My favorite moment of this sermon?
This God of justice is no dreamy idealist, but a God with dirty hands and a broken heart.
And we who claim to love and serve this God had better be too.
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Good News (Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11)
You might not have noticed. Christmas is coming. Two weeks from today. It's a quaint little celebration we have every year. It's pretty subdued. We don't make too much out of it in our culture. If you weren't paying attention, you'd hardly even notice it. A little tinsel here, a bow, there. An occasional cup of eggnog. Nothing fancy. Not that big a deal, right?
You know as well as I do that frantic parents are going to be camped out on E-bay, hoping to spend hundreds of dollars to buy the hottest toy on the market–the one Wal-Mart sold out of by early October. Guilty spouses will be haunting the crowded malls, longing to find that special something that says, “I’m sorry ignored you all year. I really feel terribly about it (Not terrible enough to change, of course). But, well, I hope this will make up for it.”
“Surely,” some folks think, “if only I could give this or receive that, things would be different.” Not you or I, of course. We’re far too sophisticated to be sucked in by all that commercial hype. Right? We never spend more than we have to give our children the kind of Christmas that will absolve our bruised consciences.
We’re not the ones walking up and down the aisles at the last minute trying to figure out whether an electric dog-polisher is something grandma can use, or if slipper socks send the wrong message to the crazy sister-in-law with the big hair.
You and I wouldn’t spend each night leading up to Christmas running from one activity to another, trying to please everyone else, while at the same time trying to capture that evasive “Christmas spirit.”
It’s the unwashed masses who dread that day in January when the mail carrier lumbers up the sidewalk carrying the Visa bill, the reminder of all those broken promises to ourselves about how this Christmas was going to be different.
That’s not us. We’re much more on top of things than to be seduced by the false promises of a purchasable “peace on earth,” a consumable “good will toward humanity.”
Then, one day we wake up after our endless striving to reproduce the perfect Christmas we saw on television, only to find that the presents lay in the closet collecting dust, and all the turkey and pumpkin pie have turned to ashes in our mouth. Christmas, as it is popularly observed in our culture can be very oppressive, indeed.
But, come on. There's real oppression out there, right? It'd be nice to think that there's nothing more pressing in our world than whether or not we're going to finally get that iPad, but our world is much more complicated than that, isn't it?
We live in a world where tension over immigration and race continue to exist, in a world where adults abuse little children, in a world where people are trying to figure out if the retirement funds will be there when they need them, if the job, the health insurance, the house will still be there for them come this time next year.
And if there are jobs to be had, will they demand soul-killing labor that asks of us to surrender whatever dignity we've been able to hang onto . . . in exchange for a paycheck?
We live in a world where young people watch for the bus in dread of another day of being subjected to the torments and depredations of bullies because of their sexual orientation, in world where the the poor, the homeless, the jobless are told that they ought to blame themselves if they're not rich, that their children ought to be made to clean toilets--presumably as training for the jobs to which they might one day aspire, in a world in which young people are under intense pressure to take on a mountain of debt to educate themselves for careers they may never find.
It's tough out there.
We live in a world where nations sit tensely, waiting for another drone to drop something deadly from the sky, waiting for another ordinary looking Datsun to explode in a crowded market, waiting for news about whether other nations will be kind enough to save the ruins of your economy from sinking all the way into the toilet, waiting to learn whether the country next door truly is building nuclear weapons, waiting to see if your government really can put a stop to the killings.
In a broken world, sometimes we act as though our biggest fears are about whether we’ll have enough money to buy one more bottle of Hai Karate or one more pair of Isotoners—when, in reality, we (all of us) have bigger fish to fry. There really is oppression and brokenness and dread and anxiety in our world that extends beyond whether two-day shipping really means two days, or whether we'll get the guest bedroom cleaned in time for Aunt Gladys.
