If you have been coming to church regularly this fall, you may be more prepared for Christmas than you ever have been in your life, or at least more ready for it. This is the fourteenth and last Sunday in our chronological journey through the Old Testament. For the next twenty Sundays we will travel through the Gospel of Luke, concluding with the Sunday after Easter.
I do hope you have seen how the Old Testament lays the foundation of the New Testament in many ways. It tells of God’s loving intention in creating the world and in creating people to have a special relationship with and to give special responsibilities to. It tells us the truth about ourselves in showing God’s people to be a mixed bag of obedience and rebelliousness. No one makes the right choices all the time. Some of the best people make some of the worst, most damaging choices. God can be disappointed, hurt and angry with us when we allow our lives to get off track, but God continues to love us, nudge us, discipline us, give us second and third and fourth chances. It becomes clear as we journey through the Old Testament that people are not going to be reliable covenant partners with God and are never going to be consistently good enough to be deserving of God’s commendation. So hope begins to grow that God will do something drastically and radically new, that God will come and act to make things right.
It is fitting that the prophetic text we look at on this bridge Sunday is the text that Jesus quoted as his mission statement when he preached at his home synagogue in Nazareth. In fact, that story from Luke’s Gospel will be the text five weeks from today. Isaiah 61 is a critical text for both the Old and the New Covenants.
Isaiah has three distinct sections. Chapters 1-39 are prophecies leading up to the Babylonian exile. Chapters 40-55 are prophecies during the Babylonian exile. Chapters 56-66 are prophecies following the return from exile. The section from the period of the exile contain words of hope to help people endure that dark period. They contain exalted language for how glorious it will be to return home. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed….You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Of course, when the exiles actually returned home it was nothing like the fairy tale world of that metaphorical language. Jerusalem was in ruins, the Temple was gone, other people were living where they used to live and they weren’t glad to see them. The harsh reality was that it was going to be hard work to rebuild homes, lives, community, security, and Temple. And they didn’t have a lot of resources to make that happen – they had been exiles serving another people for fifty years or more. I can just imagine them going to the religious leaders after a while and complaining that this was not the future they had been promised and wanting to know if everything they had been told about God and his care for them was just whistling in the dark.
So God called someone to put on the mantle of the Isaiah tradition for this new generation. As first Isaiah called for repentance and recentering on God, warning that defeat and exile would result otherwise; as second Isaiah gave hope to exiles in the poetic language of restoration and redemption; so now third Isaiah interprets for his generation what God is up to in order to encourage those who were disappointed and perhaps bitter at the current state of their lives.
Today’s passage begins: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me…” He is serving notice that his words and actions are not his own. He is acting on God’s call, God’s sending, God’s anointing, by the Spirit. The words echo the “Servant” passages of second Isaiah, also much quoted by Jesus, which portray God’s servant as humble, sacrificial, suffering, redeeming.
What has the Spirit of the Lord anointed him to do? “To bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
He has been called to comfort these mourning, discouraged returnees who are feeling sorry for themselves and believing themselves to be abandoned by God. He is called to give them the understanding and the vision to move beyond their current despair into action which will allow them to build the future they are yearning for with God’s help. They have had the feeling of entitlement that they should have been able to come back to Jerusalem and find homes waiting for them to live in, vineyards and gardens ready to be picked, secure walls to live within and a grand Temple to worship in. They need to move to a point of seeing themselves as pilgrims with an opportunity set before them rather than victims who have crummy lives. Instead of dwelling on the glass being half empty they need new eyes and hearts which can rejoice that the glass is half full.
And so the beginning serves as a reminder that God’s way has never been to operate in luxury and comfort and royalty. Abraham, a wandering Aramaean, moving by stages through the desert while awaiting a long hoped for child. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, unjustly imprisoned in Egypt, doing his best in his circumstances day by day until God works to free the prisoner and set before him the opportunity to create an amazing future. The enslaved Hebrew people in Egypt years later, being set free by the liberating God who makes a way through the sea. But they wander 40 years learning hard lessons before having the opportunity to create a new life. Later exiled to Babylon but not forgotten by God, miraculously released by Cyrus the Persian to return home with the opportunity again to create a future with God’s help.
