For those who don’t know me very well, I am a news junkie. I often listen to my I-Pod while exercising, but what I listen to most often isn't music, but recorded podcasts of news programs and commentaries on recent events. But at times these podcasts might stay on my I-Pod for several days, even a week, before I get around to listening to them. So yesterday, I listened to a podcast from a news program from earlier this month. And suddenly I realized that this story featured Haiti. But it was a very different place from what we are seeing now. It spoke of the new possibilities of hope that existed, as programs for education and job creation were being ramped up, and jobs were being provided for the young adults in Haiti. Some of Haiti’s factories were back in business, for the first time in over a decade, as foreign investment in Haiti was returning to the struggling country. The program stressed how this was a time of new hope, for Haiti and for its people. And perhaps this would be Haiti's last chance; as one Haitian reflected, "People are getting tired of trying to rescue Haiti."
The program was dated Monday, January 11th, 2010. And all I could think of was how that hope had been shattered. How the factories, the schools, the programs, the lives, now lay in ruins. The earthquake of this week has changed everything.
What would it mean for Haiti to hear the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson for today? "The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by anew name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you." (Isaiah 62:2-4) You will no longer be known as forsaken or desolate; you will no longer be known as cursed or hopeless. Jerusalem was a place that had been cursed, abandoned, forsaken. Jerusalem was a pile of ruins, destroyed by the armies of the Babylonians, left as a warning to any who would think of defying the king of Babylon, and later of Persia. And when the exiles were allowed to return, they returned to a land that had been destroyed. Everything was in ruins. They had to begin over again, from nothing.
How does one rebuild an entire city? The destruction and despair of Port-au-Prince Haiti is not the first time this question has had to be asked. Countless cities and towns have had to ask that across the ages, as disaster, both natural and man-made, strikes, often with no warning. Often the response is guarded. Rebuild, yes, probably, but be practical, careful. Surely no one expects things to be like before.
But note what God says through his prophet. Jerusalem is to be rebuilt, restored, not only as good as before, but better. It will once again be the shining city on the hill. It will be the gorgeous crown of beauty in the hand of her Lord; the capitol city, the home of the throne of David. It will be as if all her sad, broken, ugly history had never happened, for that will be wiped out in what God will do for her now. No longer a broken, ugly, crime-ridden idol-pursuing harlot of a place, Jerusalem will be a beautiful bride for her husband, the Lord God of Israel.
Why does God promise this? Why is God so extravagant in what He will do for His chosen one, the people he is bringing back from exile? Because that is the kind of God he is. His love and grace is wider and deeper than Jerusalem and the exiles deserve or expect. It is as if Haiti were to hear: Your city will be restored, not to what it was before, but to what it was supposed to be: no more shanties and places of poverty and death, but the whole city a place of beauty and health and wholeness for all her people, a place that will be a shining light for the whole Western Hemisphere.
We hear this in all of the lessons this Sunday. From the promises God gives to the exiles returning to the ruins of Jerusalem, to the words of Paul to the congregation in Corinth arguing over which spiritual gift is really best, to the empty jars at the wedding where the wine has run out, we see how generous God is to his people, generosity that is overflowing, more and better than anyone expects, or even wants. “Why serve this good wine now?” the steward of the wedding asks. What Jesus has done is give better than was expected, a prime vintage to those whose palates have been dulled with inebriation. Do we really need all these spiritual gifts, the people of Corinth might ask, and we ask as well. Gifts of healing and prophecy: do we really want those, or are we embarrassed if they suddenly show up outside of where they are supposed to be. Healing is supposed to come from medicine, and by way of a doctor’s care, not from some spontaneous act of God. Wine is something one buys at the store, in carefully measured bottles, and drink modestly, soberly even. It isn’t supposed to suddenly show up, running out of the tap where the water should be, in such amounts and excellence that one is tempted to drink with abandon.
God’s generosity and extravagance embarrass us. We are much more comfortable with reasonable generosity; gifts that are appropriate, in good taste, and modest. We don't’ know how to handle a huge gift of overwhelming value and generosity. What are we supposed to do with that? What kind of obligation do we owe if we accept such a gift?
Each one of us has already been given such a gift, a gift of such beauty and priceless extravagance that it takes our breath away. That gift of Jesus Christ himself, our Lord, our Savior, revealed in all his beauty and glory and love as the one who comes to restore us as his Father’s favorite child. Each one of us is given this gift, and more as well: the gifts of the Holy Spirit, poured out on you and me so that we each can participate in the proclaiming to a world that is broken and forsaken that Jesus Christ is Lord. His kingdom will bring about the healing of the peoples, most profoundly those who are most abandoned, hopeless, and desperate in this world. Even places such as Haiti, the poorest, most afflicted country in our hemisphere, God is there proclaiming good news, healing, and hope.
Last week we heard in the story of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan the words of the Father’s welcome to him: You are my Son, my beloved, in you I am well pleased. This week we hear that those words are for us as well. Not because we deserve it, or because we have worked hard and have earned the reward. Not, as Paul told the Corinthians, because they are wiser or more advanced in knowledge. And not, as we learn in the Gospel, because we are so much better prepared than others for any and every contingency. But we receive this gift because we have been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, the beloved Son of God; because in baptism we have been immersed into his bloody death and raised in his resurrection, and our lives are no longer our own, but his.
God pours out his life blood, his riches, his forgiveness and grace upon the barren emptiness and dry places in our lives, and in our world. And then his Spirit moves us to witness to that gift by giving it away to those who are dying for lack of water, bread, shelter, and hope. The empty stone jars and the ruined city is not the end. God gives us more than we ever deserve, and blesses us in our giving away to others in trust that God will never let us run dry.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.