Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1The 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; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to 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. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8For 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. 9Their 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.
10I 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. 11For 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.
46And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the LORD, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
The book that we call Isaiah probably had three different authors in three different times. The first part, creatively called First Isaiah, follows the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah in the eighth century in Jerusalem. At that time Judah was a relatively stable, small country, that was doing pretty well economically.
The Northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by Assyria, but Judah seemed to have dodged that bullet. Perhaps that made the leaders of Judah feel superior and self-righteous. Israel had fallen because of her idolatry, but Judah had escaped and was even prospering in many ways because of her faithfulness. Isaiah’s ministry was to let Judah know that wasn’t the case, that in fact, Judah was on the wrong path too and would face destruction if they continued what they were doing. The biggest problem was that the wealthy were doing very well but were getting rich by exploiting the poor. They prided themselves on their religious devotion, but maximized profits through unjust business practices. The rich were getting richer while the poor suffered. Does that sound familiar?
Anyway, first Isaiah’s mission was to deliver God’s message that this is not OK. Religion isn’t about worship and sacrifice; it’s about living our faith everyday in how we treat others, especially the most vulnerable. Isaiah brings God’s warning that without a radical change Judah will go into exile like Israel.
Second Isaiah was probably written after first Isaiah’s prophecy of doom had already come true and Judah was in exile. It is a message of God’s hope, because even though Judah’s injustice has led to disaster, God’s love never fails. God will transform Judah into a righteous kingdom again, a kingdom so full of God’s love it shines like a light to the world.
Third Isaiah is similar in message but written later. Many of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, but the return home had not brought the total restoration of Israel they had hoped for. Third Isaiah continues to encourage them and to let them know that one day God’s plan for redemption will be complete and the whole world will be at peace.
Our passage from Isaiah comes from the third section. We can almost picture the Jews returning from exile, excited to be back home with a shot at some political autonomy. They come over the last hill craning their necks for a glimpse of home, but all they see is devastated ruins.
It’s easy to feel that way when we think about Rochester. We remember the glory days when Kodak jobs were secure and plentiful, when technology and manufacturing created a vibrant economy that supported broad prosperity and vibrant culture. Now we see the ruins of Kodak Park with many of the buildings empty and a tenth of the former work force. We see the devastation of a school district that doesn’t graduate half of its students and where functional literacy is out of reach for many kids. We see devastated families, chronic unemployment, high crime and a deep-seated sense of hopelessness.
Nationally, we’ve seen a huge and disturbing concentration of wealth over the last forty years. When we adjust for inflation, wages for many workers are actually lower than they were forty years ago, while the people at the top of the economic pyramid are much richer and pay less in taxes. Big companies and wealthy donors have nearly unlimited access to political power and our representatives are more focused on making each other look bad than on getting anything done to make our country better. In our politics we are driven by fear, prejudice and greed rather than by the spirit of welcome and opportunity that made our nation great.
The good news is that God wasn’t finished with Israel then and God isn’t finished with us now. Even when we turn away from God’s love, God stays faithful. God is working among the ruble and brokenness to plant and nourish something new. God is planting justice, righteousness and new life where we least expect it.
We see a glimpse of God’s future through Mary’s vision. With the Spirit’s eyes Mary sees what God is doing in her miraculous pregnancy. This special child growing inside her will change the world. The child inside her will be the righteous king the prophets looked forward to. He will be the one anointed to bring good news to the poor and oppressed, to build up the ruined city and lead God’s reign of peace.
Mary sees God’s future with such certainty she talks about it as if it has already happened: God has scattered the proud; he’s thrown down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he’s filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Is Mary talking about class warfare and socialism? No; she’s talking about justice. She’s talking about everyone having enough to thrive. She’s talking about God’s righteousness bearing fruit in the world. She’s talking about the son of God coming into the world so humbly no one made room for him in the inn.
If Mary can see God changing the world so clearly, why do things seem so much the same? Why are the poor still ground down under the weight of empire? Why are the wealthy still so intertwined with government power? Why are people going hungry right here in the richest country in the world? Why does God feel so far away?
God is patient. We know from scripture that there is a special place in God’s heart for the poor and oppressed, a special place for the heartbroken and lonely. But God also loves sinners. God loves the rich who are addicted to their possessions. God loves the rulers who are so corrupted by power they can’t imagine giving it up. God loves us, even though we are so trapped in the world’s twisted priorities we worry more about Christmas shopping than about children starving to death.
Like the patient landlord in the parable of the wicked tenants who sends his son to give the tenants one last chance to repent, God is hoping gentle persuasion will bring sinners back to the right path. God longs to welcome the unrighteous back into the fold; he yearns for oppressors to give up their evil ways and help justice flourish.
God tries and tries, sending prophet after prophet, sending his son as a baby, a teacher and a sacrifice. God sends new prophets and apostles and witnesses. Maybe this time, maybe this year, maybe this generation will hear my voice and come home. God is patient and gentle; loving and persistent: maybe the rich will find Christ and make way for the poor to be filled with good things. Maybe the powerful will step down from their thrones so everyone’s voice can be heard. God’s chosen king, the prince of peace and king of heaven pleads with us: turn back from this road to destruction, turn back from this hell of injustice and inequality, turn back from this selfish squabbling. Please give up your sin and come home.
We are pulled in two directions: we long for God’s righteous kingdom but we’re also attracted to the flashy glitter of our broken world. We love the vision of everyone being filled with good things, but we also like the idea of climbing into the custom-leather seats at the top. We desire equality but we also want our own way.
As we sing and pray and listen and wait this Advent we are trying to make space in our heart for the baby Jesus. We’re trying to open a space for justice and love to come into our souls and reshape our lives. We’re trying to surrender our sinful spirits to God’s loving will. We are training our eyes to see the world like Mary does, to see the world like Isaiah does. We’re training ourselves to long for God’s kingdom and give up our white-knuckle grip on the sinful system that has distorted our souls.
Our city can be different: filled with hope and justice instead of fear and despair. Our world can be different: filled with peace and creativity instead of jealousy and violence. Our lives can be different: filled with joy and love instead of worry and frustration. Advent is about making space for that change; it’s about opening ourselves up so God can reshape our hearts and community and world.
This Wednesday we’re going to try something to help us open ourselves to God’s vision. Beginning at noon on Wednesday and continuing until noon on Thursday we’ll host a 24 hour prayer vigil. Christy has a sign up sheet on which the day is divided into 24, one-hour spaces. I invite you to sign up by yourself, with a friend or with your family for one of those spots. During that time you’ll come to the church and spend an hour in prayer for yourself, for our congregation, for Urban Presbyterians Together, for our city and our world. There will be someone here the whole time so you won’t be alone, and I’m happy to offer guidance on prayer during much of that time if you’d like. We know prayer is an area for growth for our congregation, so this will be a great opportunity to learn and grow.
God is calling us to prayer; God is also calling us to action to make way for Christ’s healing power in the world. This Advent we’re reaching out to our neighbors through Christmas baskets, the angel tree and supper at Cameron; we’re helping families in need celebrate the birth of Jesus. We’re also reaching out through our living nativity this coming Saturday and Friday the 23rd.
At least as importantly, God is giving us a new spirit of cooperation with other churches and organizations. We’re deepening our engagement with Urban Presbyterians Together so we can work together for greater justice and peace in our city. God is calling us to be part of the renewal of our city and our world. Advent is about repentance and transformation guided by hope. Hope because God is with us; hope because God wants to touch our hearts with his love; hope because one day God will sweep away the world’s injustice and bring in his eternal kingdom of righteousness and peace.
Until that day, we seek to prepare ourselves, we seek to become part of that holy kingdom even now. O come, O come Emmanuel! Come into our hearts and souls and world; shape us with your love. Come, Lord Jesus and renew us with your Spirit; come heal us, come change us, come make us new.
Thanks be to God.