Have you ever seen a ghost town? Maybe you’ve seen one on television if you haven’t seen one in real life. Maybe you remember the song by Yusuf Islam, (aka in my time as Cat Stevens) “Ghost Town.” The image is of shops that sit with boarded-up windows, dust and tumbleweeds blow down the street, and things seem eerily still. Perhaps you’ve seen it when small communities abandon their once thriving downtown areas. Faded billboards promise happiness bought with medicine or lawnmowers or soft drinks, streets are empty, and buildings are abandoned. These places died when the motorways bypassed them, railroads forgot them, or politicians ignored them. If you take a walk through such places, you have some idea of what Jeremiah sees when he looks out over Israel: a wasteland.
Sometimes we see the wasteland even in populated cities. Ghost neighbourhoods, sections of town full of abandoned buildings, places where so called wealthy people pulled up stakes and fled to the suburbs. People living their lives like zombies, sleepwalking through their days with hollow eyes, working meaningless jobs so that they can go home and stare at flickering images on a screen. Have you seen such a ghost town? Do you live in one?
Often the response is that we pine for the good old days. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about them, or perhaps you remember? Porches or veranda’s where people would visit with neighbours on Saturday afternoons. We didn’t lock our doors at night, because we lived in safety. No one played soccer or had football practice on Sunday morning, because people worshiped and spent time with family. We looked up to leaders in those days. We trusted our mayors, our preachers, our Prime Ministers. Not like these days, when some churches sit empty on Sunday, when people lock their doors, their cars, and their hearts, when leaders care more about cutting their own business deals than caring for their constituents.
These days it seems we hear nothing but scandal, violence, and materialism. Cynics say we see the past through rose-coloured glasses, but just as Israel longed for the age of David and Solomon, we long for the good old days, for heroes and leaders. Something has to change! As I suggested last week we need leaders that look for the good of all and put that into action. I suggested they need to be someone who listened and responded. Love and compassion needs to be their motivating spirit.
Jeremiah says, “Squint.” Exercise your eyes. Look past the motorways crawling with cars, the hollow eyes of tired workers. Tune past the talking heads on television to see a new kingdom. He gives us specifics: in these streets where you see only traffic and crime, God sees a party processional. Where you see only a dead stump, a tree chopped down prematurely, God sees a slender stalk twisting its way through the aged bark. God sees a branch unfurling its leaves to the sun. The promise of an entirely new tree growing out of the stump of the old one. The days are coming, says the Lord. It’s just a matter of time. Can’t you see it?
Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas. We often feel overwhelmed by hustle and bustle, advertising, and the push to buy more stuff to show people we love them. We may feel cynical and see the real and spiritual wasteland around us. But God calls us to look forward and see a different reality—a kingdom of God that stretches its thin stalk toward the sun. Occasionally, like weeds pushing through cracks in the sidewalk, the kingdom breaks through and we see it clearly, without squinting.
There is a sense in which Jesus has built the house with his own hands, that already he had begun to rule in “Ghost” parts of the city with justice and righteousness. As Christians we pledge our allegiance to a new kind of king, one who changes us from within and gives us a new name. During Advent we announce to the world his coming rule, and we invite the whole world to claim Jesus as its righteousness.