Sermon, Dec. 17

Most weeks, I write my sermons in the same coffeeshop, on the same morning. I need the routine. And they make a good bagel sandwich. My particular coffeeshop tends to have the radio on – not loudly, just in the background, so that when I get stuck, or my mind wanders, or a song I especially like comes on, I notice it. This week, I was sitting in my coffeeshop wondering how to start this sermon. I knew I wanted to talk about nostalgia, its attraction and its risks, but I couldn’t find my way in. And then my ear caught the song on the radio – one I know because it’s a favorite of my son’s. It’s called “Stressed Out,” by the band Twenty One Pilots, and the hooky little chorus begins, “Wish I could turn back time to the good old days…”

Wish I could turn back time to the gold old days. There it is. Nostalgia. That’s the heart of it. In the song, a young man remembers his childhood: playing with his brother and bedtime lullabies and not having to make money. But nostalgia is all around us at this time of year – family traditions, grandmother’s recipes, ornaments from decades past, vintage Christmas movies, Charles Dickens and Santa and Bing Crosby on the radio singing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know…”

I told Deanna, our music minister: We don’t have to choose hymns for Christmas Eve. We sing the same hymns every Christmas Eve. Because that’s what people want: to enter that timeless time when we’re singing Joy to the World and Silent Night and it could be any year, except that we’re older, and some of us are gone. Wish I could turn back time to the good old days. Christmastide is heavy with memory, with longing, with nostalgia.

This passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah comes from a moment when the people of God thought they could turn back time to the good old days. This text – this portion of the Book of Isaiah – was probably written a little over 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Another five hundred years earlier, King David had ruled Israel, an independent kingdom at the height of its power, conquering territory and receiving tribute goods from other nations, wealthy and healthy and strong. David made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom, and his son Solomon built the Great Temple there, the heart of the people’s worship of God. Two hundred years earlier, David’s kingdom had split in two, and the Northern Kingdom had fallen, conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, somehow avoided that fate, but fell under Assyria’s power, its kings and its wealth under Assyrian control.  And about sixty years earlier, Judah and its capital Jerusalem finally fell to the next great empire, Babylon. Jerusalem’s walls were broken down, and the Temple torn to pieces, its holy vessels carried away as spoils of war. Many, many people died; and many, many more were dragged off into exile in Babylon. Anyone of any status or skill was taken away from their homeland. Only the poorest were left there, among the ruins.

God’s people live in exile. They learn, painfully, that God is with them even when they are far from their homeland and their Temple. But they still long for what they have lost – how could they not? Psalm 137 gives voice to that longing: “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill…” Wish I could turn back time to the good old days…

And then – wonder of wonders – they have the chance to do it! A new empire conquers Babylon, and their emperor, Cyrus, has a kinder, gentler approach to imperial rule. In the year 538 BCE, Cyrus tells the Judean exiles, Go home. Rebuild your city and your temple. Get back on your feet. Of course, you’ll send us taxes of money and goods, and do what we tell you do – you’re still part of an empire – but you can have your little nation, if it makes you happy and keeps you quiet.

The exiles are SO EXCITED. They can go home! They can rebuild! They can restore Jerusalem, which has only become more beautiful in memory; they can reconstruct the Temple, which shines with gold and holiness and love in the stories of their parents and grandparents.

But of course it’s not that simple. Jerusalem is eventually rebuilt, including the Temple, but it takes a long time, and it’s hard and complicated. The people who were left there during the exile think of this as their land now, and there are tensions between them and the returnees, those coming home from Babylon.  Most the exiles who return are young men, so there ends up being intermarriage with women from other groups, even as the religious leaders are trying to get everyone to be “real Israelites.”

There was a harsh drought at about that time, which compounded the problems of a ruined infrastructure and economy. Attacks by bandits and other tribes were an ongoing challenge while the returnees struggled to complete the city wall. And conflicts developed between factions of leaders with different priorities and visions for the rebuilding process. One source I consulted summed it all up saying, “Feelings of disappointment developed among the returnees.” Wish we could turn back time to the good old days… But we can’t.

The Gospels – the beginning of the Jesus story, whether you start with his birth or his baptism – That’s another moment when people thought they could turn back time. Get back to their glory days. You hear it every time King David is invoked: In Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary: “[Your child] will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” In the shouts of hope when Jesus enters Jerusalem: “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  O come, thou branch of Jesse’s tree…! David is remembered as Israel’s great king, Strong and just and holy, called and favored by God. Many, many people followed Jesus, hoped in Jesus, because they wanted him to be a second David. To kick out the Romans and restore Judea as an independent kingdom, with peace and plenty for all.

You can’t blame people for wanting that. Nostalgia is a very understandable emotion. But it’s also toxic.

That insight comes from John Hodgman, a comedian, actor, author, and fake internet judge. Comedians, like anthropologists, spend a lot of time observing human behavior; they just turn it into humor instead of peer-reviewed articles.

