Refocus, Restore, Rejoice
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Third Sunday of Advent Year B
Refocus, Restore, Rejoice
God of hope, you call us home from the exile of selfish oppression to the freedom of justice, the balm of healing, and the joy of sharing. Make us strong to join you in your holy work, as friends of strangers and victims, companions of those whom others shun, and as the happiness of those whose hearts are broken. We make our prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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 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 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.
All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
1. How would you describe your current condition?
2. How does the Spirit communicate with us?
3. In what ways has the church lost her focus?
4. What are the needs of your community? Of the world?
5. How can we bring the good news to those in need during this season?
By Cheryl Lindsay
The lectionary texts this week all seem to be conspiring to convince us that God changes conditions. Whether it is the solo voice that opens our focus text proclaiming that “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…” or the psalmist’s words, on behalf of the community, pleading “Lord, change our circumstances for the better, like dry streams in the desert waste!”, we hear the truth that underlies these statements. God changes circumstances.
Our focus text describes the mission of the prophet Isaiah. As Shalom Paul notes, “God has anointed him to deliver a message of consolation to give hope to the disheartened, to expedite the release of captives, and to console the bereaved since their grief and mourning is about to be transformed into festive joy.” From these initial words, we understand that the change in circumstance manifests from the change that originates within.
I occasionally watch sermons from great preachers on YouTube, and some of my favorites come from Bishop G. E. Patterson, the late leader of the Church of God in Christ. In a portion of one sermon, he tells the story of starting a midweek worship service in their city during lunch hour. He talked about how many new people were engaged in this way, outside Sunday morning, in a much abbreviated liturgy, that accommodated the life patterns of the new additions to their faith community. At the same time, he noted that there were long-term members of the congregation who criticized that some of the women were wearing pants. (Keep in mind that this was COGIC and several decades ago.) Bishop Patterson then went on to remind the congregation that at the time of Jesus and the early church, no one wore pants, because there were no pants. They had not been invented until several centuries later. He then went on to close his message, which had emphasized the power of God to change lives, with the proclamation that the work of transformation is “an inside job!”
For many in that congregation, I am sure that was a revolutionary sermon. Today, we hear it and are surprised at what seems obvious. But what are we overlooking as we have, in many ways, been forced into fulfilling our mission in a different way? While some of us long to return to beautiful sanctuary buildings and the camaraderie of coffee hour, there may be many others who will have fully embraced Sunday morning worship in their pajamas or fellowship in the chat on Zoom or comments on Facebook. What if being wedded to gathering in the building is the equivalent of objecting to women in pants? What if online worship can facilitate as valid and as holy an encounter with the divine and connection with the community of faith as physical presence on the property?
Note that there is little reference to place or specific territory found in this passage. The people were returned from exile, reestablished in their ancestral and promised land. Despite that, the work of restoration was incomplete, and that work was framed in terms of the need for consolation, comfort, and justice. The Spirit will do that work…but through the person.
Everything the prophecy predicts hinges on the anointing of the person, “because the Lord has anointed me” is the foundational clause to understanding the agency found in this passage. God does not speak restoration into existence or wave a magic wand. God empowers a person to do the work that will bring about justice and restoration. “The Lord sent [the person] on a prophetic mission to heal the wounded of heart and thus to fulfill a duty that is usually performed by the Deity Himself,” Paul writes. Through the Spirit of God, the people of God perform the work of God. Through the Spirit, we become instruments, as well as recipients, of the good news.
Contrast the opening of Isaiah with the beginning of the passage from the Gospel according to John. In Isaiah, the prophet defines himself by his authority to spread the good news, while the description of John found in the gospel presents John the Baptizer, largely, by introducing who he is not. In both cases, the connection to the source of their authority and power is clear, as is their mission.
Do we clearly articulate our mission as children of God? Is it possible that our longing “to go to church” expresses not only a return to normalcy but a desire for meaning and purpose? The needs in the world around us, and even among members of our faith communities, can overwhelm us in their depth and breadth. The ritualized acts of preparing to go to worship were for some a substitution for mission-based action, but for many others, it was a first step toward receiving the assignment. It’s a different experience to conclude a service of worship by implying people to stay home rather than to go out into the world.
