12/17/17 – Seeking a Better “Normal”

SEEKING A BETTER “NORMAL”

December 17, 2017
3rd Sunday in Advent
Isa.61:1-4, 8-11, Ps.126, 1 Thess. 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

What is happening in the context of our Old Testament reading is the universal anxiety after a catastrophe: What now? In the past year we have observed that phenomena in our own society. What do we do after our homes and community are destroyed by fire, or by floods? What do we do after our loved ones have been gunned down by as mass murderer? What do we do when the help we thought we had for our sick children is threatened to be pulled out from under us? What do we do without health insurance when we have pre-existing life-threatening medical conditions? There are so many threats, especially to people who are vulnerable. This is the situation the prophet in the line of Isaiah addressed in our Old Testament reading. When the captives returned from exile or were released from occupation from a foreign conqueror they were faced their new circumstances with the question – “What now?”

Perhaps you have never had to deal with a “new normal.” If so, you are one of the lucky few. Recently, a member of my extended family has had to deal with the dark side of a “new normal” – the sudden, kick you-in-the-gut reality that shatters what you thought was your life. It is what we fear when the phone rings in the middle of the night. For those of us who have had that call, day or night, we know what devastation it brings.

With three different nations conquering them, Israel had lived and relived this scenario. The final conqueror of the former Israel, Persia, acquired the land by conquering their conquerors. King Cyrus acquired the Israelite exiles and the vanquished still living in the land when he conquered Babylon. Whatever his reason for releasing the exiles and allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, King Cyrus gave the people of Israel the hope they had held in their hearts for generations. Their release was reason for great joy.

However, when the exiles returned, the reality was a destroyed Jerusalem and temple. The “mourning” the speaker refers to a result of both the “frustration and humiliation over the failure to rebuild the city and the temple to match its former glory and the failure to reconcile the economic disparities and the religious and political factions within the city. The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees (e.g., Isaiah 60).”

The speaker in this passage proclaims the return of “the year of the Lord’s favor.” The intended audience would have recognized that this meant the “year of Jubilee,” described in Leviticus. This was the time when all debts were canceled, and all property sold or mortgaged was returned to the original owners. Isaiah reminds us that in “the year of the Lord’s favor,” God comes to set right everything that had gone wrong, which makes it possible for all people to thrive. Sounds like a campaign promise, doesn’t it?

This reference to Leviticus in Isaiah states in no uncertain terms that the liberty proclaimed will be realized with new social and economic relationships within the community. The prophet speaks for God:

 “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing

Righteousness will be their road to salvation.”

 

Ironically, the speaker in this passage sets the stage as it was when David was anointed as the new king of the once mighty nation of Israel. This was the hope of the Jewish people under occupation by the Roman Empire when John the Baptist proclaimed that he was the messenger sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. They were looking for a king like David who would restore their fortunes and their land for them.

The speaker in Isaiah 61 proclaims that, as when David was anointed King of Israel, God’s spirit was present and a covenant, promising God’s support and protection, was made for the sake of the people Israel after their exile. (1 Samuel 16:13), The speaker describes the task set before him as one given to a servant – a servant of the Lord. As with David, this servant of the Lord announced Israel would be ruled by righteousness. God’s anointed was sent to the oppressed, to the ones whose hearts were broken, to the captives and the imprisoned and to all who mourned.

To create a new Israel, the prophetic speaker told the people that they must create a new economy and society based on God’s will that those who had been treated unfairly, who had been exploited, marginalized and rendered vulnerable should be lifted up. To do this would require that the perpetrators of injustice be called out. Their repentance would be demonstrated by reversing the circumstances of those they had made low. The Jubilee reference asserted God’s predisposition to favor those that the world has shown disfavor.

God’s will for the reversal of fortune is repeated when Mary learns she is to give birth to the Son of God. This is her reason for joy. This child will restore righteousness and bring salvation. Jesus uses the famous words from Isaiah 61 when he makes his first public declaration of his identity and purpose in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Let’s listen to these words from Isaiah 61 as Jesus quotes them in Luke 4:  

 

                 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring

              good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

              and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to

              proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

The prophet speaking of his commission in Isaiah 61 does not proclaim the coming of the Messiah. He announces a commission, as does Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians. That commission is to do the work of the Lord with the promise of the Lord’s strength to empower their work. In the new Israel, the poor and the once rich, the oppressed and the former oppressors would work side by side to rebuild Jerusalem.

This is the vision we take on as baptized Christians. As a church, as a people we are called to go out into the world to restore, renew and rebuild the world, wherever we can and in whatever way we can, so that righteousness will be restored, and the kingdom of God established. The bible tells us we start with freeing the captives – particularly those imprisoned by poverty and lack of opportunity. We start with bringing good news to the oppressed and binding up the brokenhearted, and reconfiguring our society and economy so that all have a chance to thrive. We start with comforting those who mourn. God never said we do these things for the most privileged and powerful and hope that these efforts will trickle down to those who need it most. The bible tells us we start from the bottom and lift those most in need. God’s vision is that we no longer have people suffering from the sins of the those who are greedy with God’s blessings and show little concern for those who do not have enough to live and thrive in this world.

The spirit of Christ is present when hope and joy are shared with the hopeless and joyless. That is when the bible tells us our joy is complete.

Amen. May it be so.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois