The Release of Joy

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Salvation

Salvation is something we tend to talk about a lot. And for good reason: it is an important part of God’s work in the world, of God’s work in our lives.

Sometimes, though, our language about salvation can be to our detriment. Too often, perhaps, we talk about salvation in terms of “getting into heaven” or “avoiding hell.” I’m not saying heaven isn’t a part of it; but I am saying that God’s purposes and work of salvation are much bigger than that. And when all we focus on is the next life, we forget that God is working salvation into our lives in the here and now, too.

The salvation of which Isaiah speaks here is not the distant, far-off, other-worldly salvation of getting into heaven. No! It is salvation in the here and now. Salvation that is lived out in community. Salvation that has ramifications for the rest of the world. Salvation that is seen by those around—by “all nations.” It is a salvation that transforms the whole world.

Jubilee

In fact, in order to build his metaphor here, Isaiah reaches back to everyone’s favorite book of the Bible—(Leviticus). Written into the law way back in Leviticus 25 is a concept called the Jubilee year, or the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Every fiftieth year was to be a year of Jubilee, a time of rest, celebration, release, and restoration.

The year of Jubilee is supposed to be a sort of reset button for the world. Land is to be left fallow to rest. The sale of any property in the previous 49 years is voided—property goes back to it’s original owner or heirs. People who were sold into slavery are freed.

The Jubilee year is a dramatic turning back of the clock, intended to ensure that no one’s hardships in life have permanent consequences. It is a means of grace, building into the systems of this world an opportunity for forgiveness and a fresh start.

Back to Isaiah

It’ll be like that, Isaiah imagines, as he anticipates God’s future: Jubilee.

But remember that Jubilee won’t necessarily be a joyful time for everyone. There would be those who grew fat off the misfortune of others, accumulating properties, slaves, and resources. Their profit is theirs to keep, of course, but property must be returned. Unfortunate souls enslaved to the system must be freed.

But to these in power, these property and slaves—this economic and societal power they wield—this is what they’ve worked for. This is what they’ve “earned,” they might think. Here lies the wealth they have accumulated, and Jubilee is going to take it all away from them.

No, Jubilee did not bring joy to everyone. It only brought joy to those “unfortunate souls” for whom the intervening years had been fraught with trouble, turmoil, and difficulty. It was only joyful for those who became oppressed, brokenhearted, and captive; the prisoners, the mourners, those who lack, and those who are weary and weak.

These are the ones who benefit from Jubilee, and these are the ones that Isaiah sees as benefitting from this new work of God in the world.

This passage in Isaiah demonstrates what has sometimes been called “God’s special concern for the lowest and the weakest,” a concern that is taken up by—and indeed made central to—the ministry of Jesus the Christ.

Jesus

When Jesus reads from the scroll in Luke 4:14-21, it is these words of Isaiah that he seeks out and reads. It is these words and attitudes that Jesus indicates are fulfilled in his life and ministry, and his entire existence in this world.

They explain the incarnation—Immanuel—God becoming flesh and living among us. And they reveal the salvation—the deliverance—that Jesus works to accomplish.

The fullness of this salvation is not a heavenly retirement condo, but the complete and utter transformation of the entire world—all that is, even what is here and now.

The fullness of this salvation is not limited to our own individual benefit, but the deliverance of all of creation.

To be Christian is to be like Jesus, and that involves conforming our own commitments and expectations to that of Christ. It involves the proclamation of the fullness of this salvation through our words and deeds, through our actions and our choices.

Mission & Salvation

I was reading a book this week. The author was talking about mission and God, and he referenced this exact text. He said (and rightly so, I believe) that Isaiah reveals here what salvation looks like. 

But then he asked a question: If this is what salvation rightly looks like, what then is the proper form of mission that corresponds to God’s intentions of salvation?

We know how to do mission, if salvation means handing out get-out-of-hell-free cards. But what if God’s desires regarding salvation are the complete transformation of creation? How do we do mission then?

Drawing off this text in Isaiah, the author suggested two keys.

“First,” he says, “mission happens when [we] turn [our] attention to those who are named as the recipients of the good news: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, the mournful, the faint of spirit… In order to participate in God’s mission of restoration, the people of God are sent first to those who most need to hear that God will provide for them and will redeem their losses” (Bader-Saye, Feasting, 52).