If we attend to the words of Isaiah’s mission, which we know was also Christ’s mission, and therefore, is also our co-mission, we recognize that the mission itself is simple, if not easy. They invite us to turn our gaze on the other and their condition. The goal here is not simply to witness it or to pray on their behalf. It is to bring good news to the marginalized and oppressed like we carry a gift that we’ve purchased for someone. But this is not our gift to give, we give it on behalf of God by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. In this, we join with our sibling John who preached the coming of the Christ and baptized in that name. Ramsey J. Michaels explains:
The coming of “John” into the world represents a continuation of the plan of God that began with creation. Just as all things “came into being” through the Word (v. 3), so John “came” as one “sent from God…” Was John “sent” in the same way Jesus was sent? …John was sent only “for a testimony, to testify about the light” (v. 7), and that John himself “was not the light” (v. 8). Later, when his disciples begin comparing him with Jesus, John will insist that “I am not the Christ,” but that “I am sent ahead of him” (3:28). He is “sent from God” as a human delegate on a purely human mission, that of bearing testimony to someone greater than himself.
Like John, we have been assigned the mission of testimony. But he was not known as or called John the Testimony-Giver. He was called John the Baptist or Baptizer. Reputations get built on what we do, and our testimonies become the outcome of what we experience. Prophecies are portents of future hope. Those who observed him thought that John might have been a prophet, while he identified himself as a witness. Our perspective would suggest that he was both called to speak what could be and to proclaim what was. In John, we find a person who spread the good news and who announced the presence of the Living God among the people.In the prophecy of Isaiah, we hear the voice that claims the anointing of the Spirit and the good news to the oppressed that their condition will change.
That same Spirit is calling us to be good news during a time when we look forward to a return from this exile we experience from COVID-19. When the Israelites first returned from exile in Babylon, they found the land for which they longed bore little resemblance to the communal memory of their home. We may find, once we are able to gather in person without the limitations imposed by the virus, that our sanctuaries may appear different to us. That difference will not come because they have necessarily changed, but because God has changed the persons who will re-enter those spaces. Transformation and renovation will have occurred in us, where the Spirit dwells. Our internal sanctuaries have not gone uninhabited. The question for us is are our doors open?
Are we open to this mission of God’s justice and peace? May the condition of the other in our communities and the world find a resting place in our temples? Witnesses are called to provide testimony because of their expertise on a subject matter or because they were observers or participants in particular events. They tell what they know, whether that knowledge comes from study and/or experience. Prophets proclaim what is possible, they speak to a divinely-inspired vision of the world as God intended and intends it to be. A prophet becomes a witness, as John the Baptist did, when the vision shows up and the word is made flesh.
This Advent season is very different for all of us, and perhaps, there is an opportunity to be like John the Baptist, prophet and witness, as well as the returning exiles in Isaiah, who “[held] in tenison a belief in God’s promise of comfort and extravagant prosperity alongside an experience of continuously deferred hope.” (Chris Franke) As we see the production and distribution of a vaccine ramping up around the world, we have such hope. At the same time, that hope gets dampened by continuing spread of cases. We know a reprieve is near, but it is not nearly as close as we would like. In the midst of it all is profound grief at the loss of life, the strain on healthcare and essential workers, and awkward adapting to a new way of being.
As I write this, the community in which I live is coming off of a huge snowstorm. I lost power two days in a row. The first time it happened, I was in the middle of a Zoom conference. While I was able to finish that one on a tablet, I knew I needed to reserve the batteries on my devices because the storm was still going and I had no idea how long I would be in that condition. I lit every candle in reach, and then I stood in the center of the darkening room wondering what on earth I was going to do that didn’t require accessing a screen. Part of me thought I should just go to sleep and hope the lights would be on when I woke up.
But another part of me thought that I should find a way to adapt to this new condition. I gathered all those candles closer and began to write, pen on paper, in my prayer journal. My circumstance hadn’t change, yet my condition had been altered. God had given me a new experience in the storm, and I could rejoice and be glad in it.
In the midst of a disappointing return from exile, the Spirit of the Living God gave Isaiah a vision, not only of what he would proclaim to those who mourned, but of what their restoration would look like–”the year of the Lord’s favor” manifested before their eyes. And the vision alone was worth rejoicing. The promise was enough to give God praise. The anticipation and expectation was a gift.
Advent refocuses on the gift of what is to come. We might confuse that with the sweet anticipation of a child wondering what presents will greet them on Christmas morning under the decorated tree. Or, we could choose to use the latter as a model of cultivating expectation. What if we were as eager for the kin-dom of God on earth as that child is for a new doll or electronic device? What if we looked forward to the changes that the Spirit works in us as fervently as we hope for a change in our at-home condition?
The Spirit is upon us, because the Sovereign One has anointed us, calls us, and empowers us to bring the good news of restoration, hope and justice to a world that needs a change in condition now.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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