It’s Britain in the 21st century, and so it’s all about online retail and out-of-town shopping malls.Walk down the high street nowadays and you can’t miss the empty store fronts surrounded by charity shops and payday loan companies. There’s a certain desolation to this, both economic and cultural, the former bookshops and restaurants with their windows now covered in posters advertising tribute gigs played months ago. That’s if the windows have survived, of course, because one gets broken, things tend to snowball. It could almost be a metaphor for something.
This is nothing compared to Jerusalem during the Exile; there’s a whole book dedicated to that and it ain’t pretty. That’s the context of Isaiah 58, which culminates in the prophet enthusing over what true faith can achieve – an end to desolation.
The rebuilding of Jerusalem is a theme throughout the prophets, the actual return to the city as told by Nehemiah and Ezra also becoming an image of God’s work of redemption and the restoration of the nation’s spiritual life. That spiritual aspect is key – this particular restoration comes as a result of truly following God. This passage isn’t just a message of hope – it includes an element of condemnation of religion that’s purely about ritual and not a matter of the heart. It’s a rant against fasting that’s nothing but surface – while all these rituals are being carried out in the name of religious respectability, workers are being oppressed and mistreated. You’re not going to hear from God if that’s your attitude, and that’s why Isaiah goes on to explain what true religion should look like – honour and love God, fight oppression, feed the hungry, treat others with respect.
Those deserts caused by broken lives, broken relationships, broken communities, broken bodies? Following God means bringing his words of hope into hopeless situations. That’s what the church should all be about. Too often we get caught up with the rituals and the rule-keeping, but that fails to produce much in the way of fruit. It never will if the right heart isn’t there, and too often the church has found itself promoting oppression – that’s when things start to break down. That’s when we’re adding to the desolation. All those rituals don’t fix anything.
A relationship does.
And yet the key theme running throughout the Bible is restoration, achieved through the Cross – the story that starts in a garden ends in a city, a city built by God himself. That gives the name given to followers of God in Isaiah – Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets With Dwellings – an extra frisson, calling us to spend more time building things up than tearing them down. Heck, even Jesus was a builder.
Christ steps into a world that appears desolate, shattered and broken for generations, and brings healing and hope in his wake. And we’re called to follow him. And as big and as terrifying as it is, it’s also a beautiful, rewarding, world-changing mission. Those shattered places, those shattered lives? They can be rebuilt. They can be restored. It happens.
Let’s fix some broken windows.