“Second,” he continues, “mission happens when the nations of the world notice that the people of God live differently” (Bader-Saye, Feasting, 52). You see, twice in our reading we read that the nations will notice God’s blessing (vv.9, 11), which cannot help but remind us of Isaiah’s earlier words in 49:6: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

To be Christian is to live as a Jubilee community, standing as a sign of God’s blessing to those around us. “To be missional is to live as a people of good news, liberation, justice, and comfort in such a way that the world may take notice and be drawn to the ways of God…”

As that author stated: “So long as Christians live as divided people, known to the world as those who judge, fight, and exclude, the church will fail to be missional, no matter how much money it gives and how many missionaries it sends” (Bader-Saye, Feasting, 54).

Advent

Advent is a season of reflection—yes. But it is also a season of transformation. A time to look around and recognize that things are not as they ought to be. Remembering Christ’s first coming, we are prompted to continue the mission-work of Jesus. Anticipating Christ’s second coming, we realize there is much work to do in advocating the kind of justice that the Lord loves.

When we live into our calling, it will truly be “joy to the world.” We will “rejoice rejoice.” When we join with Christ in this task, we will experience liberation—the glorious release of joy that comes when we experience the deliverance of our God, transforming our lives in accordance with God’s desires for all of creation.

Then, we too will sing: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.”

We too will shout: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God.”

For “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.”

That ongoing work of salvation by God—in our world and in our lives—is certainly something to celebrate.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Advertisements

The Promise of Peace

Isaiah 40:1-11

Curiouser and Curiouser…

These verses from Isaiah chapter 40 are one of the assigned readings for this year’s second Sunday in Advent. On this week, when we light the candle of peace,

we read God’s pleas that Isaiah comfort God’s people,

we hear an anticipation of the apocalyptic message of John the Baptist,

we discover the assurance that God’s proclamation is eternal,

and we find the promise of a future anchored in God’s caring for us.

It is a curious passage—not because it lacks connection to the theme and season, but because of the greatly varied ways it is in fact appropriate and powerful for us, today.

Continual Conflict

Moving out of Thanksgiving and into the Advent and Christmas seasons, we tend to do more reflection than other times of the year. And some in our family of faith have had an exceptionally difficult year. Over and over, for them, everything has gone wrong. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” as the saying goes.

To them, and perhaps for them, God calls us to speak comfort: “Comfort [them]…speak tenderly to [them]…for [they have] received more than their fair share of suffering” (vv.1-2).

If this is you, God is working to bring your life peace.

If this is not you, then perhaps God needs you—like Isaiah—to be God’s presence of peace and comfort to others.

Death and Grief

These holidays (too) have a way of reminding us of those who have passed from this life into the next. We are keenly aware of the absences around our tables and trees, of the traditions that were most important to our relative and friend who is no longer present in this world to celebrate them with us.

Some of our families are a bit more aware this year of how “all people are like grass”: we wither and we fade and life is gone. There’s a raw and clinical detachment to comparing the life of our loved ones to a blade of grass, but it’s honest too. When we grieve, we see death all around us. Which is why it is so important as Christians to remind one another that “the word of our God will stand forever.” We must be reminded of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Of God’s care and compassion that endures forever.

Injustice

In addition, these last weeks and months have been filled with the disturbing realization that our nation and our world are even more broken than we like to admit. That there are deep divisions within and between us. That not all lives are regarded as equal. That not all persons experience the same freedom. That justice sometimes isn’t just.

In the midst of this increasing awareness of our brokenness, Isaiah’s words about the coming Day of the Lord are powerful and comforting. He anticipates in verses 3-5 a day of dramatic reversals. Using the analogy of a nearly impassible wilderness, Isaiah imagines a road made smooth and flat as glass: hills made flat, valleys and dips filled in, rough places smoothed out.

The symbols speak for themselves; they are easy to decipher.

There are mountains and hills in our culture and systems, seemingly immovable obstacles that prevent people from living the fullness of life as God desires it for them. Isaiah envisions these obstacles tore down. Jesus too, later on, will talk about how even a little faith can move mountains.

In our culture and systems, the experience of life for some is akin to flying down a pot-holed gravel road with the accelerator stuck down. Everything is out of control, and there seems to be nothing they can do, no matter how much energy they put into it.

Still others find themselves sunk in a deep, dark valley, with no hope of climbing out—they are held down by the relentlessly grasping hands of poverty, or racism, or bigotry.

God through Isaiah calls us to speak words of peace to them, reminding them of God’s promises and working within God’s desires to transform the systems of this world.

