I‘d like you to close your bulletins and look at the picture on the front cover. Years ago, driving through Canada, we saw acres of trees that had been ravaged by forest fire. A once proud and beautiful stand of evergreens, reduced to charred remains. It was hard to imagine it before the fire, in the reality of the present. It seemed lost forever. Then we came around the bend and interspersed in some of the skeletons of trees were flashes of pink. Exuberant spiky flowers defiantly poking their heads out from among the devastation. They’re called fireweed. It’s the first plant to show up in the aftermath of forest fires. Popping up in places where it seems nothing could grow. Here and there. When people see fireweed they can believe that the forest can still have life. It turns out that what fireweed does to the soil where it grows is to restore it so other things can grow too. I was sharing this story at the meeting of the Reading Lutheran Parish Bible study, a funny thing happened. As I talked about it, others started smiling and began sharing stories of seeing the flowers of fireweed in Montana, in Alaska, and other places. Hope in hard places. Stories that shared joy. You’ve gotta love a God that gives us fireweed, and stories of hope and restoration. This is the theme of our lessons this day. God’s promise of restoration and new life and reasons to rejoice! But these passages also speak to remembering that it hasn’t always been joyful. Our rejoicing is shaped by coming out of places of devastation, into God’s hope and restoration and promise. The power of God’s promises ,on any given day, can be easier or harder to see.
One way we hold onto believing in God’s promises is to share our stories of rejoicing, of seeing the fireweed, if you will. Since I’ve come here I’ve heard these stories in visiting our homebound. Of people being orphaned and sent away to a place for people like you. Of going off to serve your country in war and coming home with only half of one hand and another 70 plus years to live that way. Hard desolate places to recover from. These are a just couple stories of God’s people here, people who went on to lead lives that shared joy. People drawn here by the promise of restoration, new life, and a home. God’s promises gave them gladness instead of mourning, and they could wear that mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They connected with this message and each other. I’ve seen the pictures of these lives, heard these stories of rejoicing in God’s work!
But it’s different now, right? Here in the land of Act 47, where we hope to be delivered out of bankruptcy, but know we still come out to a mess. Rejoice?? We feel older and more tired, our health is failing, the money is gone, that life is a thing of the past. Rejoice? Like the people of Israel, it’s not how we hoped in this land. We’re not just poor in spirit, we’re staring at a physical reality that’s downright depressing some days. Rejoice? Easier said than done.
Maybe it’s hard to imagine restoration and re-building when it’s easier to see what looks more like wreckage than life. A world where we’re surrounded by a world of “instant” products that lead us to want a big event, but God gives us fireweed. Just little flashes. Real restoration takes time.
True, we know the good news of Jesus Christ- we know more than the people of Isaiah did. The one everyone was waiting for has come. He has a name: Jesus. But fuller restoration takes time. God’s revelation has begun in Jesus Christ, but it’s a story of ongoing transformation. Not always found in big obvious events. And yet perhaps we can remember the birth we’ll celebrate was like this too- In the middle of the darkness, to immigrants of little consequence in a backwater place where most did not see or know. John tells us, there’s one in our midst who we do not know. Perhaps like those in Bethlehem, our lack of knowledge comes because we’re not looking in the places where God’s signs show up.
Real restoration happens in lots of little ways. Our ‘fireweed stories” proclaim God’s promise and work in these ways in the meantime. Like God’s people of old, recalling God’s work seen encourages us to look for and expect to see this now. Not just in some ultimately glorious day, but in little flashes we should rejoice in now! God’s church didn’t grow in one big event. It was lots of little flashes of life. Sometimes bright but also sometimes faint. But ever present. And this is the how people here testified to each other, to you, about Christ. You helped each other believe there was life beyond the devastation of a World War world, and other dark places. Pastor Radcliffe was one who helped people see this possibility. He was an amazing servant of God. But he wasn’t the only one. The people of this place told the story too. And the world that emerged revolved not around them but around God at work in this place. As great as any of these people have been, the real message has never been about them. Their words and lives testified to the light and life of the One greater than all of us. This is the gospel for us.
We help each other see the life and light of Christ when we rejoice in stories of our history that help us believe that we can still see these unexpected flashes of God at work. So I come to testify to this light and life here. In the child who comes and wants to light the candles and prays she is tall enough, telling her friends to come and see brings rejoicing! The homebound person who stills calls others to brighten their day even when she can’t leave her apartment brings light! The person who delivered flowers to the hospital to a woman, but who never knew that that woman cried tears of joy because she remembered God hadn’t left her alone and forgotten, brought hope! The person who brings a man transitioning from prison to testify that there is life and a home here brings restoration! I could go on and on- everyday I see this. Glimpses of Christ. I see it and rejoice! It transforms me each day! Look around you, where have you seen God at work? Rejoice, be transformed and testify to the power of the One whose promise of light and life and restoration lives on. AMEN