The people to whom Isaiah speaks understand oppression. They’ve spent a fair amount of time in exile in Babylon. In our text for today, they’ve recently returned home to find that home is just a big pile of rocks. Jerusalem lies in ruins. Their fields and orchards, untended for all these years are overgrown with brambles.
While they were in Babylon, all they could think of was getting home. They saw in their minds the homes about which their parents and grandparents used to reminisce. Over in Babylon they sat around telling stories about the good old days back in Judah. They painted lovely pictures about the old home place. And the kids sat around their Babylonian digs, dreaming about that day when they might finally get to go back and reclaim their heritage. They had such big plans about what they’d finally do once they made it home.
But now they’re home, standing knee-deep in the rubble. They’ve finally gotten to the place they’ve dreamed of for so long, and they can’t get the taste of ashes out of their mouths. It’s possible, you know, to be oppressed by your desires, a prisoner of your own expectations.
Conditions are less than optimal. People are hungry. They've returned to find the homes that had kept their hopes alive over in Babylon are in ruins. People died along the way. They've been oppressed, exiled, imprisoned, beat down. Now this?
You can hear, if you stop for a moment, the sounds of people choking back tears, covering their faces, shaking their heads. Dejected.
But Isaiah comes to them in the midst of their despair with a word from the Lord: “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. 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.”
Good stuff. Lot of great infinitives in there--to bring good news, to bind up, to release, to proclaim, to comfort, to provide for, to give.
That's good news, isn't it? How do you argue with those kinds of verbs?
The problem is not the verbs, though; it's the objects of the verbs that go down so hard. We live in a modern sophisticated society. So, we're all about those kinds of verbs--bind up, release, comfort, provide for. The problem that confronts our society, however, is that we want the objects of those verbs to be deserving. Helping people is fine . . . as long as their the right people.
And if Isaiah had just left it at rhetorically satisfying verb phrases, just left it abstract, it wouldn't be hard to get everybody on board.
But Isaiah's not content to let things stay on a conceptual level, not satisfied to speak theoretically. No, he throws in objects--gets all practical, puts a face on these lofty sounding verbs--bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to comfort and provide for all those who mourn, to give this whole sorry lot a garland instead of ashes.
This good news comes, in other words, not to those who've just had temporary setbacks, to those inconvenienced by ripples in the stock market. This good news is announced to those who've been on the bottom so long, it's hard for them to remember there's a top. This good news is delivered to those folks on the edge of despair, just short of giving up.
Fine. But why . . . you know . . . those people?
Because, God says, "I love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing." Those who've been at the mercy of the tyrants of this world, sorely used and oppressed, now find themselves under the protection of a ruler who loves justice, who hates the abuse heaped on the poor and the powerless.
And how do we know this good news isn't just more high-flown grandiloquence?
You'd be forgiven for not catching it right off; it's tucked away in verse 2: "The LORD has anointed me . . . to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor."
What does that mean? Why is that such a big deal?
The year of the LORD's favor is a reference to the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus. Every fifty years, according to Jewish law, all debts were to be canceled, all prisoners and slaves set free. Everyone was to return to their home place. It was the ultimate in wealth redistribution.
The Year of Jubilee, the year of the LORD's favor was a reminder to everyone in Israel that they all had been held in bondage in Egypt until God delivered them--which is to say, everyone is equal in God's sight. Consequently, the poor could never get so low that they wouldn't have hope, and rich could never get so rich that they weren't accountable to the whole community.
Concrete. Real life. Practical. This God of justice is no dreamy idealist, but a God with dirty hands and a broken heart.
And we who claim to love and serve this God had better be too.
Because, guess what? The good news of Advent isn't just something we sit around waiting for, twiddling our thumbs with stars in our eyes. The good news of Advent . . . at least in part, is supposed to be us.
Disappointment. Devastation. Ruin. Enslavement. Oppression. It’s still out there.
And in the middle of it all, you have a chance to be the good news somebody's waiting to hear.
It's better than slipper socks any day.