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A reflection on Isaiah 61:1-12 by Jason Wood

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of Jubilee… (and the day of vengeance of our God), to comfort all who mourn, to provide for them– 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 God’s glory.”

Wow. Some words, eh? I mean, apart from that short phrase in there about the vengeance of God, a phrase Jesus instructively leaves out when he reads the Isaiah scroll hundreds of years later in a certain synagogue in Nazareth, these prophetic words speak such a message of hope, of comfort, of liberation.

They hold out a possibility of change and renewal for the places in ourselves and in our world that are broken, bound, and weary. They are words of life, healing words.

Even that language of vengeance, if we understand it as directed toward the systems and spiritual forces that dehumanize and divide us, rather than simply directed toward the people we just don’t like, is good news.

Imagine: Injustice crushed. Hatred vanquished. Violence itself destroyed.

Yet, reading over this passage this week, the phrase that really beckoned to me was this, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display God’s glory.” Something about these words makes my soul groan its assent, finding in them its deep longing voiced.

I was born in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto, 28 years ago. From there, my family and I moved to Calgary, then back to Toronto. Then it was Alabama, then Maryland, then Montreal, then back to Toronto, then Denver, Colorado, Richland, Washington. By the end of high school, I had either moved city, school, or house – or all three – almost every year.

I had a strong connection with my immediate family, and in part because one of the first things we would do in any new city was find a church, a fairly strong identity as a Christian. But beyond that, my internal compass was all over the place. Where did I belong? Who were my people?

Maybe that’s why one of my favourite things to do in college was sit myself on the grass under a tree, guitar or book in hand, free to look on at the world around me. I felt adrift, but here was something to anchor me, rooted deep in the earth, not easily moved. I wanted to be like that, grounded and established.

My whole life, that longing hasn’t changed. A desire to be a “planting of the LORD”, in the prophet’s words, is undoubtedly part of what led me seven years ago to join Servants Vancouver, an intentional Christian community rooting itself in the Downtown Eastside.

I wanted to find “my people”, a community I could bind myself to and be held by over the long haul. And the DTES seemed like a place with the sort of folks Jesus would call his people.

Today, my wife Anna and I continue to live with Servants, seeking to be a long-term, faithful presence in a community in which the displaced soul can find plenty of company.

See, the DTES is a community largely created by displacement – whether it be by unaffordability in other parts of the city,  by mental illness that makes it difficult to fit in elsewhere, or by colonial systems that have stripped Indigenous people of land and culture. It is a community filled with people who don’t belong anywhere else. And, paradoxically, it is among them that I am finding an answer to my question, “Who are my people?”

Yet as I come to know this community of St. Brigids more and more, I realize the DTES is not the only community in Vancouver full of displaced souls.

The fragments of stories I have heard since Anna and I arrived here last fall speak to me of a similar longing. Some of us have searched a lifetime to find a community that could hold all the parts of who we are – our sexuality and spirituality, our doubts and questions, our hunger for justice and community.

Some of us have experienced rejection that has made it frighteningly difficult to let our guard down and allow our roots to grow down deep, sinking into the vulnerable soil of a community that knows us and can speak into our lives with love.

Some of us have restlessly travelled from place to place, never finding either the unconditional welcome or the inner strength to be able to trust ourselves to the deep work of God right where we are.

But Advent is all about this. Today’s words from Isaiah were written to a people displaced.

The imperial power of Assyria and Babylon had uprooted them from their homes, destroyed the temple around which the worship and order of their whole society revolved, and left them stranded in a foreign country, mystified and overwhelmed by its strange customs, languages, and gods.

Their sense of identity as protected, special, blessed by God had been stripped and trampled underfoot as their captors led them away to a subjugated future. Who were they? Where did they belong?

Five hundred years later, when Jesus read these words in the synagogue, many of the Jewish people had returned to their traditional land. But they were still uprooted. Crippling taxation, endemic debt, tyrannical government, widespread hunger and poverty – the land was no more theirs than if they had lived back in Babylon.

Here, in the midst of oppression and alienation, Jesus re-ignites the prophetic flame as he speaks words of liberation and promise. God is still here. The revolution is still underway. There is hope. And he embodies that hope as he goes out searching for the lost sheep, the uprooted, the displaced of his society who found it almost impossible to believe they could ever belong.

I wonder if today, two thousands years later, we might hear these words afresh. For we are, in mixed measure, both the uprooted struggling to find our place, and the privileged whose ignorance and cultural conformity contributes to the uprooting of ourselves and others.

An endless flood of forces conspire to wash us out from the soil in which we might begin to grow and blossom. We spend hours on Facebook and social media but still feel like no one knows us. We live lives governed by the inhuman pace of industrial urban life and our self-made technological bubble, strangers to the planet’s rhythms and the very soil beneath our feet. 

We gravitate toward the illusion of self-sufficiency provided by affluence, avoiding the dependence on others by which we might truly experience grace. We resist being tied down, thinking freedom is found in individual autonomy rather than an ever-deeper and wider love for the lives with which our life’s roots are already entwined.

Today, as we await the coming of the Christ child this Advent season, I believe that vulnerable Christ child also awaits us. In his crying, I hear an invitation, and it sounds like the words: “come home”.

For the wholeness, justice, and belonging we so long for will not come down from the sky but up from the earth, as we allow our walls to be dismantled, our concrete hearts to crack, and our soul’s roots to dig down deep into the good earth of this time, this place, this people.

There is no place to find God but where you are right now. There is no way we as a people might  become Isaiah’s vision of a forest of flourishing oaks, or to be a bit more contextually appropriate, Western red cedars, apart from allowing ourselves to receive the humble, vulnerable sacrament of God’s presence in this community right here, right now.

To be weak. To be needy. To be messy. To be broken. And to find, despite it all, that we are loved.

That takes courage, commitment, and patience, for even in our fullest moments, rarely do we feel entirely complete. Our searching roots touch that true sense of home often only from the edges, at a slant. But when we do touch it, when we feel in the marrow of our bones that we belong, words fail, our hearts are spread wide as the universe. The imperfect, particular nature of this place – the place we are – opens up to eternity, and there is hope for ourselves and for the world once more.

For such roots, and for such a home, I am waiting. Come, Lord Jesus.