Sunday, December 14th, 2014 – Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 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; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 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. 4 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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. 11 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.

Warning: the following sermon contains words and stories that are depressing. Listener discretion is advised.

This weekend (and by this weekend, I mean yesterday afternoon), I kept trying to figure out how not to give a sermon that isn’t super depressing. But I just couldn’t. And maybe that’s okay. I mean, sometimes I think we spend so much time pretending like we’ve got it all together and “we use religion as the place where we can escape from the difficult realities of our lives, (when in fact, the church is meant to be) the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.” [1]

So, you’ve been warned – depressing. But maybe that’s okay.

(Just as a side note: As if my sermon wasn’t already going to be depressing enough, right at this point in the sermon writing and clearly, right on cue, I got a call from Stan saying that his mom was dying. Oh and then, I logged on to Facebook to look up the story I’m about to tell you, I saw a post about how my friend’s dad just died. You can’t make this stuff up, people.)

A colleague and fellow ELCA pastor has put on leave from his call because, from what I gather, members of his congregation haven’t liked some of things he’s said in recent sermons. As you can imagine, Advent isn’t the best time to be suspended from your calling when you are a pastor. But here’s what he said in a recent Facebook post: “Advent hymns…mean so much more in the midst of struggle.”

And he couldn’t be more right. Today, we sang, Light three candles to watch for Messiah, let the light banished darkness. And then we sang, Oh, come, strong branch of Jesse, free your own from Satan’s tyranny; from depths of hell your people save and give them victory over the grave. 

Let light banish darkness. Save your people, Lord, from the depths of hell and give them victory over the grace. I hear those words differently after a 17-year-old has died from the flu in our community. The word influenza has never frightened me as much as it has this past week. And I’m not the only one, because the shot clinic was full on Friday and had no openings. I hear those words differently when a cousin and a friend to many of you, Ken Dinse, is in a medically induced coma after a major accident. And everyone is just waiting, waiting, waiting… I hear those words differently when I’m reminded that it has been two years since the shootings at Sandyhook Elementary in Newtown, and it is all I can do to even begin to imagine the hell that those families have been through.

Let the light banish the darkness. Just take it away. Save us, Lord, from this hell we are living in.

And so while I’m not grateful for all that we are struggling with, I find myself more grateful for our advent hymns. Because they speak and give voice to a reality that we know all too well.

This is a reality that the prophet Isaiah knows too. Those of you who were here last week remember that Isaiah is speaking to people who are living in exile. And to understand exile, I invited us to remember 9/11 and then to imagine that all of Washington, D.C. was destroyed and people taken from their homes to live in a foreign land as soldiers took over America. And it is into that kind of depressing and devastating world that Isaiah speaks a comforting word, “Comfort, o comfort, my people, says your God.” A word that says God will make a path out of this devastation.

And now listen again to what Isaiah has to say today: 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; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn…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.

So what does God do when devastation is all around? He sends people into the devastation! He anoints the prophet Isaiah in to bring good news to the oppressed and the brokenhearted. To proclaim freedom to those who are prisoners. And to comfort those who mourn.

But then, at the very end, Isaiah said, “They shall build up the ruins, they shall raise up the devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities.” You see, God’s not just sending Isaiah, God is sending all kinds of people to go and rebuild. To repair.

Right now, at this very moment, there is a memorial service happening for Shannon, the high schooler who died. And God is sending hundreds of prophets there not only to comfort that family who is mourning, but also to help them rebuild and repair their shattered lives.

And that is the heart of the Christmas story, isn’t it? That God would send someone in the flesh into this messed up world. And God sends God’s very self in the flesh of Jesus.

And now get this – this is really amazing – Jesus’ first sermon was on Isaiah 61 the very text we read today. Jesus goes to his hometown to preach and he proclaims, “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;”

And that becomes Jesus’ mission statement. That’s Jesus’ purpose. To bring good news and repair to a broken world. To quote Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, (T)he world into which Christ was born was certainly not one of a Norman Rockwell painting. The world has never been that world. God did not enter the world of our nostalgic silent-night, snow-blanketed peace-on-earth sugar cookie suspended-reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own.” [2]

When the world is broken and devastated, God does what God does best, God sends God’s very self, hidden in the flesh of humanity, to bring good news to this messed up world and to rebuild us into the people God has called us to be.

When preacher Tom Long’s uncle Ed died at the early age of 40, he remembers vividly when everyone gathered for the funeral. The pastor of the church, who was out of state at the time Ed died, drove all night and arrived just in time to come to the family home to accompany everyone to the church. “The moment of his arrival was unforgettable… The extended family was all together in the living room of Ed’s home, jammed onto the sofa and scattered onto the piano bench and various chairs borrowed from the kitchen and dining room (You know the scene). Then through the big picture window (they) saw the minister arrive. He pulled up in his stripped-down Ford, got out and walked toward the house, all spindle-legged (from the long drive), wearing a cheap blue suit, clutching his service book like a life preserver. (Tom being a pastor himself knew what was going through the preacher’s mind): ‘What to say, dear God, what to say? What words do you speak when words seem hardly enough?’ What he did not know, could not know, was how the atmosphere in that room changed the moment (they) saw him step out of his car.” His arrival, in some strange way, revealed the presence of God in the midst of such devastating grief. “This frail human being, striding across the lawn in his off-the-rack preacher suit, desperately trying to find some words of meaning to speak, brought with him the grace of God.”[3]

It’s not the words he said that comforted them. But it’s that God would send someone. Someone to enter into their devastation. And that’s how God shows up in the flesh. By sending flesh. A person.

Someone said this week, what’s the point of Advent. This time of waiting. Yes, we are waiting to see and hear once again the story that God came incarnate in the world in the flesh of Jesus, but maybe we are also waiting to see how God will come into the world now. Through our flesh. Or through the flesh of others. The Good News is that God enters such a chaotic and crazy world. That’s our Christmas story.

It is a mess out there right now. And it is scary and it is frightening. Which is actually kind of how Advent is meant to be. It was into such a world that the Advent speaks… for the Advent season is a season of hope in the midst of darkness. Jesus was born into a messy world. And what does God do, God sends people into it. God sends you into it. What’s your mission statement? What’s your role? Who are you in God’s story? So how is God sending you back out into that world out there? What’s the mission statement for your life for how God is sending you out to bring comfort and healing to a broken world? Maybe your mission is simply to love your children as best as you know how – to be the best parent. Or maybe to foster children who need a safe home. Or to teach knitting and crocheting to the younger generation, so that they ministry of prayer shawls will never end. Maybe your mission is to feed hungry people. Maybe your mission is to lift up and point to the value and worth of those who have so often been viewed as worthless.

And you know, God can send us on a new mission. Sometimes, when our life changes suddenly, with an illness or a disability or grief or sorrow or loneliness, then our mission can shift and change. A colleague of mine was a youth director in Texas. But then his son, Max, died at the age of 18 from the flu. And now, he runs a non-profit called Love to the Max. His new mission through this organization is “to help young people live a life filled with love.”[4] I wonder how Shannon’s family life mission will shift. God calls us all to something. To bring good news. To repair our broken world. And that’s how God shows up in the world. In the flesh. And as our reading from 1 Thessalonians says, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

So, what better way to end a depressing sermon than with the good news of an Advent hymn. Rejoice, rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel. Amen

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/12/the-slaughter-of-the-innocents-of-sandy-hook/#ixzz3LovRzw5o

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch, The Good Funeral, pg. 48-49.

[4] http://www.lovetothemax.org

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