Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B, Dec. 14, 2014
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
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 broken-hearted,
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.
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 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.
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.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
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.
I was eating breakfast, listening to the news on the radio this past week, when I heard a story that got me thinking. It was so engaging that I went to the news website to see the pictures. It was from Monrovia, Liberia. Usually the news from there is about the Ebola crisis, but not this time. In this country that has been devastated by years of civil war, corruption, poverty, and now this horrible disease, many people do not have any way of getting the news. They do not own radios or televisions, they cannot afford to buy papers. (source: NPR Morning Edition, Dec. 12, 2014)
So a man named Alfred Sirleaf has taken it upon himself to inform his fellow citizens. On Monrovia’s main boulevard he has set up a triptych of blackboards he calls the Daily Talk. He hand writes, in big white, thick chalk letters, the breaking news. People stop and read, sometimes discuss, even argue about what is happening and what it means for them.
Better life without news?
So, it got me thinking: what would it be like to live without the news? To eat breakfast without that radio on; not to know about Ferguson or Stanton Island or Cleveland.
Imagine living without knowing anything about ISIS, or Ebola, or CIA torture;
– not to hear about the climate tragedy facing the world,
– or about how wide the floodgates of money for political campaigns can get when you have to pass an emergency funding bill in the blink of an eye,
– or about what happens to women on our university campuses.
I think I would like the world better if I did not know. They say “ignorance is bliss.” Maybe being in the dark about all the problems has its advantages, at least for the sake of one’s mental health.
Well, it is Advent, so my morning also included reading the Advent lectionary texts. So, as I read from both the prophet Isaiah and from the Gospel of John, I thought about the world those texts were written in, and how much like modern Monrovia it was for so many people back then: they had no access to any kind of news beyond rumor and local gossip.
Some people knew. Like Mr. Sirleaf in Liberia, some had their own sources of information. The prophets of Israel did. I imagine there must have been royal spies by the scads in those days. Probably there were a lot of loose lips among them, leaking information.
So the prophets were able to know about and speak about surrounding nations and empires from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Most of what they reported was bad news. Prophets were not known for being happy people. To a person, they all believed things were bad, and getting worse. They called for change.
By the time we get to John, the Roman Empire has built its famous road system, so news probably traveled fast, but still, it was second hand, person to person. However John got his information it lead him to conclude that things were bad – like a crooked road that needed straightening out.
John felt called to do something about it. He would be the voice Isaiah spoke of, crying out in the wilderness. He knew times were dark, and he knew that he himself was not the light that was needed. But he decided he could bear witness to the light. He could call out for change, and wait for God to take the next step.
We have the news; far too much of it. We know what is going on at home and all over the world. We all know it is bad and seems always to get worse. We do not need the prophets of old or even John’s declarations to tell us how bad things are.
What we need is a way to deal with it.
We could just try to avoid the bad news. We could go on a news fast. But there are two problems with the head-in-the-sand approach: one is that we know to much already. We would only take a head full of unsolved problems with us down into the sand, so it would not be a quite place of refuge anyway.
And worse, attempting to be happy through ignorance would leave us useless. We were not made for living self-referential, vacuous lives. We were put here for a purpose much bigger than ourselves. We cannot and should not want to avoid hearing the bad news just because it exhausts us to keep hearing it.
So what do we do? There are again, two approaches. We can join those who light a candle, or we can join those who merely curse the darkness.
This is where Isaiah helps so much. The prophet does not stop with the bad news. Isaiah has a vision of a better world. He imagines how it should be. Instead of dwelling exclusively on the negatives, though, the prophet sets his mind to do one thing: to love what God loves.
This is the path open to us: to love what God loves. To look at the world with the flickering candle light of hope that it is not over yet. There is still a future, and we are alive here and now to be participants in that hopeful future.
So what does it mean to love what God loves? Isaiah tells us:
You cannot have justice as a lone castaway on a desert island. Justice is only possible in community. It is all about how the community is organized: who has the power, how are assets distributed, whose rights are upheld? How are the weak and vulnerable protected from the bullies and thieves?
If there is anything we have all learned from all the news we have seen and heard over the years, it is that there are plenty of bullies and thieves. Some of them lurk in shadows, but others wear expensive suits or uniforms. Some of them get elected.
And the rule that is almost never broken is that the more power they have, the more they take advantage; the more damage they do.
But the problem is not limited to the powerful; even some of those with almost no power are willing to be bullies if they sense they have the upper hand. Even children bully children, and so do spouses and neighbors and on and on.
This too, is part of the way things are; the bad way that needs to change. Left to our own devices, a lot of us find it hard to love what God loves. This is why, upon serious reflection, we realize that we need first to be the change we seek. John’s call to make the crooked way straight begins as a baptismal call.
The hope for us is that God already knows that about us. And God has already done something about it. God is at work, by God’s Spirit, to keep kindling in our hearts a love for the justice that God loves.
A Spirit-inspired Vision
Isaiah, as a person who had encountered God, was open and sensitive to the work of the Spirit. So hear what the Spirit of the God who loves justice put in his heart to want:
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,
This is what it means to light a candle rather than cursing the darkness. It means to proclaim the Spirit-inspired vision of good news; to say to everyone who is oppressed that that we believe in the God who loves justice. So instead turning off or turning away from the bad news, we look at it full in the face.
It means that because we love what God loves, we are advocates for the oppressed, the least of these, the ones whose voices are not heard, whose cries get drowned out. The people whose color makes them targets, the victims of oppressive systems.
We have a vision of the jubilee year – “the year of the Lord’s favor,” as Isaiah calls it, in which the economics work for the good of all, not just the good of the powerful. We have a vision of a common good in which everyone has a seat at the table – the table where decisions are made and the table where supper is served.
How to Change the World
Well, I would love to change the world. I would love to wave a magic wand and fix the problems like a fairy god-mother. But I do not have magical powers. I do pray; I pray for peace, for justice, for the bad to be put right. But it seems that God’s ways do not involve a magic wand, either, not even the wand of instant interventions as answers to prayer.
God’s ways seem to be far more personal. God begins with a baby, of no more seeming significance than the tiny wick of a candle in the darkness. A baby, born to oppressed people in times of grave injustice; a tiny hope, indeed. And God pours out God’s spirit on that child, who becomes a living testimony to God’s presence, God’s with-ness. He is called Emmanuel.
This is Jesus, whose birth we are waiting to celebrate. He came to proclaim a Spirit-filled vision of a world of good news, of jubilee. He grows to be a person who loves the God who loves justice, whose hope is kept alive by his practice of frequent prayer and silent retreat, and whose whole life is lived in a real time and place of crooked ways and bullies, and he proclaims a hopeful vision of the common good.
And from this One, God’s process is that a world-wide movement would arise of people who catch the vision, and love what God loves. People, like us, followers of Jesus, whose public lives and private lives, whose economic and political lives, and whose spiritual and religious lives would by lived in the Spirit.
This is the mystery of grace: that God’s way of dealing with the bad news is about us, personally, responding to the Advent call to Come, prepare the way of the Lord. This is why Christmas will be worth celebrating.
Malcolm Guite has written this sonnet which says it so well:
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us O long-sought With-ness for a world without, O secret seed, O hidden spring of light. Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled, Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace And make a womb of all this wounded world. O heart of heaven beating in the earth, O tiny hope within our hopelessness Come to be born, to bear us to our birth, To touch a dying world with new-made hands And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
– from Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, UK, 2013).