Zachary Baker Rodes
Oh Lord, help us always to seek the truth, whence it comes, cost what it may. Amen.
When I was young, I was visiting downtown Detroit at night with some family members during a time in that city’s decline in which the city center was devoid of life and light. I remember looking up at the J.L. Hudson’s building, once Detroit’s premier department store nd once the tallest department store in the world. It was now empty, its doors boarded up and its windows shattered out. The massive hulk at night was intimidating. What was once one of the busiest street corners in the world because of this building, was now a distant memory. Today that building is gone, and in its place a new development which many are hoping will lead a further resurgence in the city. The ever-promised comfort of development and urban renewal.
Comfort is a theme found throughout the second half of Isaiah that starts here. But this comfort is not just anyone’s comfort, but God’s comfort. But what is God’s comfort? It is not simply comfort bathed in rest and relaxion. This is about consolation and the deep, holy embrace God gives us and he desires for us to seek, in prayer, in worship, in relationship with others, and in repentance. In Hebrew this word does convey a feeling of repentance. In the Biblical narrative, the Babylonian exile is punishment for idolatry. In that narrative, found at the end of Second Kings, Jerusalem is utterly destroyed by the Babylonian armies. Not simply attacked, but wiped out, the houses flattened, and the city walls toppled. Jerusalem is left in ruin. The exile has begun. But then! “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem!” God declares. Wait, wait. Speak tenderly? God allows for Jerusalem’s destruction and her residents whisked away to another foreign land and suddenly Jerusalem is now to be spoken to with tender, loving care?! Remember, God is not talking to the residents of Jerusalem, not primarily at least. God personifies the city and speaks directly to her. He stirs up for her a divine redevelopment. This tenderness though isn’t about simply talking nicely or sweetly to Jerusalem. A straighter to the point translation might be, Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” What is this heart? The heart of Jerusalem is who she is. Jerusalem is a city. Built by man. Adopted and ordained by God. And cities, Jerusalem not exempted, have a complicated relationship with God. So why does God care about the city? Because he cares about Jerusalem. David chooses Jerusalem, God adopts her. This city of David is God’s city because it is used as a piece of the plan of God’s salvation. And as this piece, like no other city can do, Jerusalem acts as a witness both to God as a city of man and to man, as the city of God. We need to remember, however, that the city is man’s creation. Cain is the first to build a city; in fact, it is the first thing he does after starting a family. Genesis states, “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city and named it Enoch after his son[.]” He builds himself the security lost by his parents. Thecity is the physical reality of man’s security on earth. It is where we live and make and have our physical being. In the city man has substituted Eden, which was God’s protection, for his own.
Oh, how our cities need this comfort from God! God not only offers comfort to Jerusalem but to all cities. This is the divine redevelopment of the city for she is saved! Our cities which we decry full of grittiness, crime, and inequality are our making. Gentrification and the ghetto are inherently man’s developments. Who becomes our neighbor when self-interest
and profit reign supreme instead of engagement and humility? Who was hurt when the urban freeway made straight a path into people’s homes and lives? Budgets are needed but if that means weekend service cuts to Metro at the expense of the working class and vulnerable, then what becomes of our Christian service? And we need to call into question where God is found in institutions and developments that seek to propagate power and privilege both at the expense of residents and the homeless. His comfort and love are found in the divine redevelopment that God offers us through Jesus Christ. This isn’t to say that the city is not full of excitement or good things. But our cities today need comfort, they need healing. And that starts with the comfort of neighbors and the comfort to all those around us in this city life. Butthat’s the problem. Our comfort is good and holy, but it is not perfect. There is everything we can do to work at healing urban life to today, but as Christians, it is not without understanding that Christ is the chief cornerstone, that Christ is the temple, and that in Christ everything that Jerusalem meant to God’s people is now passed to Jesus Christ. The true healing of our cities will not come about until Christians witness to the divine redevelopment that takes place within us through Jesus Christ. This then leads us to the divine redevelopment of our cities. Placing Jesus Christ as our chief cornerstone. Jesus Christ is, as our temple, the focus of our city. Our true Lord Mayor. The King of Kings. I am not speaking about man’s theocracy (Heaven help us from that heresy), but I am speaking again to the heart of American society. Jacques Ellul comments, “Man sacrifices man to build his cities, instead of accepting the only sacrifice which would enable him both to found them in truth and purify them of Satan’s presence.” This divine redevelopment starts here at the ONE table in which we find truth and the purification of God’s love. It starts here that through remembrance of and witness to Jesus Christ as the focus of our city life so that we may continue to be focused on the New Jerusalem.
From the city to the wilderness, the writer takes us on a small road trip. A voice calling out from the hinterlands. Make a highway. Make straight a path for our God in which His glory is revealed. The word for valley is much more than just a valley, but a valley of death that is raised up. And mountain here is much more than a tall peak, but one of power and prestige, brought low. And where else in cities do we slow down? Do we take a break and think? But in green spaces, ofcourse! And here, a green space is opened for us to remember our mortality. Jesus Christ becomes grass like us. Appearing to us like we appear. First, as a baby. In a manager. Comforted by his mother and father. Understanding it is He who comforts them because of who He is. He is the God the Son. The eternal Word, fulfillment of the Jerusalem that will stand forever.
We take comfort in this season of Advent. We take comfort in listening to Christmas music, baking goodies, doing some downtown shopping, and hopefully again soon, traveling along that highway to a loved ones house in which God’s love is shared. But we also take to heart the consolation and the penance found in God’s comfort given to us. In all these things, midst a busy city life, may we bring heralds of good tidings to all and lift up the divine redevelopment in our lives so that comfort and love of God reign supreme.
May it be so, Amen.