(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.