And Hodgman’s observations – including years of adjudicating disputes on the Judge John Hodgman podcast – have led him to the conclusion that nostalgia is at best, unproductive; at worst, poisonous. Hodgman says – and I think he’s spot-on – that nostalgia is based on two delusions: That the past was better, and that the past is attainable.

We are prone to the delusion that the past was better than the present for several reasons. Maybe we were kids, in the time we’re remembering, and everything seemed simpler because it was simpler, for us. Or maybe we weren’t even born yet, and all we have of the past are the idealized stories of our parents and grandparents. We idealize the past because memory is selective; the hard stuff and the bad stuff tends to fade. And that’s fine; we should hold and treasure our good memories!  The problem is when we start to take our selective memories of the past as the whole truth about the past. (Even the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes takes a swing at nostalgia: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Ecclesiastes 7:10.)

And then there’s the illusion that the past is attainable. That we could, maybe, somehow, turn back time to the good old days, and make everything great again.

Sometimes – in some cases – the past really was better, for a particular group of people. Take the 1950s, an era that is a huge focus for nostalgia in American culture. Sixty years ago – interestingly, about the same gap that separated the Babylonian Exile and the return to Jerusalem. In the 1950s, if you were straight and white and middle-class and moderate in your politics and basically content with dominant gender norms, then things might have been pretty great for you. But there have been massive, irreversible changes in the past sixty years. Women are not going back into the kitchen and nursery. African-Americans are not returning to the exclusions and oppressions of Jim Crow. GLBTQ+ folks are not going back in the closet. And it’s not just social change. The microprocessor and the Internet are not going anywhere. And the massive increase in economic inequality in America, which has polarized and blighted our social landscape over the past half-century, does not seem likely to turn back to 1950s levels anytime soon. Even if the past was better, for some very specific definition of better, we can’t get there from here. The past is not attainable.

Likewise in the time of our text from Isaiah. Before the Exile, life in Jerusalem was good for people of status and wealth. But the poor people who were left among the ruins when Babylon conquered the city – things might have been better for them before the exiles returned and said, Actually, all this land is ours. And for the exiles themselves: Not everybody came back. People made lives for themselves in Babylon, and stayed. Things had changed, as they always do; history moved along, as it always does; the past that some longed to recreate stubbornly stayed past.

Nostalgia tells us that the past was better, and tempts us to believe that we might be able to bring back the past. But that’s an illusion, and sometimes a costly one. You can treasure your memories, you can take what you treasured most about the past, and build it into the present and the future – as the Exiles did, eventually, in the renewed Jerusalem. But you cannot turn back time. If our hope for the future is that it will be exactly like the past, then it’s not really hope; it’s just nostalgia projected forwards. God says, We can do better than that.

The alternative to nostalgia is hope. Hope leans into the future, instead of back toward the past. Hope insists that we can do better, with God’s help. Hope is challenging; we can’t always visualize where it’s leading us. Hope demands our trust, and our labor, while nostalgia just bathes us in comforting, rosy images. There’s a very real sense in which many of us prefer nostalgia. When we’re tired or stressed or sad, maybe most of us prefer nostalgia – time to have a cup of cocoa and watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Right now, we are in the midst of the most nostalgic time of year, the weeks approaching Christmas. And yet there’s this provocative irony in the fact that what God is urgently saying to God’s people in our seasonal texts is: Look! I’m doing something new! It’s in Luke’s birth narratives, in Zechariah and Mary’s fierce songs of hope and redemption. It’s in John the Baptist’s proclamation that big change is coming, and everyone had better get ready. It’s in the Book of Revelation:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”

It’s all through Isaiah, the core Old Testament text of Advent: Chapter 65: “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered!” Chapter 43: “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; can’t you see it?” And today’s text, the one that Jesus quotes when he begins his public ministry: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to proclaim a new time, a new season!

This text from Isaiah speaks to the exiles in their disappointment – their grief – that the present refuses to conform to the remembered past. That the good old days remain elusive, illusory. The prophet says to them, with joy and urgency: Return, rebuild, restore, raise up what has been cast down, repair what has been ruined; tut it’s not going to be the way it was. It’s going to be different, and it’s going to be better. You remember Jerusalem before the Conquest as the good old days, but the prophetic books tell a different story: corruption and arrogance, cruelty and licentiousness, hunger and hopelessness. The renewed City that God calls you to build will not have poverty and injustice built into its very foundations. It will be a city of freedom, not bondage;  of gladness, not mourning; of righteousness, instead of robbery and wrongdoing. While nostalgia calls us back, God calls us forward, with the voices of prophets and saints and Jesus himself. God calls us to as people of hope, people whose lives point towards God’s future, which is more just and joyful and true and free than any of our pasts.

Read more on John Hodgman on nostalgia here: