Sermon Seeds: Hope Restored/Rejoice Always
Third Sunday of Advent Year B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and Psalm 126
Hope Restored/Rejoice Always
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by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
While First Isaiah warned of God’s impending judgment on an unfaithful nation, and Second Isaiah spoke words to comfort God’s people during their captivity in Babylon, Third Isaiah addresses the dire situation of the exiles after they’ve returned to their devastated homeland. The glorious homecoming in last week’s reading from Isaiah 40 was beautiful and inspiring, but the reality of rebuilding their lives in the wake of such destruction was overwhelming. And it was complicated, too. Not everyone had been carried off into exile: perhaps only the “flower” of their leadership in religion, learning, and the arts were taken. But what better way to break an entire people than to leave them leaderless? And what happens when the exiled leaders inevitably find a very different situation when they return home?
Even with its “shouts of joy,” the psalm reading is actually a lament, a cry for help in the midst of terrible circumstances. The psalmist remembers what God has done for Israel in the past, and what it felt like: on the ancient foundation of the promises to Abraham and Sarah (many descendants and a land of their own) and the memory of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, there was, more recently, homecoming, return from exile in Babylon, freedom at last. The psalmist also remembers how they shouted with joy and laughter on their way home. Years later, however, the first rush of joy is over, and they are struggling. The rebuilt Temple, the centerpiece of their worship, is not as magnificent as the one built by Solomon, but there are even greater problems facing them. Return is not the same thing as restoration, as anyone knows who has tried to heal a relationship, or to rebuild a community after a natural disaster. Think, for example, of the long-term project of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Japan after the terrible earthquake and tsunami, or areas buried by volcanic eruptions or destroyed by wildfires. Whether a natural disaster or an act of human destruction, the leveling of a city, a nation, is devastating for its people. Just returning to their homes, or the pieces of their homes, is not the same thing as having their lives restored. That will require a much deeper transformation, and both an individual and a communal effort.
Perhaps the exiles were in a similar situation. Beth Richardson describes a tension that we may never have considered (one that surprised me when I first considered it during seminary studies), when the returnees found their homecoming not necessarily good news for those they left behind when they were carried off to Babylon: “The returning exiles are depicted as controlling those who had not been deported” (The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, V. 7). Would that have made the people who had been left behind now the oppressed, broken-hearted captives, and the returnees a problem? Perhaps, but in any case, the infrastructure of their society, spiritually as well as physically, had collapsed, and everyone felt crushed.
A formidable task of rebuilding lay before them. Walter Brueggemann suggests that the “they” who would rebuild the city were those “oppressed”: “the speaker,” he writes, “knows where to find the workers, the expertise, the energy and passion for the rebuilding of the city.” That would address the physical rebuilding, but what about the spiritual rebuilding? That’s why God sends prophets. Third Isaiah’s task, Brueggeman says, was “to ‘gospel’ these defeated folk back to power and constructive action” (Texts for Preaching Year B).
Preachers in churches around the world will step into pulpits on this Third Sunday in Advent with much the same task as Third Isaiah’s. True, the people of Israel had suffered much longer than many of us, although there are countless others whose deep suffering has gone on much too long. There are systems and practices and attitudes that keep people down if not captive, if they are trapped in poverty, hunger, disease, and war. I remember an episode of 60 Minutes that told the story of children living in trucks and cars because their parents have lost their jobs: perhaps the most disturbing thing is that these kids are “invisible,” living in the shadows of our cities and towns, getting by without our even realizing they are there. This Advent, the pain continues as the poorest of the poor, the working class, and even the middle class continue to struggle with the long-term recovery of the economy, a recovery that persists in leaving the most vulnerable hopelessly behind the very rich.
In the time of Isaiah, imprisonment was more likely for debts than for hard crime. No wonder folks needed to hear that someone had come to “proclaim release to the captives”! In our society, many folks feel trapped by debt, by “upside-down” mortgages and huge credit card balances, and they would love to be set free. Perhaps some of that debt is from our own spending on things we didn’t really need, but there are plenty of us who have burdensome debt from our schooling, from health expenses, from the costs of raising children, from our need for food and housing. Many of us, then, can hear talk of jubilee, or a reversal of fortune, as good news, the cancellation of debt, freedom from worry. But the good news from a Stillspeaking God extends beyond our own lives to the life of the world. Ancient Jerusalem after the exile, damaged and in ruins, in need of being rebuilt, is a powerful symbol of our cities and towns today, and of the world beyond our borders, where nations are imprisoned by enormous debt that needs to be forgiven.
