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Sermon Podcast: "Good News" (Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11)

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.

Click the link at the bottom of the post for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…

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?

Yeah, 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.” 

Yeah, sure.

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.


Sermon Podcast: Good News

Sermon Podcast: "In Days to Come" (Isaiah 2:1-5)

Sometimes, good news depends on who's hearing it...

Click the link at the bottom of the post for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…


In Days to Come

(Isaiah 2:1-5) 

A social worker just told me a story a couple of weeks ago about an internship where she worked as a night manager at a homeless shelter.  “Part of my role,” she said, “was to round up the women and children and make sure lights were out by 10:00 pm.  One night a boy was abandoned by his mother.  I sat with that little 4 year-old boy until finally CPS showed up and took him to the Home of the Innocents.  As he cried in my arms that he wanted his mother, I’m not sure that I’d ever seen such pain, felt such helplessness before.  That night I decided I wanted to be a social worker…I wanted to combat the social evils of the world.”

And there are plenty of social evils in the world, aren’t there?  We see them all around us.  It doesn’t take a trained eye to see the pain and despair.  Walk out those doors, take a right, and have a seat at that bus stop right out there.  You’ll see a whole new world of social evils 150 yards from where you’re sitting right now. 

It’s a tough world we live in.  The poor, the homeless, the addicted, the unwelcome, the widow, the orphan—all the social evils of the world—it’s difficult to ignore.

Isaiah knows that.  Isaiah understands.  God, if you’ve read chapter one, isn’t pleased with Judah.  Things haven’t been going well with the children of God.  They’ve acted faithlessly, and God’s fixin’ to throw down: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15).  Not good.  Not good at all.

Jerusalem, God’s city, the city of peace—once faithful, God says, has become a “woman of questionable virtue,” a city full of murderers.  “Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water.  Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves.  Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.  They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:22-23).

God, as you might have been able to tell, is ticked: “Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!”  (1:24b).  Things can’t keep going like they’ve been going.  God’s angry; but God’s anger is redemptive: “I will turn my hand against you: I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.  And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning.  Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:25-26).

Things are going to get dark.  You can count on that, God says.  You’re not going to be able to see around the corner, but I’ve got other things in store for you.

Have you noticed here that, according to the tellers of the story, God’s judgment moves in a particular direction?  God will not abandon Judah, but Judah will have to get to the end of her rope before understanding God’s great mercy.

Wait a minute.  You’re not going to talk about judgment, are you?  I mean, it’s one thing to talk about judgment if you’re a pre-modern yokel from the Palestinian sticks, but it’s another thing to start talking about judgment among sophisticated modern smart-phone users like us. 

And that’s the way most of us think, isn’t it?  Judgment went the way of witch-burnings and the Inquisition.  In fact, calling someone judgmental is among the most potent of epithets in our culture.  “You can’t tell me how to live.  I’ll live the way I want to live.  Who are you to judge me?”  Next to being a child-molester, you can’t get much lower in the food chain than being judgmental.  Pharisees.  Bottom-feeders. 

But here’s God saying, “I will pour out my wrath on my foes.”  Sounds like judgment to me.  “Well preacher, that’s all well and good, but we serve a God of love.”

To which I reply, “So did the children of Judah.”  We modern folks, however, have a rather idiosyncratic notion of love.  Whereas love has traditionally meant concern for the other, nowadays love is often used as a way of avoiding having to be concerned for the other. 

What?  What does that mean?

Well, typically, people talk about love in ways that indicate that what’s meant is not love, but rather not wanting to get involved.  Sometimes the truest form of love is saying no.  The easiest thing to do, and sometimes the least loving thing to do, is not to confront, but to let it ride in the name of “keeping the peace.” 

But that’s not peace, is it?  That’s just a cease-fire, without resolving the underlying issues.  And in that sense, what’s communicated is, “I’m more concerned about myself and about avoiding the stickiness of true love than in your long-term good.”  True love is impossible where people refuse to confront one another.  Deep down we know it’s true.

We need a God who refuses to give us what we want, but who holds out, determined to give us what we need.  Perhaps the truest love, the truest grace is a God who’s willing to stand over against us, willing to hold us accountable for our boneheadedness—unwilling simply to let it ride in the name of “keeping the peace.”  Because what God wants isn’t a cease-fire, but a people committed to God’s vision of life in the reign of God.  And if we’re truly to be the children of God, principally concerned with equipping disciples for God’s new reign, sometimes that will entail the painful but necessary process of speaking the truth to one another in love. 

