On May 22, 2011, a horrific EF5 tornado descended on Joplin, Missouri, cutting a wide swath through the community. It devastated everything in its path. Death and destruction led to heartache and hard work–lots of it.
Volunteers descended on the city in southwest Missouri, to begin the long process of reestablishing order and sanity, rebuilding homes and business, and transforming grief and despair into rebirth and rejoicing.
Putting it that way, in a few sentences, doesn’t do justice either to the enormity of the destruction or the extent of the effort to rebuild the city. True, Joplin will bear some marks of the tornado for many years to come (tree replacements take a long, long time to grow, after all). And the human, social, and personal scars will last even longer. But today there are many signs of life. Rebuilt houses are becoming homes. Rebuilt businesses, along with schools and a hospital, are making the city a community once again.
More than 2,500 years ago Jews returned to their holy city of Jerusalem from their 70-year-long exile in Babylon. Perhaps many of them thought the process of rebuilding would be simple, quick, and easy. It was not. The despair exhibited by their parents and grandparents’ generations in watching Jerusalem be destroyed and the harshness of forced exile was different from that experienced by this younger generation of returnees. This time inspired counsel and comfort would come from an unknown prophet whose words would be added to the latter part of the Book of Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations…. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. –Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV
It’s an age-old question: How do you find the strength to rejoice when you are surrounded by death, destruction, and despair?
It’s a question asked after terrible natural catastrophes and during and following wars and terrorist attacks. It’s also a question raised during times of great social unrest. The United States is experiencing one of those right now. Regardless of how you may feel about the racially motivated events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, there’s no question that great numbers of Americans are finding it impossible to rejoice. The above words from Isaiah 61 are worth remembering: “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.”
The task of rebuilding the social fabric of this nation will prove to be at least as tough as rebuilding houses, businesses, schools, and hospitals utterly destroyed by a violent tornado–maybe far more challenging. It’s certainly incongruous to watch events unfold on the evening TV broadcast news while echoing in the background are carols proclaiming “peace on earth” and “silent night, holy night.” Such is the time in which we live.
There are those Christians who view everything through an apocalyptic lens, predicting “God-inspired calamity.” Some would go so far as to even encourage darkness and evil for the supposed light at the end of that tunnel. But for others of us, we wait during Advent for the coming of Jesus, the prince of peace. We wait, as well, for the coming of a prophetic people with a healing word from God.