twelve years in jail. I was sitting talking with Whacka last Thursday and he was telling me what long jail terms do to a person. He said to me, “Five years and you’re institutionalized, you’re more at home inside than out. Ten years and you’re stuffed. You might as well face the fact that you’ll probably spend most of the rest of your life inside because that’s all you know. When you’re inside, everything is structured for you. You know what’s going to happen each day and you don’t have a lot of choice. It gets to be home, you’re comfortable with it. You get released and you’ve got no idea what to do or how to behave. You find yourself in a boarding house, in a shoe box room with nothing to do but go and pick up your methadone each day. You are stuffed. Your bodies been released but your mind is still doing life.”
Whacka is a great cook. He cooked the turkeys for us at the mission on Christmas day and they were great. After talking with me on Thursday he cooked a terrific meal for twenty five others. Whacka was beginning to find a place to belong and a people who appreciated him. He was beginning to try to put something into society and to rebuild himself in the process, to repair the devastations of the years. But there was twenty or thirty years of damage to undo and Whacka had only been with us for a couple of months. On Friday morning Whacka held up a chemist and got busted. Tonight he’s in the Oakleigh police cells, tomorrow he faces court and then its back to Pentridge. Whacka’s going back to the only home he really knows any more. There’s no good news in that for Whacka. There’s no binding up of his broken spirit, no oil of gladness instead of mourning.
And I feel angry. I feel angry at Whacka for what he put some poor little chemist’s assistant through and I hope she’s not having nightmares tonight over it. But even more I feel angry at the system that held Whacka captive for ten years without teaching him anything about how to handle his freedom when they gave it back to him. And I feel angry at a world that doesn’t want there to be any good news for people like Whacka; it just wants him pushed out to the margins and kept away from our belongings.
Whacka is only one of thousands. There is a city full of them out there. There are plenty of us in here who would, to a greater or lesser extent, be included among them. They don’t all rob chemists. Some of them just get blind drunk as often as they can afford it. Some of them go to bed with anyone they can in a desperate search for some warmth and affection. Some of them gamble their whole cheque on the horses in the vain hope that the big win will buy them an escape to freedom. Most of them have a history of tragedy, abuse, brokenness, homelessness and heartbreak. Most of them are like the Jews in Isaiah’s time. They can see what needs to be done. They can see the way to freedom; they can see the way to renewed strength, they can see the rebuilding that needs to be done. But when they step up to the pile of rubble and put a hand to the first rock, they don’t have the belief in themselves to sustain the effort and they despair. They run for another bottle or needle or pill or anonymous sexual encounter or they have another breakdown or something, anything to try to block out the endless vision of destruction and hopelessness all around them.
The Spirit of the LORD God is upon us , because the LORD has anointed us ; He has sent us to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn– to give them flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called redgums of righteousness, a planting of the LORD to display his glory. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
It is going to take a lot more than bricks and mortar to rebuild the devastation in this city, just as it did in Jerusalem in 460 b.c.e. It is going to take a new spirit. It is going to take a new hope, and the Spirit of the Lord God has anointed us and sent us to bring that new spirit and hope. To bind up the broken hearts and proclaim freedom to the prisoners. I have this vision in my head sometimes. You know when you were at school and it was the last day of the year. You’re still stuck in the classroom but your mind’s already on holidays. As the clock ticks closer and closer to the final bell, all the kids are packing their last few things into their bags under their desks and moving closer and closer to the edge of their seats. Finally the bell goes and almost before it even begins there is this great roar of energy and exuberance and the whole school just bursts out through the doors and pours whooping and hollering into the yard and out into the street, and the oil of joy flows freely.
I have this picture in my head of all the broken hurting and despairing people of St.Kilda experiencing a release like that. All of them being suddenly released from the accumulated devastation of the years, and all singing and dancing in Fitzroy street, all knowing that the future was one of growth and gladness and strength. All knowing that they had places where they belonged in a world that welcomed and cared for them; places where they were allowed to be themselves and to mature and spread out, like the redgums alongside a river bank, like the oaks of Isaiah’s vision. And then, like in Isaiah’s vision, it would be they who began to rebuild the city and repair the ruined buildings. Isaiah didn’t come to repair the city, he came with good news of freedom and healing and renewal for the poor and broken and as they were transformed by that message, it was they who restored the city.
The trouble with my vision is that it is not going to happen just like that, and it’s not going to happen all in one hit. It is certainly not going to happen unless people like you and me respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and take the good news of freedom and healing to them. When people lose hope because they don’t believe that anyone cares for them any more, it is possible for hope to be rekindled, but only if we get out there with them and prove that we care for them. The tragedy of broken dispirited people in our society is not usually the result of their own irresponsibility. Certainly drugs and the like are irresponsible behaviour. But when you’re in pain badly enough you don’t stop to ask whether the pain killers are going to be good for you in the long term. You just grab them and get them into you. That’s why jail sentences and detox clinics will get nowhere until we can get among them with some good news of healing and freedom and comfort.
Maybe you feel like there is nothing you can do; the job is too big and too daunting. Let me encourage you; that’s what the Jews felt but Jerusalem was rebuilt, the ruined city was raised. Let me encourage you too because that is what I felt. But one thing I have learned is that one friend means a heck of a lot to a person who hasn’t got any friends. You or I can only be one friend and we can only show a brokenhearted person that one person accepts them and loves them and cares for them, but to that person the difference between nobody and one person could mean the world. It can be awfully heartbreaking work because many times you pour yourself out for a person only to see the weight of twenty years of tragedy roll back over the top of them and they overdose or suicide or go back to jail or just disappear with no explanation. It tears your heart out, but how often does God feel like that with us and he doesn’t give up. It can also be the most exciting, fulfilling and satisfying thing in the world, because sometimes you see someone respond to your love and begin to take root and grow and day by day, and piece by piece begin to rebuild their lives and then, like in Isaiah’s vision, begin to reach out in turn to others and offer the same. Maybe that is all God is asking of you; to be one friend to one person who needs a friend, but one friend at a time and we can rebuild this city.