Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 ; Psalm 126 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 ; John 1:6-8,19-28
Grace and peace be with you, called to be prophets of God’s good news. Amen.
Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians, “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.” And then words for this morning, “do not despise the words of prophets.”
This is the second Sunday in a row that we’ve been treated to words from the prophets in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Both Sundays we’ve heard from the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist. Last week Isaiah delivered words of solace, “comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” and John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness preaching repentance and forgiveness.
This week John clarifies for his listeners that he is not the messiah they have been waiting for. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” he says, quoting Isaiah. He isn’t the only one to reference Israel’s prophet of justice though.
Isaiah’s words this morning,
“the spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; the Lord 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…”
these words are perhaps more familiar to us because we have heard them on the lips of Jesus. Do you remember the passage I’m speaking of? It comes in the fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has just returned from the desert where he’s faced a series of temptations to trade the good news of God’s impartiality for promises of fame and glory – the kind of pay to play offer we’ve been hearing too much about in Illinois these days. Jesus has refused the crooked deal and returns to his home town to preach for the first time.
On that occasion Jesus enters the synagogue and stands up to read. The gospel of Luke says that “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Lk 4:16b-21).
At first everyone is pleased with what Jesus has said and done. He’s quoted the prophet Isaiah, God’s messenger of hope and restoration. Everyone likes a good sermon about hope and restoration. He’s declared that God’s preferential option is for the poor, the captive, the disabled and the oppressed. Everyone likes to hear that God is for the underdog. Luke’s gospel says, “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Lk 4:22).
Then Jesus goes on to talk about what these words actually meant. He says, “truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” then Jesus goes on to illustrate his point by telling them stories of other prophets, Elijah and Elisha. He says, “the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah…yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon” (Lk 4:25-26). Jesus reminds the people that God has a tendency to search out the outsiders, the one’s God’s people have neglected, and to attend to their needs. He continues, “there were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Lk 4:27). At this point the crowd is so insulted by Jesus’ words that they drive him to the edge of a cliff and attempt to throw him off of it. Their earlier pleasure at his pretty preaching turns to rage when he suggests that God’s promised liberation was not only for them.
So, Paul is wielding a double-edged sword when he advises the Thessalonians not to “despise the words of the prophets.” We yearn to hear that Advent means the dawn of the year of the Lord’s favor, but we wonder what that means when it is paired with what Isaiah calls “the day of vengeance of our God” also translated “the day of vindication.” We wait during a season of waiting with some trepidation, and we wonder if – when God’s reign enters into our lives more fully – we will still be comforted by the prophet’s words… or if we’ll want to drive him toward the edge of the cliff.
It’s hard to take issue with the evident good news in actions like liberty to the captives, release for the prisoners, comfort for the broken hearted and liberation for the oppressed. It’s when those concepts are wrapped around real-world situations and contexts that people start looking for a cliff to throw you off of. We can look back at Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island after decades of internment and celebrate the victory of justice; but we – at least as a nation – are ambivalent about the hundreds of so-called enemy combatants being held, and sometimes tortured, at Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Member nations of the European Union and the Organization of American States, as well as civil rights organizations like Amnesty International have repeatedly condemned the human rights violations taking place there. Hundreds of detainees have been driven to attempt suicide while being held there, and at least four have completed their attempts. Speaking about release for these captives takes Isaiah’s pretty words out of the realm of poetry and makes them dangerously subversive.
Likewise, the “year of the Lord’s favor” should be understood as more than the promise that God loves God’s people. “The year of the Lord’s favor,” in reality, refers to the biblical regulations from a section of the book of Leviticus known as the holiness code. According to Levitical law, every 50th year the nation of Israel was required to let the land lay fallow – to give the earth a rest; all land that had been seized by the government was to be returned to its rightful owners; all slaves and indentured servants were to be freed.
You can see where this might lead us, can’t you? If we take Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians to heart and do not despise the words of the prophets we may have to hear Isaiah’s promises as a mandate for real-time actions with real-time consequences. How do we, in an age of global warming and in the midst of an energy crisis, align ourselves with God’s intention to give the earth a rest? What progress has our nation made toward coming into alignment with the international environmental treaty known as the Kyoto protocols? What does it mean for Americans, who live in a country build on land taken from its indigenous inhabitants, to even contemplate returning land to its rightful owners? How do we understand what it means to take part in God’s liberation of the indentured and the enslaved?
John the Baptist cries out from the wilderness outposts, the places we have been taught to forget, “make straight the way of the Lord.” I like this. I like that, during the season of Advent, we are given some instructions – something to do other than simply just to wait for God to show up. Making a straight path for the Lord to travel is a funny image. It suggests that we know that it is God who is working to set the world right – but also that we have a part to play in helping God get to it. God possesses the power to change our world, and we possess the power to clear a space
for that to happen. We take our place beside the prophets of old, and our present day prophets in interpreting what it means to bring good news to the oppressed and we labor alongside the prophets, with the prophets, as a prophetic community to set the stage.
History doesn’t paint a pretty picture for prophets. Scripture says nothing about Isaiah met his end, but the oral tradition in both Judaism and Christianity says that he was sawn in two with a wooden saw during the reign of Manasseh because of a the pagans’ reaction to his words. John the Baptist gets his head handed to him, quite literally. We know how the world received Jesus’ prophetic ministry. Modern day prophets have not fared much better. The changes advocated for by brothers John and Bobby Kennedy, civil rights activists Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi all paint a bleak picture as well.
And while we may not be called to that path ourselves, individually, that is the calling to which our church has been called. We are commissioned with the task of announcing good news, which will most likely mean an upset to the way things are. It will almost certainly lead us into situations where those around us wish we’d jump off a cliff. But, we are also encouraged by Isaiah in this difficult work as he reminds us of the outcome,
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display God’s 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… (Isa 61:3b-4)