But transformation will not happen without the people of God allowing God to work through us. Psalm 146:3 reminds us not to “expect any rescue from mortal men.” Psalm 118:8-9 teaches us that “it is better to put your faith in the Lord than to trust in people. It is better to put your faith in Him than to trust in princes.”

Our hopes for peace (this day and this season) are not rooted in the powers of this world, but the next. And it is by responding to the movement of the Spirit within us that God’s hope for peace and life can be fulfilled. One person and one loving action at a time, and the revolution of Jesus advances us toward God’s Kingdom. The ultimate result will be as we read in v.5:

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The Future

This look to the future (here and at the end of our reading) perhaps speaks to all of us in its own way. In my preparation, I kept finding myself drawn to verse 11 over and over again. Hear it once more from a different translation (Voice):

He will feed his fold like a shepherd:
He will gather together his lambs into his arms
He will carry them close to his bosom;
and tenderly lead like a shepherd the mother of her lambs.

Somehow, contained in this one singular verse, we might just find the answer to everything that keeps us from peace.

For those of us who struggle to have enough, God promises to feed us, to care for us. ……to bring us peace.

For those of us who feel alone, God intends to gather us together into God’s arms. ……to bring us peace.

For those of us who are too weak or broken to carry on, God swoops in to carry us and give us strength. ……to bring us peace.

For those of us who struggle to find the way, God will lead us—and gently so. ……to bring us peace.

Though we all journey together this Advent season, our paths are many. But wherever your path leads you, within these verses is found the means to peace.

Do not forget: we worship the God of peace—a God who has been proven to be trustworthy and true. Remember that Jesus (as Immanuel—”God with us”)—embodied that peace in life.

Therefore, as disciples of Jesus and the children of God, so are we to manifest God’s peace in the world.

May we be the peacemakers Jesus calls us to be, even as we seek to find peace ourselves. For as the apostle Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Benediction

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1Thessalonians 5:23 ESV)

The Hope of Fools

Isaiah 64:1-9

Hopeless for Hope

Hope has a way of turning us into fools.

We are hopeless for hope–as though we are by nature wired to believe in underdogs, long shots, and lost causes.

A pair of star-crossed lovers……

The wild card game that opens to a World Series……

A bedouin immigrant named Abraham……

A rogue rabbi from Nazareth……

We are hopeless for hope. We are intent on believing that little girl on the internet can beat cancer, that maybe I have really won a cruise when that telemarketer calls, and that winning the lottery is only a matter of time.

I’m not pointing fingers here. I’m the most hopeless of fools in this world. You may not be able to fully appreciate this, but I’ve been a Chicago Blackhawks hockey fan for nearly 25 years. I know about foolish hope. But the past couple years, I’ve also learned the sweet and glorious payoff when our hopes are fulfilled.

Abraham & Sarah

There was a hope God breathed into the world way back in Genesis 12. God issues a promise to Abraham: that God will use Abraham’s family to bring about God’s blessing on the whole world. In order to do this, God promises to make Abraham a “great nation.”

It is the promise of children more numerous than the stars of the heavens, more abundant than the grains of sand on the seashore. To Abraham this promise was given, an old man, whose wife Sarah was well beyond childbearing herself. But what is it we read of Abraham in Romans 4:18? On account of his faith in God, he “hoped against hope”–a wonderful expression for how foolish his hope must have seemed to anyone else.

Isaiah

The hope of what was begun in Abraham & Sarah grew with God’s involvement in the world. After many years, Isaiah and other prophets catch a glimpse of what is coming–of a hoped-for messiah who will change the world.

They only catch glimpses; they never see the whole picture. But it stirs them to action and emotion as they dream an impossible dream with God. As they hope against hope for God’s victory, even when around them they only see defeat.

Isaiah is not very hopeful when he looks around and sees his fellow countrymen. In verses 6-7 of our reading in Isaiah 64, the prophet proclaims:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

The language here is vivid, but the outlook is bleak. Their best intentions are “filthy rags,” they are “shriveled up,” and “swept away” by their sins. It’s funny how across time and space, the same images can be used to talk about trying to make it in this world without God: dirty, empty, a dried up husk, abandoned, things out of control. Isaiah might as well be describing many in our own world, even as he describes his own.

Isaiah sees no hope for them……at least, no hope without God’s intervention.

So Isaiah intercedes with God on their behalf, begging God to forgive them and mold them again according to God’s desires. In looking to the future, Isaiah remembers their past with God (vv.3-5)

For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.

Since ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.

Isaiah remembers, and he hopes and prays for God to intervene like that in the world again, a hope expressed in vv.1-2:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!

