This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on December 14, 2014, is based on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Please be seated.
Here in this season of waiting the mood, the tone, for this morning’s liturgy is set right away, in our first reading; words that are filled with comfort but words which are often chosen to be read at a funeral. We hear these words from Isaiah in those moments when we are bereft, grieving, mourning, perhaps feeling defeated but definitely in pain. Hear the words again of the prophet Isaiah:
“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.”
Here this morning, whatever it is that drives us in this season too long for God to break into the world, to break into our lives, and to make things right, Isaiah reaches out to each and every one of us with these words of great comfort. Isaiah was speaking to the people of Israel on their return from exile in Babylon when the infighting and power struggles that they were experiencing as they tried to reestablish themselves as the people of God and as a nation had devastated their spirits. They were longing for God to intervene.
Isaiah goes on and speaks to them.
“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.”
Words of great hope and comfort… promises from God that God’s action and intervention in the world will transform our mourning into joy, that the losses that we have experienced will be reconciled, and that the state of our nation can and will be restored when God’s anointed, comes to set all things right. Words of great comfort… and you would think words that a preacher would delight in delivering, standing in front of a congregation, offering this promise, this hope, this comfort. But there was a time when a preacher used these words and it all went terribly wrong.
Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit returns from his temptation in the wilderness and finds himself in Nazareth. Here’s how that preaching moment went.
“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Luke 4:16-20).
Then he began to preach. Jesus said, “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The promises have come true here and now. God is intervening, breaking into the world to make these things a reality. And his hometown folks were delighted.
“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son’” (Luke 4:22)?
Oooh! Can you hear the pride? Is not this Joseph’s son? This is our homey, right here, bringing God into the world, this is a miracle. And we’re right here on the ground floor!
In this moment, with these words, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they’ve claimed him. And they have claimed God’s intervention on their behalf. Then Jesus starts to turn things on them a little.
“He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’” (Luke 4:23).
Jesus’s response to that is
“Truly I tell you no profit is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24).
Wow! Imagine how that would’ve felt. Your hopes were high. “We are ready! We are in! We are on the ground floor!” And then Jesus says but now I’m not going to do for you the things that that you heard that I have done… And then it gets worse…
“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon” (Luke 4:25-26).
None of the widows and orphans and starving people of Israel… He was sent to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon…. a foreigner, an outsider, a gentile! Jesus goes on to remind them of another story…
“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27).
…a foreigner, an outsider, a Gentile…
Now I think it’s easy to imagine and to understand the disappointment of Jesus’ friends and neighbors and family there in Nazareth. They were, after all, right there at the head of the line, about to receive the best of the best, the miracle to end all miracles, and so they were unhappy and angry. But their response when you read it seems more than just a little disproportionate.
“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29).
I can see being disappointed. I could see being envious. I could see being jealous, but murderous with rage? I think the truth is that Jesus was saying something even more than you’re not at the top of the list.
Imagine believing for generations that you are God’s chosen people and then hearing that your suffering, your captivity, your mourning, your grief is not at the top of God’s Christmas to do list… that someone else’s needs, someone else’s mourning, someone else’s captivity might just come first. That would be upsetting but as you ponder that and begin to think about it I think we become nervous. What if their being set free, their being released, their receiving the good news means that I have to give up or lose some of the freedom, some of the good news, some of the liberty that I enjoy? What if God coming into the world to make all things right so that we all might live together as brothers and sisters fulfilling God’s vision for all of creation means that I have to step back in the line and allow others to go first? What if it means that I have to give up some of what I have, some of my status, privilege rank, in order to let others join me at the table? That gets to be a little more difficult. It’s fine with me if others are brought to the table as long as I don’t have to give anything up to allow them to do it. And then there’s that other layer that’s unavoidable. It may take a little longer to get there. It seems like the folks in Nazareth got there pretty quickly based on their response…
What if when God comes into the world to set the captives free, and by necessity confronts the captors… What if that turns out to be me? What if God coming into the world and confronting the oppressors, and those who keep others down, who leave others in ashes mourning, and grieving… what if it turns out that I have something to do with that?
We wait in this season of Advent for God to break in it to the world to set the prisoners free, to proclaim release and liberty, to change our mourning and our grief to joy and the oil of gladness and a garland of victory flowers, and we think we know what it will take for that happen. But our vision of that moment might be only half the truth.
Jesus is holding that possibility open and asking us to stand in that uncomfortable place, and wrestle with the possibility that when God comes to set all things right we might have to change, or give, or let go.
In these last several weeks I think we have been called to stand in this place by the events that have surrounded and swirled about us. Stories from Ferguson Missouri, from Staten Island in New York, stories about our own Central Intelligence Agency leave us wondering just who are the oppressors, who are the captors, who are those who are contributing to the systems that keep people in mourning, and in ashes, grieving, despairing, and lost.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah the prisoners must be set free, the captives it must be released, the oil of sorrow, the ashes must be replaced with the oil of gladness and a garland of victory in order that the rulings may be rebuilt. The way that that prophecy runs those injustices are corrected before the nation is restored. I think that is the message that Isaiah proclaims to us this morning. If we listen to Jesus’s own interpretation of these words there is no doubt that this prophecy cuts two ways.
In our Gospel reading from the Gospel of John this morning John the Baptist stands in the wilderness baptizing and when the authorities approach him and asked him what right he has to be baptizing, who is he, “Give us answer. Tell us who you are…” John the Baptist quotes the prophet Isaiah.
“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,’’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23).
John is reminding us, all in one moment, of the prophecies of Isaiah and the fact Jesus is coming.
He also tells us, and this is I think the miracle in the paradox of the season of Advent, that he is coming and he’s already here. John says to them there is one among you whom you do not know. I am not fit to untie the thong of his sandals. That I think is the mystery of this season. We wait for one who has already come, and who will come again. And while we wait for him he stands right next to us, waiting with us. So we have the opportunity to remain awake, or to be awakened, to open our eyes, to open our hearts, to see the world with God’s own eyes: captor and captive,, oppressor and oppressed and to honestly struggled to find our own place within that equation. And then to work to move things towards the light, to bring all the nations in to the light of God’s love and grace, and to make sure that not one of God’s children is left behind or lost.
This morning when I got up, and I always do this on Sunday morning I checked the Washington Post webpage, I checked the Wisconsin State Journal, just to make sure that nothing’s happened overnight that I need to be aware of when I stand in front of you all… this morning I was devastated to read that on the campus of U.C. Berkeley three black effigies were hung in prominent locations around that campus so that they would be there present as protesters gathered to march under banners that said “Black Lives Matter.”
On this day and in this moment we are called to open our eyes, to acknowledge our place in this economy, and in this system, and in this world. And to work to bring about the transformation that Isaiah calls for. Jesus is here standing beside us, standing behind us, standing in front of us, and calling us to participate in bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners… Jesus is behind us, before us, and standing beside us asking us to join him in providing comfort to all who mourn, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning… the oil of gladness instead of mourning. We look back, we look to the future, and we wait, we listen, and we look with God’s eyes.