Jubilee/Nativity

(sermon 12/13/20 – Third Sunday in Advent)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. The Lord 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 God’s 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.

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. 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.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and 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. 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.

=====

It had been a long and complete nightmare. After their nation had been destroyed, all of their governmental, social, and religious traditions and institutions obliterated, and after living for years under the rule of a tyrant as captives in the land of their oppressors, the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding kingdom of Judah were finally free from life under those conditions. They were finally free from their misery, free to return to the land, the laws, the life they’d known and loved, and, they’d assumed, its former greatness and their former joy.

The reality was something different, though. When they arrived home, what they found was utter desolation. All the former things – the city, its buildings and defensive walls, its institutions, its governing system, and especially the center of its religious faith, the Temple, were all gone, or if not completely gone, lying in ruins real or metaphorical. The people had dreamt, and sung, and prayed for this time when their society would be able to be restored, but now, they were shocked at how much damage had been done. Even as they settled into their newly restored existence, they came to realize that repairing that damage was going to take a lot longer and would be a lot harder, than anyone ever imagined. They realized it was going to take decades to fix it all, and that some of it might never be repaired.

It was to these despondent people that God spoke through the prophet Isaiah in today’s Lectionary text. In it, God promised the people that yes, the ancient ruins, the devastated cities, all the harm would be repaired, even if it were going to take a lot of work and a long time. God initiated a new covenant between them. But key to that, at the very core of their new beginning, was God reminding them of something from their past. Before anything else – before the promise of restoration, before announcing the new covenant itself – God commanded the people to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, God reminded the people of the tradition, the commandment, of the Year of Jubilee. The year of Jubilee was a practice that the Book of Leviticus tells us was established by God as a requirement of God’s people, where every fiftieth year, all property that had been sold within the previous forty-nine years would be returned to the family of its original owners, all personal debts were canceled, and all those who were serving as slaves or in similar bonds in order to pay off their debts were freed, given liberty, freedom, their debts zeroed out. These were the captives that God was referring to in those beautiful, inspiring words that we heard in the text. This was important, because the people of Judah had been back in their land long enough that even though they were establishing a new society, they’d already recreated the same kinds of oppression and debt and economic captivity and social dis-ease that had existed in the past. God told them, through Isaiah, that it was time to stop it, and to start fresh – to proclaim that very year a Year of Jubilee. To reset the clock and to establish a new society rising out of the ashes of all the damage and problems of the past, that didn’t create that kind of poverty and suffering and economic instability. It was God establishing a benchmark of how God would view them, their nation, their society.

As we consider where our own country goes from here, after January 20 and the incoming of a new administration in Washington, we’d probably be wise to consider what God was telling the ancient people of Judah. We face similar challenges in restoring some of the great harm that our society and its institutions have suffered, and it will take a long time, if ever, for some of that harm to be repaired. But we can take heart, and not despair, too, just as God told the ancient Judahites. God still offers us the same good news – the same hope, the same assurance, and truly, the same covenant, that was offered to them. But the rest of God’s message applies to us, too – that at the core of a society consistent with God’s wishes, at the core of a society that would please God, are the things identified in this text. The same things echoed in John the Baptizer’s preaching in the wilderness, the same things echoed in Jesus’ own preaching and teaching throughout the gospels – and, truth be told, they’re words words that don’t always sit comfortably with us and our presuppositions. They’re the stipulations of the Year of Jubilee: bringing hope to the oppressed, by ending their oppression and creating systems that don’t oppress people to begin with. Binding up brokenheartedness, in other words, getting rid of despair, by getting people out of despair and eliminating the systems and conditions that caused it. Creating paths of liberty, of freedom, releasing people from poverty, debt, and economic entrapment, which, to be honest, are all just more socially acceptable forms of modern-day slavery.

In our world, we have the very same kind of economic captives that God refers to in this text. People drowning in debt that they’ll never be able to get out from under, just in order to obtain the basics of normal life, just in order to make ends meet. We have people who are filled with despair because of economic, social, and other systems that are stacked against them, whether it stems from racism or simply a classism that exploits people to create a small, permanent ultra-upper class who holds most of the wealth and power and privilege, at the expense of the vast majority of the people. Without going on at length, our society is full of the same ills that God said was wrong, and that God broke into the world to proclaim an end to. This is God’s good news for all people, for all of us created in the divine image, and it was the same message, whether it came through words of assurance and hope offered through Isaiah, or it came through God’s entering into our world in the flesh through Jesus, whose birth we’re about to celebrate again. As we do prepare our hearts for that celebration, let part of that be to consider the importance and meaning of his birth, and its significance to us in our own lives, and in the life of our society. Let’s understand, and accept, what it means to profess faith in the one who was born into our world to specifically to proclaim that message of good news, even the parts that message that might offer us some degree of personal challenge. And understanding it, let’s live accordingly, with both our eyes and our hearts wide open, and let’s do full of the joy of knowing that it’s pleasing to God.

Amen.

Pointer Sisters, and Brothers (sermon 12/14/14)

john-the-baptist_grunewald

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light…. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 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. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 

– John 1:6-8, 19-28

=====

I don’t like John the Baptist.

There; I said it. I just don’t like the guy. And truth be told, most of you probably wouldn’t like him, either. Let’s face it, the guy’s just a little bit creepy, the way he’s portrayed in the gospels. Hanging out in the wilderness and with all the social graces of the Unabomber. Never cracking a smile, always just ramrod strict and serious; hardly the life of the party. Probably as big a buzz kill as John Calvin, but at least Calvin dressed and ate a little better. I picture John the Baptist as Christianity’s version of that one relative we all have. You know the one I’m talking about; the one we’re always worried about having to be with during the holidays. Their stare is just a little too intense; and they’re just a little too wrapped up in their politics or religion or whatever, and they’re always ready to share it with everyone, bidden or unbidden. That relative that everyone’s on edge around, worried they’ll say something to trigger their next rant. “That’s a very nice sweater, Mary.” “Oh, thank you! I got it at the Big Q Mart; I do almost all my shopping there now. I won’t shop at the Bullseye Department store anymore, because you know, they donate a bunch of money to those liberals.” “Want some more roast beef, Steve?” “Yes, give me a nice rare slice with lots of blood – you know, that reminds me of the blood of Jesus, which he shed for my sins, and for yours, too – and if you haven’t accepted him yet as your personal Lord and Savior, I have some literature for you right here, and we can go into the living room and pray before they serve dessert…” “Allen, would you like some olives?” ”No, I’m boycotting the olive industry because they’re all racist. Just look at the olives in the grocery store! Haven’t you ever noticed they sell the green olives in clear glass jars, but they always sell the black olives in cans so no one can see their black skin – it’s all part of a conspiracy; it’s just another example of the white man trying to keep the black man down!”

You know the relative I’m talking about.

Well that’s the way I picture John the Baptist. A little too intense for his own good, not helping his own arguments just because he’s always just a little too confrontational, too insulting, too in-your-face, and more than just a little bit nutty.

But I do like John the Baptist for what he truly was – a witness to Jesus, identifying Jesus as the true messiah, God’s very own specially chosen one whose coming had been foretold by the prophets. Throughout all of Christian history, John stands there, in all of his weirdness, pointing away from himself and to Jesus as The One on whom all history, all of the relationship between God and humanity, was going to pivot. And he calls us – demands of us – that we follow where his finger is pointing, and that we pay attention to Jesus as the one who breaks into the world and changes everything.

It’s kind of interesting, the way that the gospels treat John the Baptist. He actually gets only a slight bit of print in the gospel of John, and when he does, it’s always in a way that clearly keeps him in a minor role with relation to Jesus. In the first three gospels, you get stories about his having many followers and disciples, and that he continues on with his own ministry even after Jesus has come on the scene. John is a lot more in the shadows in the fourth gospel; in fact, it’s here in this gospel that John the Baptist is quoted as saying that he must decrease, so that Jesus might increase. People have suggested that this difference in the way John is portrayed might have been because in the very early church, John the Baptist may have had a following of believers that were competing with Jesus’ followers, and that by the time the fourth gospel was written, it needed to be cleared up that John the Baptist was just a secondary player and Jesus was the real focus. I suspect there’s probably at least some truth to that explanation for the different way he’s treated in this gospel, but however he’s treated, John’s first and foremost job is to point to Jesus as the Christ – the one who illustrates, who personifies, the gospel – God’s good news for humanity.

And that’s our first and foremost role as followers of Jesus, too. We’re called to point to him through all we say, and all we do – so that when people see us, and hear us, it’s clear that our focus is not all about us. So that they recognize we’re not just trying to be nice people; that there’s something more, something greater, that we’re pointing toward, that we’re witnessing to, testifying to, and that something is Christ. In that sense, we’re all called to be “Pointer Sisters,” and Brothers – always pointing to Christ and his message – the message of the gospel.

But what do we mean when we say “the gospel”? We use that term a lot, but really, if some total stranger dropped out of the sky who’d never heard of Christianity, and they asked us, “just what exactly do you men when you talk about ‘the gospel’?” what would we say? What is the good news from God that Jesus was really proclaiming and showing us? Just what is it that we believe? What is God’s good news for humanity that we see through Jesus, and that we remember and honor during the Advent season as having broken into our world?

A very good summary of what I think “the gospel” means can be found in a poem written by Daniel Berrigan called Advent Credo:

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

That’s what we Pointer Sisters and Brothers point to this Advent season. That’s God’s real, true good news that we see opening up in the birth of Jesus. That’s the great, joyful news that we lift up when we light this week’s Advent candle, representing joy.

Thanks be to God.