As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!

Shut ‘Em Up?

Oh, boy! That God would do that again! Right?
That’d show them! That’d shut them up!

But would it?
Did it?

You see, this foolish hope of Abraham and continued through prophets like Isaiah does get fulfilled, through one known as Jesus. God intervenes in human history in an amazing and dramatic way. It is not just the heavens that are rent when God comes down, it is also the temple veil and the barriers we erect to try to control “God” and “religion” and one another.

According to Matthew 27, with Jesus’ death comes an eclipse of the sun, an earthquake, and even the resurrection of some others who were dead. It is all very extraordinary and apocalyptic, just like Isaiah hopes it will be.

But it “shows” no one. It “proves” nothing to those who do not already believe. There are rumors and conspiracy theories, and the whole thing seems to end up a wash at best, at least in terms of public opinion.

That’s not quite how Isaiah had hoped it would turn out. Even when his hope is fulfilled, I imagine Isaiah might feel a bit foolish for all the ways he imagined it wrong.

Confounding

But on some level, it will always be that way. It is part of the way God works. 1Corinthians 1 reads:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

God works the way God works in order to bring God (alone) honor. Weakness is power in God’s kingdom, in order to show how broken are our notions of strength. Faith like a child is required for salvation, in order to reveal how incomplete and arrogant is the wisdom of our world. Humility and a heart of service are necessary parts of the life of faith precisely because they are discounted by our “me-first” culture.

Selfish Hope

Here’s something I realized this week. When we, like Isaiah, want God to “tear apart the heavens and come down and show the world,” what we really want is for God to vindicate us. It actually has nothing to do with honoring God. It has nothing to do with God’s desires being fulfilled. It is about us. It is about God taking our side and showing the world that we were right and they were wrong all along.

But if that is our desire, then we do not merely look foolish, we are fools. And we have misunderstood everything about the God we worship, the Jesus who saves us, the Spirit who abides with and guides us, and the life of love and sacrifice that we are called to lead.

Looking Foolish

I’m not sure I can overemphasize this distinction between looking foolish and actually being the fool. But remember that when even the most certain hope is distant, there comes a time when it appears to be foolish.

Think Noah, building that ark, awaiting the coming rain that the earth to date had never experienced. His hope was solid, anchored in the faithfulness of God. And yet, how foolish he must have looked and even felt at times!

Think Gideon, challenged to lead the army against thousands of Philistines. Even though God acquiesced to Gideon’s “testing” God by insisting on a sign, what a fool he must have seemed as he pared down the military to a mere 300 men.

Think Hosea, who God calls to live out a radical symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness by marrying a prostitute. Just try to tell me he didn’t look like a foolish idiot every time she went back to her former life, and Hosea had to go to the brothel to bring her home again.

Think Mary Magdalene, tasked with proclaiming the absurd notion of resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples.

They all looked the fool, but their hope (anchored in God) proved them to be wise.

Our Foolish Hopes

Maybe we should pause to add our own foolish hopes–fulfilled or otherwise.

We hope that black-sheep-relative will turn their life around.

We hope that so-and-so’s chronic pain will ease.

We hope that we will be able to pay that bill.

We hope for forgiveness.

We hope we are strong enough to forgive.

We hope for peace in the Middle East.

We hope for enough peace in our families to simply make it through a holiday meal.

We hope for revival in our hearts and God’s church.

We hope for the return of Jesus.

In the face of apparent impossibility, these hopes seem hopeless. And the more time that passes–the longer our hope is drawn out–the more impossible it seems. The more foolish we appear.

It is just as with Isaiah, peering over the edge of today into God’s tomorrow. He saw the impossibility of his countrymen being anything other than what they were–hopeless sinners. But he also realized that his hope for the future was not rooted in them; it was rooted in God.

Let it be so for us, as well.

Our hope for healing is not rooted in medical science. It is firmly planted with the Great Physician, who knit our cells together and infused life in our mortal corpse with the divine breath.

Our hope of provision is not rooted in our jobs, bank accounts, or 401k’s. It is grounded with the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the one whom Jesus describes as caring for us more than the grass of the field and the birds of the air.

Our hope for life comes not from a mere expectation of tomorrow, but on account of the Giver of Life, who draws for us Living Water, which wells up to eternal life.

We can look foolish for our hope, yes. And let’s.
But let us not actually be fools.

Let us hope in Christ, and trust in God, and rest in the Holy Spirit.

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1Tim 1:17).