This is God’s way, bringing good news to the oppressed, healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, release to prisoners, comfort to those who mourn. Those addressed by third Isaiah have been released from captivity and are again free people, even if poor and powerless. They can count on God in time to release them from their mourning and give them reason to praise instead of being faint of heart. They need to do their part to get there.
They need to envision a new future where the rubble lies, then get to work building that future. Isaiah says, “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations, they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. They will come to be called oaks of righteousness. Their descendants shall be known among the nations; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”
Exiles had been conditioned to dream of a day when freedom would be restored, they would go home, and everything would be as it should be. The dream kept them going through the difficult existence as exiles. When the time came for the dream to be fulfilled, they did indeed find that their freedom was restored, they did indeed find that they were back home, but the circumstances revealed that a lot of hard work lay ahead. Still, that’s two pretty big pieces of the dream that are in place. What is left is the building of a community – outwardly with the construction of homes, wall, Temple, roads, markets; and inwardly with the building of a society with values and morals, compassion and justice.
What do you find yourselves dreaming of as another Christmas approaches? If it is a white Christmas, odds are you should be making travel plans though it is not impossible. I expect that if we were all honest, most of us would have to confess to harboring some of the same disappointment Isaiah’s friends were experiencing.
The job you have really isn’t what you were expecting it to be. It is not as exciting or as fulfilling as it looked, and the people you work with don’t appreciate you enough. And marriage isn’t really all it was cracked up to be either, or maybe you haven’t found the right person and keep getting disappointed when you get your hopes up about someone. There is alienation in your family, and someone who seems determined to keep things stirred up and make everyone else unhappy. There are still people in this great and prosperous country of ours who go to bed hungry every night, or don’t even have a bed to go to. People can’t get along and are killing each other and not being respectful of the national anthem and the flag. The country’s leaders can’t seem to work together on anything and it’s not clear that Social Security will be there when you need it. This is not the dream we grew up on.
Well, from our study of the Old Testament I’m pretty sure this is not the world God dreamed of when he created it. It was not part of the covenant that however people chose to live and treat each other, God would constantly fix those things. Our actions have consequences, and to believe that God “owes” us certain things in this life beyond spiritual things is a fallacy.
We have freedom and we have not been exiled from home. We know of God’s grace and forgiveness and care. We also know how God wants us to live and treat each other. We know from both Isaiah and Jesus that God has a special care for those who are oppressed, brokenhearted, enslaved or imprisoned, and mourning. Part of becoming the beloved community of God will include adopting and living out that compassion in our own lives. Do you dream of a better community and more unified nation? It won’t be accomplished by those we elect to go to Washington. It can only be accomplished from the bottom up by building relationships, tearing down walls of division, and by acts of compassion. Do you dream of a happier family? Don’t wait on someone else to initiate what needs to be done for that to happen. Do you wish your church was different and better in some way? In caring for everyone, in reaching out in mission, or whatever? Jump in and make it so.
At the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem there is a walkway lined with trees. Each tree is dedicated to a non-Jewish person, a Gentile, who are called “the righteous among the nations.” These are individuals who, at the risk of their own lives, sheltered or helped Jewish people to save their lives. These people didn’t just dream of a time when Jewish people would not be exterminated, they acted to keep it from happening.
Isaiah speaks of these people who will move on from discouragement and self-pity to constructive action in building a just and compassionate and faithful community. “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
As Christmas continues to approach, I encourage you to examine just what it is you are dreaming of this year. What is it that is not right in your life or our community or our world, what are you disappointed about? Pick something on the list that you can do something about and as your Christmas present to God make a commitment to get to work next year. Mentor a child. Volunteer at AIM or the Free Clinic. Build a house with Habitat for Humanity. Deepen a relationship with someone of another race. Work on rebuilding a broken relationship.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 11, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church