Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God. I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels. As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.
This is the season of hustle and bustle, joy and anticipation. We’re preparing for Christmas and there are so many things to do. But we are aware that we live in unsettling times: times full of bloody conflicts, malicious terrorist attacks, insecurity and fear of what may come next. Fires and earthquakes and floods and thawing tundra and other signs of global warming abound. Refugees emulate Mary and Joseph as they frantically search for a safe place to stay. There is prejudice and hatred, disdain and contempt and apathy.
And as you know, this is also the season of personal darkness and depression for many. Old memories may niggle and haunt. Injustices and slights from the past rise to the surface. Old sins, confessed and forgiven, still lurk. Many are hoping just to make it through. For me, both the joy and the vexing linger. But it’s quite familiar. What it does primarily is to help me to be empathetic and offer a word of hope to people who come to confess and unburden themselves.
To fortify myself, I’ve been reading and reflecting on some seasonal meditations by Cardinal Walter Kasper. These meditations are compiled in a little book entitled Accepting the Mystery: Scriptural Reflections for Advent and Christmas. In one meditation entitled “Judgment and Grace,” Cardinal Kasper writes: The Message of Judgment is itself a message of grace. He goes on:
Whoever does not take the word of judgment seriously and thinks that it can safely be ignored also does not take grace seriously. Such a person… trivializes Christianity…
God does not want all the terrible wrong and blatant injustices, the murders, the destruction, the desecration. God’s anger and wrath are enkindled against [the perpetrators.] In the end what God wants is that the murderer not triumph over his victim, that no one get away with lies and deceit, that injustice not win the day, that it is not only the rights of the strong that count, [but also those of the weak, the victim, the oppressed, the most vulnerable] and that evil not have a future. What God works for is that in the end all are truly equal, that all masks fall away and the truth comes to light. God’s desire is that truth instead of lies, that justice instead of power, and that love instead of hate triumph in the end…
And so must we not say that it is truly grace that God turns out to be the judge and has the last word? Therefore the message of judgment is also a message of grace; the message of judgment is also a message of hope. (pp4-5)
We see this in today’s OT lesson. It is a message of hope. Specifically Isaiah speaks of the return from Exile, what is known as the “Babylonian Captivity.” The people of Jerusalem and other parts of Judah have lived for more than 5 decades as slaves in Babylon, which roughly would be in present day Iraq. The neighboring empire of Persia—present day Iran—under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, eventually conquered the Babylonians and set the people of Judah free.
As an aside, and to show the length of the memories of these people, when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran back in the late 1970’s, Israel provided a safe place of refuge for the Shah because he was a direct descendent of Cyrus the Great who had liberated the Jews 2500 years earlier. It was paying a debt and it’s part of the reason Iranians hate Israel so much.
Back to the announcement of hope from Isaiah: There was a great swelling of hearts as the promised Good News of the ‘vindication’ of God was announced. The people of Judah could go home. But when they arrived back in Jerusalem they found it in ruins. The temple was destroyed, stones from the city wall were strewn about as rubble, their economy was non-existent, but they were home.
Unfortunately, as happens all too frequently, their joy was soon replaced by bickering. Their leaders started pointing fingers and laying blame. A group of laity called the Zadokites who were probably the forerunners of the Sadducees believed things should be done one way and the Levites, a group of clergy, thought things should be done another.
The populace chose up sides; it was a time of hard feelings. What had once been joy and hope had turned into bitter conflict. Although they were “home” they had no homes, there were no buildings in which to stay, they had no money, and now their leaders were at each other’s throats. The folks needed a word of hope.
G.K. Chesterton wrote this about hope: “As long as matters are really hopeful, as long as our lives are running smoothly, hope is a mere flattery or platitude. It is only when life as we know it has been shattered that hope begins to be a strength. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”
He’s saying that if we are living in a happy, secure time hope can be trivial. It is only when we are broken and bereft that hope has true power.
Life had been shattered for the Jews; they were home from slavery and now they needed some leadership and a word of hope. The leadership came from Ezra, a scribe who reinstated the order of Mosaic Law, and Nehemiah, an organizational genius who coordinated the building of the city of Jerusalem.
In today’s lesson it is the prophet Isaiah who offers the “Word” of hope from God.
We hear Isaiah proclaim: “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all nations.”
This promise from God through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah, gives hope to all the world today. But back then the promise was more specific. This new day will not be like the days of slavery, when you had to be obedient to your slave master, when you had to live in slave quarters, and you slaved away for somebody else’s benefit and, perhaps most importantly, the hope is that your children will not be sold into slavery.
It is reminiscent of Isaiah’s earlier prophecy: “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent, its food shall be dust. They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord.” (Is. 11:6)
And Jerusalem knew peace for 200 years.
Theologian Paul Hansen says that “[Christian hope] is an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose.”
The author of the book of Hebrews tells us: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful…” (Heb.10:23) And again from Titus 3:6-7: “The Holy Spirit…poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope…”
And perhaps the most important “Word” of Hope is from Jesus himself, when centuries later, he stood and read aloud these words we heard today from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me, he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…a day of vindication by our God.” Jesus then declared to those assembled in the synagogue: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” O come Emanuel.
Judgment is grace, grace is judgment; we trust that God will graciously set all things aright and love will triumph. It may seem a long way off sometimes, but that is our promise, that is our hope.
In closing, I want to share this prayer from St. Francis De Sales:
“O God, let us not look forward to the changes and chances of this life in fear, rather may we look to them with full hope that as they arise, you deliver us out of them.”
“God, you are our keeper and you have kept us hitherto. Help us to hold fast to your dear hand that you would lead us safely through all things and when we cannot stand, Lord bear us in your arms.”
“Help us not look forward with fear and dread to what may happen tomorrow”
“We trust in you God who will either shield us from suffering or will give us strength to bear it.” Amen. St Francis de Sales and all the saints (pray for us.)