If anything, the global economy has brought home just how much we are connected to, and dependent on, one another. Our physical infrastructure is showing signs of wear and tear: the health system that takes care of our bodies is strained, and the very roads and bridges we travel on are cracking under the load of the cars we can’t afford to drive. There’s work to be done, needs to be met, and one piece of the good news is that there are workers to do the work. The ruins of our cities could be restored, if we truly experienced ourselves as a community and not as individuals looking out for ourselves and our own. Wouldn’t that be good news and a source of joy? Wouldn’t it be something to remember, and to sing about?
Awareness of our shared crisis looms in our minds as we read this text, but so does a sensitivity to the poignant personal sorrow of many in our midst. While we observe Advent, the world around us tells us to be joyful as we shop and clean and fill up our calendars. But all around us are also those who carry heavy burdens of grief, depression, loss, illness, and financial worries. The holidays make these problems even more pressing. Homecomings, whether they are to church or to family households, can be filled with expectation and met with disappointment. Cynthia Jarvis touches on these painful places in the human heart, “conditions…made acute by the culture’s merriment: the relationships severed, the addictions hidden, the violence barely domesticated, the depression denied, the affair raging, the self-loathing cut deep into the flesh, the greed, the hatred, the fear” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). This Advent, I think of my good friend, whose apparently healthy husband of 49 years died suddenly while far from home, whose grief is so fresh and overwhelming, as well as my good friend whose young daughter was killed in a terrible accident three years ago and who of course continues to carry the grief only a mother understands. How will they face the merriment of Christmas this year?
By now, one may be wondering, ‘Where’s the joy?” We remember the promise of the psalm: “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy” (v.6). Talitha Arnold reflects on the mystery of suffering turned to joy: “The natural power of God to turn seeds into grain would be miracle enough. But Psalm 126 makes an even greater statement. The seeds are not ordinary, but seeds of sorrow. The fruit they bear is not grain or wheat, but shouts of joy.” We seek joy in this season, but perhaps we look in the wrong places and in the wrong ways: “This is no jingle-bells joy brought with a swipe of a credit card,” Arnold writes. “The seeds of this joy have been planted in sadness and watered with tears. This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping has tarried the night” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). Dennis Olson roots this joy in the confidence that God will keep God’s promises: “Such joy is in contrast to the frantic pushing and shoving of a department store cash register line or the fatigue and boredom on the faces of those strolling down the shopping mall corridor. The true joy of this text is marked by song and dance, by concrete actions energized to ‘build up the ancient ruins’ and ‘repair the ruined cities'” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
God is at work in every human endeavor that strives for peace and wholeness, even if that peace is partial and that wholeness only glimpsed. We are leaning toward that day when all things will be whole, not just restored but made new. And this promise isn’t for just one nation but for all of God’s children; Dennis Olson reminds us that God made promises to Abraham and Sarah about being a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). So the healing and compassion will encompass all those who suffer, and the rebuilding will make our social systems as just as our bridges will be made sturdy. When Jesus, the One whose birth we await this Advent season, began his ministry, he went to the synagogue and took out this scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and read these elegant and hope-filled words of promise. That is why we read Isaiah’s “gospel” during this season of hope, and on this Sunday of joy, Gaudete Sunday. Olson calls Jesus’ own ministry “the definitive sign of God’s coming into the world in a new and definitive way” as “Jesus, Isaiah’s Spirit-filled and anointed servant of the Lord” (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts). And this spirit continues, within the church, within us, in every act of justice and rebuilding, healing and hope.
Looking at the poverty and deterioration of our cities, we are perhaps reminded of the destruction of Jerusalem and the challenge before those who sought to rebuild it. For them and for us, “the energy and resources to rebuild the shattered city have as a prerequisite the rearrangement of economic power. This tradition would entertain no ‘permanent underclass,'” Brueggemann writes (Texts for Preaching Year B). What does the concept of a “permanent underclass” say about a society (especially one that many claim as Christian)? What are signs that our society has come to accept the idea of a permanent underclass, here and abroad? How does God still speak to us today about our treatment of those of us who are poor, those of us who are most vulnerable and without voice? Who is speaking for the poor and the marginalized as we dream of rebuilding our own cities? Who is speaking for the poor in nations pressed down with international debt?
As we prepare for the coming of Jesus, who identified his own call with this passage, what is the deep hope within us for the world? What freedom, what life do we long for? In what ways do we see ourselves in this ancient anointed one, and in what ways do we identify with his call, in our own lives today? Can we, too, proclaim, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us”? On this Gaudete Sunday, what are the sources of our joy, even in the face of trying circumstances? On what promises do we rely, and in what do we rejoice?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
For further reflection:
Thomas Merton, 20th century
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
M. Scott Peck, 20th century
“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
“With every mistake, we must surely be learning.”
“Hope is the dream of a soul awake.”
Oscar Wilde, 19th century
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
“Dum spiro, spero: While I breath, I hope.”
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, 20th century
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
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.
When the God restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“God has done great things for them.”
God has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O God,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,] and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
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.
Liturgical Notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)