Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
1 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; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 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. 4 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.
8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
We finally got Christmas cards done this week, and by we, I mean Sonya did Christmas cards this week. We enjoy getting cards from friends and neighbors, and I was reminded this week of last year when we got a card from some friends. Our son, Paxton, who was three-years-old at the time, opened the card and immediately recognized the family. He then became visibly upset. He called out with a bit of choked-up voice, “Where am I in this picture?” When we explained that it was a picture of their family, he said, “But I am family.”
That’s how I feel about you. You are all a part of my family, and I hope that you feel the same way about us.
It is good to be back with the fine people of Staunton Mennonite Church after my three-month-long sabbatical leave. After a few weeks I soon realized how important this church is to me. You are my community, you are my family, and you are my friends. We are there for one another in the good times, and we are there for one another in the bad times. And after worshipping in close to a dozen other churches over the last few months, I can say with confidence that I agree with what I hear from visitors who stop by our little church: we have a good thing going on here.
On one hand, it is nice to know that I can be away for a few Sundays and things don’t fall apart. There are some wonderful people in our congregation with exceptional skills. People that we had not properly made use of before turned out to be pretty gifted speakers! In addition, we have had some wonderful speakers over the last couple of weeks that have come from the EMU community, Virginia Mennonite Conference, and others. There may have been a few speakers that did not knock your socks off, but if they were all wonderful, you wouldn’t want me to come backJ.
We are a few weeks into Advent, which covers the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The word “advent” literally means “coming.” We are anticipating the coming of Jesus. Sometimes we even hear people talk about the Second Advent, which is a reference to the Christian belief that Jesus will be coming back to earth to establish his kingdom on earth forever. But at this time of year our focus is not as much on the second coming of Jesus, but the first. In Advent, we anticipate the birth of the Christ child.
So we do a number of things as the anticipation builds. We buy Christmas trees, put up decorations, and light candles. Our four-year-old son even has his own Advent calendar where he places a star sticker in the sky over an empty manger. Then on Christmas day, the baby Jesus sticker is placed in the manger.
Even the secular world has gotten into this practice of building anticipation. How many of you are familiar with the “elf on the shelf?” We don’t do this, but the idea is that you have this little elf toy that sits in your home, watching the children, who then returns to the North Pole every night to give a report to Santa. Then every morning, the elf is moved to a different location to watch the children.
As Christmas day gets closer and closer, the anticipation grows stronger and stronger.
I’m a little bit concerned, however, that the busy-ness of the world may keep us from fully appreciating what Advent is supposed to be. Compare the way children count down the days to Christmas to the way an adult might. Today is the 14th of December, which means Christmas is eleven days away. All of the children in the church today said, “Ahh! I have to wait eleven more days!?” All of the adults said, “Whoa! I’ve only got eleven more days!?” The child is thinking that they have to wait eleven days until they get presents. The adults are thinking about all of the things that they have to get done in the next eleven days.
I’ve got to get a present for Billy, Tommy, Suzie, Johnny, and Fred. We have that company Christmas party on Friday. Then there’s the church service! And for those who are wondering, I am planning to have a candle-light service this year for Christmas Eve.
Even though the children may have selfish reasons, I think that they get the point of Advent a little better than us adults. We get so busy that we forget that this is a time of anticipation, a time of waiting.
The book of Isaiah is often divided into three different parts because they were clearly written over a period of time with three distinct times represented in this text. Chapters 1-39 are called “Proto-Isaiah,” which just means “First Isaiah.” Chapters 40-54 are called “Deutero-Isaiah,” which simply means “Second Isaiah.” Our text for today comes from chapter 61. Chapters 55-66 are called “Tritero-Isaiah,” and I’ll assume that you know what that means.
Proto-Isaiah is filled with warnings of judgment and condemnation. This is where we find out about the time of exile that is to come. There are a few glimpses of hope in these chapters, like chapter eleven, but it is pretty much God pointing out the bad things that the Israelites have been doing. Pride, idolatry, and neglecting the poor, the orphans, the strangers, and the widows are all charges made against the people.
But then in comes Deutero-Isaiah. Seventy years or so have passed. The Israelites have been in exile, but a new leader is allowing them to return to their homes. And in chapter 40 we find those words that we are so familiar with, thanks in part to Handle’s Messiah, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
But there again seems to be a turn in the mood in chapter 55. Tritero-Isaiah begins with an invitation to the Israelites to come back to God. And as we read through these last eleven chapters of the book of Isaiah, it sounds like the Israelites are back to their old prideful, idolatrous, selfish ways.
Some Bible scholars believe that the change in mood between these sections of Isaiah is because the Israelites returned from exile after hearing all of these wonderful stories about the Promised Land. Remember that about 70 years had passed, and the average life expectancy in those days was significantly less than 70 years. So very few if any of the Israelites that had been taken away in exile actually returned to Israel. Even if they were still alive, they were probably too old to make the journey.
But what those who did return had was the stories of their parents and their parents before them. Many people believe that it was during the Babylonian exile that much of the Old Testament was actually written down and put in the order that we have it today. Before this is was a collection of oral stories and pieces of written history. But the Israelites did not want to lose these powerful stories, so they recorded them to pass on.
So this generation that was going back to Jerusalem, back to the Promised Land, had been hearing the stories of God’s greatness and the beauty of God’s temple. God had promised to comfort them. Their punishment was over.
But as we find in other books of the Bible, when they got back, there was very little to be excited about. The temple had been destroyed. The city was in ruins. Even the wall around the city had been torn down. The high hopes of the returning Israelites were soon shattered. They lost their hope, they lost their trust in God, and they went back to their old ways, practicing idolatry, living for themselves, and exhibiting great pride. This is why the invitation is presented in Tritero-Isaiah, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” This sounds a lot like the invitation of the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. Just come, eat, celebrate, and be in the Father’s presence. But we know that any response to this invitation was brief.
So we find a repeating pattern in Isaiah. The people are filled with pride, idolatry, and selfishness, God says “Hey, if you don’t want me to be a part of your life, I won’t force myself upon you.” The people realize just how much they need God, and turn back to him. And repeat.
We come to Isaiah 61 in the middle of a low point for the people. And in the low point, God likes to make promises. Verses one and two: “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.”
If you know your Bible well, you know that about 550 years later a 30-year-old Jewish man picked up the scroll of Isaiah, sat down, found this text, and read it in his home synagogue. When this young man finished reading, he gave his first known sermon, saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And just like what happened after my first sermon, the people tried to kill him.
We know that the young man in the story is Jesus. He saw himself as the fulfillment of this promised made to Isaiah from God. It is Jesus who is to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, release the captives, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
But here we are, almost 2,000 years later, and we are still waiting for that to happen. Advent is a time to reflect on the waiting, looking for Jesus to make things right. Because we don’t have to look very far or hard to find the places or ways that our world is less-than perfect.
The news outlets over the last few months have filled the airwaves with reports on the stink of this world. It seems like every other week we are hearing new stories about white police officers killing unarmed black men. And every other week we are hearing stories about rioting and vandalism that take place following the indictment of these officers. And it seems like there are three responses to these stories. One, there are white people that defend the police officers and find reasons to believe that the men that have been killed were less-than model citizens. Other white people tend to side with the black community, speaking out against police brutality and racism. And the African American community points out that this needs to stop, that they have been victims for too long. But there is one response that I very rarely hear, and I wish I could hear it a lot more. It is the response that I would give if I were asked about these situations.
If I was asked who was at fault in the case of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, I would say without hesitation, “I am.” I’ve never met either of these now deceased men, nor have I met the officers who took their lives. I don’t have all of the details about the stories, and I don’t think anyone else does either. I have no interest in passing judgment on any of the men involved. I’m guilty because I’ve done nothing to make this world the kind of place that an unarmed teenager is never shot to death when he is accused of robbery. I’m guilty because I’ve done nothing to make this world the kind of place where a black man is not choked for resisting arrest for selling illegal cigarettes. Every time I laugh at a racist joke or fail to tell someone that I was offended, I am guilty of the same sins as Israel: pride, idolatry, and selfishness.
So we wait. We wait for the day when Jesus fulfills the promise that he made in his first sermon. But we don’t wait by doing nothing. We wait actively.
I love the images that go through my mind during Advent: the candles, the wreathes, the decorations. But perhaps the best image for the waiting, the anticipation, is the image of a pregnant woman.
For nine months, 280 days, Mary walked around with a secret growing within her. Well, it started out as a secret, anyway. The one who would change the world, the Messiah, was growing within her womb. For nine months, she watched her belly grow and her clothes stop fitting. She watched her feet swell, and then disappear altogether (to her, anyway). And as she entered the last four weeks of pregnancy, the period we know as Advent, it would have been obvious to the world that she was waiting on the birth of her child.
Very few of you have ever met my younger brother. He is a dairy farmer and doesn’t get off the farm too often. I was given the opportunity to marry him and his wife several years ago after what we may call an extended courtship. Let’s just say that my sister-in-law knows what it means to wait.
But they didn’t want to wait to have children. Already in their 30’s they hoped to have children right away. But it didn’t happen. Visits to the doctors, tests, and more trips to the doctors. Then finally, this fall, at the beginning of my sabbatical, they shared with us the good news. They are expecting in April. And not just one child, but twins!
So the waiting continues. Five more months before their children come into this world. But for those who have children, you know that this is not a lazy time of waiting. This is active waiting.
Many of us redecorate a room to designate as the nursery when we are expecting children. My brother is renovating an entire house. They are designing floor plans, bathroom layouts, and flooring. Yes, they are waiting on the arrival of their children, but this does not mean that they sit around doing nothing.
So I come back to this season of Advent, this season of waiting. We know that this world is fallen. We know that this is not what God had in mind, and the example of the police killings is just one of many that we could cite. But when we look to the book of Isaiah, we need to be reminded that much of the suffering and pain in this world has come about because of our own choices. Just like the Israelites, we participate in idolatry, pride, and selfishness. But Jesus came to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, and freedom to the captive. And he came to bring forgiveness to all of us who have participated in the falleness of this world.
Advent is a time to wait, but like a woman expecting the birth of her first child—or twins—it is a time to wait actively. We await the coming of a baby who will change everything. Let’s be ready when he comes.