“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me…”
These are powerful words, words about which we might rejoice on this Third Sunday of Advent. “Bring good news to the oppressed; bind up the brokenhearted; comfort the mourning…” For me it implies that people can live in peace instead of war; have what they need to live a decent life; bring them the Good News of God’s unfailing and unconditional love. Tell people that they are not alone and that a faith community like ours is there for them.
Isaiah points to what so many people long for every day of their lives: the great reversal. To those who have in any way suffered from oppression, those who are paralyzed by disease or fear or anxiety; those who have shed many tears because of what or whom they have lost; those unjustly sent to prison; those whose hearts have been broken, perhaps again and again, to these the prophet foretells the good news of God’s grace and love.
Ashes get blown away to make way for sparkling crowns. The drab shrouds of mourning get replaced with festive and colorful ones. Those who have felt like dead wood are promised that they will soon stand as tall and sturdy as the majestic oak tree.
We know people long for just such reversals. Even those who are not incarcerated, even those who by all worldly standards are far from being poor in any economic sense, even those whose attire has never been rags, who have never gone hungry, and whose heads are not laden with ashes: even they long for the day of the great reversal.
This is Nelson Mandela emerging from his jail cell after so many years of unjust incarceration and taking the oath of office as president of the nation that had locked up for 27 years. This is East German families streaming through the cracks in the Berlin Wall to embrace loved ones who for decades had lived both three miles away and a million miles away on the other side of that wall.
This could mean a peaceful settlement in the Middle East, restoring land and legitimate governance to the Palestinian people and suppressing the terrorism that has affected the lives of Israelis. It could mean end to the almost daily incidence of gun violence in America, to homelessness and hunger, to the healing of life-threatening disease, and to life-taking addictions.
Isaiah is part of a long list of prophetic voices that God has raised up and anointed to act, speak out, and cause us to pay attention. Moses, a stammering shepherd, confronted the mightiest military force with a staff and a mandate from a God. Isaiah walked through the land barefoot and naked as a flabbergasting sign to the Israelites to abandon their alliance with Egypt and put their trust in the One, True God.
The prophet Ezekiel would never have passed the psychological testing for those seeking ordination. He displayed outrageous behavior to show that he was bearing the sins of Israel and convince the Hebrews to be faithful to Yahweh. Then there is John whom we meet again this morning. “Who are you?” asked the priests from the temple in Jerusalem.
“I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet.” He answers. Then why the heck are you baptizing and preaching if you are a nobody? If you’re not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet then you must be a fraud, a charlatan.
John was real clear about who he was not but he was also very aware of who he was and what he had been called to do: to be that one, unmistakable voice crying out in the wilderness, pointing his finger—not in judgment but in direction—to where we all need to go in our head and in our heart. “You have to get out of the past,” he says, if you want to discover the wonder of the future.”
There is, indeed, a long list of “fools” for God, those who by the unfathomable grace of the Holy Spirit make it through the blockades of correctness and acceptable behavior to get our attention. Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Simone Weil, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero, Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks, as well as the less known prophets of our own time.
Today Isaiah and John, prophets of truth, crash into our pre-holiday lives amidst the sound of Jingle Bells ringing through the malls and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. John the Baptist and Isaiah before him bring us a simple yet startling message of good news. It is this: God is faithful to God’s word and promises.
There is a wide variety of Christians around these days. Who are the authentic ones? Who walk the walk, not just talk the talk? People might well ask, as did the priests and Levites asked John the Baptist “Who are you?” Who are we?
We live in difficult, uncertain, disturbing times. But what is still true is that God has promised to remain in covenant with us. We can’t change the reality of the times. We can change how we will respond to them and how we will live as people of faith.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon us, because the God has anointed us; God has sent us 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.
Theologian and bishop, Lesslie Newbigen, asks in his work The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, “How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting, “he says,” that the only answer is a community of women and men who believe it and live by it.”
That’s who we are. If only by the grace of God. So, today we have reason to rejoice.