Sometimes the most loving thing the church can do is speak the uncomfortable truth, rather than letting things ride in the name of “keeping the peace.”

Perhaps, it isn’t until God refuses to bend to our will, and holds us accountable to a standard of behavior that we didn’t devise for ourselves, that we can begin to understand the vision that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw. 

Perhaps it isn’t until God, through the face of someone who truly loves us, says that our lives—the way we’ve constructed them—aren’t working, that we can finally begin to submit ourselves to the true mercy of being transformed into the people God wants for us to be. 

Perhaps it isn’t until we’ve lived through the darkness of the former days, when we search for God and can never quite find where God had gone, that we can be open to the alternative reality of God’s peaceable kingdom in days to come.

It’s a hard word, isn’t it?  You’ve got to walk through the darkness to get to the light.  You’ve got to live with the uncertainty before you get to the serenity of peace.  That, of course, is the hard part about Advent.  Advent isn’t just an excuse to stretch out the Christmas festivities for a month, like some sort of ecclesiastical Wal-Mart.  Advent is a time of preparation, of taking stock, of waiting.  And if you’ve ever been on the other end of a telephone line expecting a call that will not come, you know that waiting is just about the hardest thing in the world to do.  You get tired of standing on your tip-toes after awhile, peering out into the darkness, looking for familiar headlights to crest the driveway.

No.  Advent is the season when we recognize that the world—as it’s presently situated—holds great danger for us, forcing us to turn our “eyes toward the hills from whence cometh our help.”  Advent is a scary time of waiting to see how it’s all going to shake out. 

We’re hopeful, but it’s not with us now.  You only have to read the front page of the Courier-Journal to know that.  We can’t see what it’s going to look like in all of its glory; the mist blocks our vision.  But we get glimpses, tiny snatches of light.  We stand waiting for Christ to be revealed, but the darkness appears to rule.  Bullets fly.  Children die in the dry night.  Governments hire people to invent ever more ingenious ways to damage one another.  God is not satisfied with the world as it is presently arranged.  And we hear Isaiah say, “In days to come . . .”

In former days, we lived in the flat land, hemmed in by fear and terror on every side, but “in days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

In former days, God’s displeasure with the way the world was ordered blackened the sky, but in days to come a star shall shine in Bethlehem and the horizon shall be lit by the faces of ten thousand angels announcing God’s desire for a world in which the poor are not trampled, and the orphan is defended, and the cause of the widow is heard in the land. 

In former days, your silver turned to refuse, your wine turned to water, and your princes turned into rebels and companions of thieves, but in days to come, your swords shall be turned into plowshares, and your spears shall be turned into pruning hooks, and your enemy shall be turned into your friend. 

In former days, your hands were full of blood and you housed murderers in your city, but in days to come, says the LORD, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall you learn war anymore.

We who live in the aftermath of September 11th and the wars that still wage a half a world away, we who live in a world where 13.3 million people are officially unemployed and 45 million people live without the benefit of healthcare, where the poor and the widowed and the orphaned continue among us, we find it difficult to see for all the smoke and dust in the air.  But Advent is here, and it’s hard to avoid the darkness around us. 

Judgment is tough for us to hear.  We who have much ought to take care that we’re part of the solution and not part of the problem.  We who are well situated might find the refining of Advent much less inviting than the popular picture of old-fashioned Christmases that get pitched to us between episodes of  “The Walking Dead.” 

But if you’re an abandoned 4 year-old, maybe this kind of judgment is just what you need to hear.  Maybe to hear that God cares enough about you to get angry about the way you’ve been treated, the way you’ve been forgotten and left behind, is exactly the kind of Good News the gospel of Advent announces.

Isaiah spins for us a vision of God’s new kingdom, and we get a glimpse, just a peek at what God has in store for those who endure.  Just a glimpse in the night of the kind of world where the abandoned are reclaimed, where the forgotten are remembered, where the lost are finally found. 

Just a hint.  Not much.  But the message of Advent is that God doesn’t forsake the poor, the widow, the 4 year-old—expecting the same commitment to justice from those who claim to follow Jesus. 

The message of Advent is that God can make a king out of a baby, which means that God can make a kingdom out of the likes of you and me. 

And the uncomfortable truth of that, my brothers and sisters, is more good news than you ought to be exposed to in one sitting.



Sermon Podcast: "In Days to Come"