A kingdom from a wasteland

September 2nd, 2021

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Have you ever seen a ghost town? Maybe you’ve seen one on television if you haven’t seen one in real life. Shops sit with boarded-up windows, dust and tumbleweeds blow down the street, and things seem eerily still. Perhaps you’ve seen it when small communities abandon their oncethriving downtown areas. Faded billboards promise happiness bought with medicine or lawnmowers or soft drinks, streets are empty, and buildings are abandoned. These places died when the interstate bypassed them, railroads forgot them, or politicians ignored them. If you take a walk through such places, you have some idea of what Jeremiah sees when he looks out over Israel: a wasteland.

Sometimes we see the wasteland even in populated cities. Ghost neighborhoods, sections of town full of abandoned buildings, places where prosperous folk pulled up stakes and fled to the suburbs. “White flight,” we call it. Here in Birmingham, Alabama, forty years after marches and riots, poorer African Americans in West End still live in virtual segregation. The only stores that seem to thrive are ones that charge outrageous interest for payday loans and car titles. I drove a friend from Latvia through our city, and when we turned a corner from a wealthy neighborhood into a poor one, she gasped and asked, “Are we still in Birmingham?” Walk through nearly any town, any city, and you will find the same. The poet T. S. Eliot looked at Western culture, thriving with life and commerce, and saw a wasteland, a giant ash heap. People living their lives like zombies, sleepwalking through their days with hollow eyes, working meaningless jobs so that they can go home and stare at flickering images on a screen. Have you seen such a ghost town? Do you live in one?

We pine for the good old days. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about them, or perhaps you remember? Wide porches where people would visit with neighbors on Saturday afternoons. We didn’t lock our doors at night, because we lived in safety. No one played soccer or had football practice on Sunday morning, because people worshiped and spent time with family. We looked up to leaders in those days. We trusted our mayors, our preachers, our presidents. Not like these days, when some churches sit empty on Sunday, when people lock their doors, their cars, and their hearts, when leaders care more about cutting their own business deals than caring for their constituents. These days it seems we hear nothing but scandal, violence, and materialism. Is it any wonder that Jeremiah spends most of his ministry railing against his culture? He has strong words for them. He calls them prostitutes (Jeremiah 2:20), selling their bodies and souls to whatever fad comes along. Cynics say we see the past through rose-colored glasses, but just as Israel longed for the age of David and Solomon, we long for the good old days, for heroes and leaders. Something has to change!

Jeremiah says, “Squint.” Exercise your eyes. Look past the interstate crawling with cars, the hollow eyes of tired workers. Tune past the talking heads on television to see a new kingdom. He gives us specifics: in these streets where you see only traffic and crime, God sees a party processional. A married couple and their entourage laugh and sing, on foot, down the middle of the interstate. Empty ghost town shops open up, their shelves full, their owners haggling with shoppers. Where you see asphalt parking lots, God sees pastures of green grass and cattle too numerous for their owners to count. Where you see only a dead stump, a tree chopped down prematurely, God sees a slender stalk twisting its way through the aged bark. God sees a branch unfurling its leaves to the sun. The promise of an entirely new tree growing out of the stump of the old one. The days are coming, says the Lord. It’s just a matter of time. Can’t you see it?

Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas. It begins today and covers the four weeks leading up to December 25. We often feel overwhelmed by hustle and bustle, advertising, and the push to buy more stuff to show people we love them. We may feel cynical and see the real and spiritual wasteland around us. But God calls us to look forward and see a different reality—a kingdom of God that stretches its thin stalk toward the sun. Occasionally, like weeds pushing through cracks in the sidewalk, the kingdom breaks through and we see it clearly, without squinting. The other day I stood in the living room of a newly-built house in a neighborhood that, five years earlier, had been overrun by gangs and abandoned by the city. This house had been built by several churches of different denominations. Local businesses and subcontractors donated materials and labor. People from all over the city and from the neighborhood pitched in to build a house for a family who had no home. These churches and the family had made a commitment not to abandon the neighborhood but to work for change. As we stood in the living room giving thanks to God for all God had given, we had the sense that Jesus had built the house with his own hands, that already he had begun to rule in that part of the city with justice and righteousness.

As Christians we pledge our allegiance to a new kind of king, one who changes us from within and gives us a new name. During Advent we announce to the world his coming rule, and we invite the whole world to claim Jesus as its righteousness.

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