Dr. Randy L. Hyde
There is something in each of us that, from time to time, makes us want to go back to the way it used to be. We want to go back home.
Just a couple of weeks ago I was having a long-distance phone conversation with an old friend who is a pastor in North Carolina. We were discussing some of the challenges that confront our respective churches, for his church and ours are much the same. We talked about issues that come into play because of the particular times in which we live and work. He told me of another pastor, a mutual acquaintance, who remarked to him recently at a meeting that he wished it was the 1950’s again. I don’t necessarily agree, but I do understand the sentiment. It was a simpler time then, in many respects—or so it seems—and he wanted to go back to the way it used to be.
But used to be will never be again, and home is never the same.
I would like to go back to the home of my youth… where my folks are still young and vital and have an answer for every question, a solution for every need. But instead, I find my parents living in a secluded world of old age, filled with the same old stories repeated and repeated because they have no new experiences from which to rekindle their imaginations and desires.
I would like to go back to paradise, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “where there was nothing to hide and nothing to hide from… a place where nothing had ever been broken, where there were no chips or dents or scars, a place where everything was still whole and holy and pleasing to God.”1
Then, I realize that there are two kinds of not having: there is the not having of never having had and there is the not having of once having had but now having lost (Did you get that?). It is the latter that is harder to live with.
Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right. “You can’t go home again.”
Through the prophet Isaiah, God is speaking to a people who once had a way of life that is now lost, and they long to have it once again. Life had been good, or so they thought.
Then the Babylonians swept down upon them, killed many of their loved ones and friends, carried off the youngest and the best into a foreign land, occupied their homes and filled themselves with the produce from gardens that they, the people of Judah, had built. The world they had known and loved—their paradise—was destroyed.
Eventually they were allowed to return. And now they are a couple of generations away from having come back home. And while they have lived for about fifty years after returning to their beloved Jerusalem, things are not the same as they had been before.
They’ve had half a century to restore the Holy City to its former splendor, but they find themselves still living in the despair that comes when life is not—and seemingly never will be—the same as it once was.
They have rebuilt the temple. But Solomon is long dead, and only Solomon could construct the temple the way it used to be, the way it really ought to be. It’s a rather shabby building, really, with rooms out of square and floors that are not level, with stains on the carpet and a paint job that’s thin in places. The roof leaks and the heating system doesn’t work right most Sabbaths. They’ve done their best, they suppose, to build God a decent house, but admittedly, it’s not much. At least it’s not what it used to be, that’s for sure.
The walls surrounding the city still lie in rubble, and their hearts and spirits feel the same. Their houses have been given back to them, but they still smell of the hated Babylonians who lived in them for years. It just isn’t the same.
I remember the evening of December 20, 1991, my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. We had gone to dinner at a fancy restaurant in Jonesboro. Well, at least as fancy as it gets in Jonesboro. Then, we came back to the house, the place where they had raised their three boys. We sat down and I picked up my video camera. We “interviewed” my parents, asking them about what it was like when they first met, how they first met, how they courted, what they did, how it felt to fall in love way back then so many years before.
It was about 1940 and life, as far as they knew it, was bliss. They had ridden horses together. That was a surprise to me. I never thought of my folks as young and vital enough to have ridden horses. They double-dated with other couples and when given the opportunity rode into town to see what was going on there. But all the while there were storms over Europe and little did they know the war was coming to our world as well. Everything began to change. Some friends left and never came back. Others came back but were never really whole again. Life had to be rebuilt.
It seems that life is always having to be rebuilt. Just ask the people of Judah.
And then comes Isaiah. Right into the heart of their despair and longing for a different, better, long-ago day, Isaiah shares with the inhabitants of Jerusalem a joyous message of hope. The message is straight from God, and carries with it the kind of gladness that only God can create and only God can give.
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Do you remember that Barbara Brown Taylor quote of a moment ago… where she speaks of paradise as being “a place where nothing had ever been broken, where there were no chips or dents or scars, a place where everything was still whole and holy and pleasing to God”? Well, that place doesn’t exist anymore. But God is now giving his people Israel a vision of a new kind of paradise, a restored paradise, where there are once broken things, and where there are indeed chips and dents and scars. But in this paradise all such things are mended and restored and given wholeness and purpose and meaning once again.
Just this week I met a lady named Ann Moore, who lives in Osceola. Just in case you don’t know, that’s east Arkansas, my former neck of the woods. So we began discussing mutual friends and acquaintances. And then she told me she grew up in this church during the forties, that her family lived on Beech Street which is now Beechwood, and that Catherine Hicks Lee, the daughter of this church’s pastor, was her best childhood friend. “Oh,” I said, “you were there when everyone in the church lived in the houses surrounding the church, on the streets that were named after trees and presidents.” Yes, in those days of long ago.
Some of you remember them. Some of you lived in those houses, back in the days when “nothing had been broken, where there were no chips or dents or scars,” when this was “a place where everything was still whole and holy and pleasing to God.” And you can’t help it at times but to want to go back again.
My friends, those days will never be again, anymore than my parents will ride horses in the rolling countryside of Greene County.
But that is not a message of despair; it is a message of hope and redemption! Something new this way comes! Do you believe that? Life is always needing to be rebuilt, and this is as good a place and as good a time as any.
Baptists do a lot of talking about believing the Bible. Well, if you believe the Bible, then believe that the very God who came to his people Israel hundreds of years ago comes to this place as well. And the message he gave to his despairing children then is as real and vital and alive today as it was four centuries or so before Jesus walked this earth. We need to take this message and make it very personal.
The former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Pulaski Heights Baptist Church as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Pulaski Heights Baptist Church,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress…
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord –
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
This is the word of the Lord.
So we are given a choice. We can pine for the good old days or we can in faith consider the possibility that God has something new in store for us. Oh, I suppose there’s another option. We can just muddle through, going through the motions and pretend that what we are doing is church. But it will catch up to us. It always catches up, and there’s a sense in which that is exactly what has already happened.
So there we are. What will we do? This is what I think God would have us do… Realizing that we live in a world of chips and dents and scars, we place ourselves in the hands of the One who leads us in his direction, knowing that he is the One who makes all things new, and we journey together into what is yet to be.
What will that world be like?
Well, God promises us it will be a world in which before we call to him he will answer, and while we are yet speaking he will hear. In other words, God will know our needs and will respond to them in keeping with his will and his intention.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty much like paradise to me. After all, maybe even paradise has its chips and dents and scars.
So if you believe that as a possibility for us, then you will believe that wholeness and purpose and meaning, hope and faith, do not just lie behind us but are ahead of us as well… for we journey forward with a God who indeed makes all things new.
Come to us in your newness, O Lord, and give us a fresh, new vision of faith and hope.
Such comes only through Jesus, in whom we place our faith and in whom we pray, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, Inc., 1993), p. 170.
Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.