12.14.2014 Preaching Text: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…” (Isaiah 61:1)
Trouble seems to be at the root of the Bible’s concerns. For without trouble, as logic would suggest, there would be no need for Good News, much less a Savior. No, trouble is the default state of human existence, for which the gospel offers a remedy.
The grand sweep of the biblical narrative, in fact, moves inexorably toward saving humanity from the brokenness we find all around us, which finds joy-filled expression in today’s reading from Isaiah 61.
The context for this reading is the Exile, as decades before Jerusalem had been sacked and many of its citizens forcibly carried off into exile to the hostile land of Babylonia.
And Isaiah’s language makes sense only if we understand this history. Israel had been bequeathed the land centuries before, after Jahweh had freed its ancestors from Egyptian servitude. Under Moses’ leadership they had been led out of captivity and into the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey.”
From its earliest “Patriarch” tapped by God, Abraham, God’s Promise had been closely linked to the land, its possession inviolable and forever. Naturally, when the land was taken by the Babylonians, a deep theological crisis arose.
Had God’s promises been defeated? Were they ever even real? Could God now be trusted? Perhaps God was, in the end, unworthy of their praise and adoration.
The broader explanation, as it came to be understood by Israel’s theologians, was that Israel had sinned, had taken actions that separated it from its overly-tolerant and long-suffering God. The destruction and dislocation of Israel, thus, was due not to God’s fecklessness or faithlessness, but to the disobedience of the people.
What specifically had they done? They had abandoned God, having sought out and worshipped other gods. Their culture, over time, had forsaken its godly ways, resulting in a dangerous loss of moral and spiritual power. Thus it was spiritual and moral decay that had enabled King Nebuchadnezzar to defeat a weakened and spiritless people.
Enter Isaiah. In our reading this morning, the prophet joyfully announces in the midst of tragedy Israel’s salvation, its rescue, its deliverance.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” he declares, “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…”
One can only imagine the inexplicable joy of those hearing this news. Deliverance, freedom, liberty, and a return to their homeland.
The early church picked up on this theme from Isaiah as they announced yet another release from captivity.
In the ensuing years following Israel’s return to Jerusalem, and the building of the Second Temple from ashes, oppression reemerged as a daily reality. Successions of foreign occupiers, from the Persians to the Greeks and, finally, the Romans, had hastened new forms of oppression but, paradoxically, a new, burgeoning hope.
Ancient Jewish belief, as we know, held that Satan was the lord of this world. And as such, after centuries of unrelieved oppression, Israel came to embrace the idea that only God could rescue humanity from Satan’s grip. In a sea of pagan disregard, Jahweh would act, not merely provincially, but in a universal, cosmic way.
The expectation of a coming “Day of the Lord”took hold. Jahweh would indeed come, entering our world in cataclysmic fashion to destroy completely not just Satan but every last vestige of evil.
Only in and through the spiritual force of Jahweh (as opposed to mere human effort) could the spiritual forces of evil be defeated. For this deliverance the people actively yearned, believing that it would mean not punishment or judgment for them, but deliverance from pain, suffering, and even death – and a commensurate restoration of life as God intends here on earth.
Needless to say, this expectation was palpably felt at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Yet it is with Jesus that Jewish and Christian beliefs diverge, in detail only. For it was Jewish expectation that this cosmic deliverance would take place, and that those who had died would be bodily resurrected.
Where Christianity departed from this had to do ostensibly with Jesus’ resurrection. Because the early church believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, they altered the Jewish understanding of the “Day of the Lord.”
Rather than the hope of a general resurrection, where all the faithful would be bodily resurrected at one time, as in Jewish belief, Christians believed that God had instead initiated only the “first fruits” of this same cosmic event, i.e., the lone resurrection of Jesus Christ, the expected Savior and Messiah.
From this, the early church asserted that Jesus’ resurrection had initiated a new epoch, an age characterized by the transforming work of the church and its animating force, the Holy Spirit.
And that transforming work was and is essentially the same as Isaiah’s: to proclaim a message of God’s deliverance, salvation, rescue, liberation. Added to Isaiah’s vision is the cosmic victory of life over death as well the impending return of Christ to restore the world to its pristine essence.
However we understand this today, the enduring theme of the Bible remains: amidst ongoing, existential trouble, God sends forth a message of hope, of salvation, of deliverance – of joy.
As you know, in Tony Robinson’s perceptive and timely book, Transforming Congregational Culture (the same book the Study Group has been using), we are given a troubling yet hopeful message about the current state of the Mainline Protestant churches.
To repeat, for most of its history the mainline churches served as chaplains to the wider culture. This “American Christendom,” characterized by an overly close connection to the culture, produced an establishment church that, though having done much good, often failed to perceive the failings of the wider secular culture.
Since the mid-sixties, however, the church now finds itself “disestablished,” having lost its always assumed “seat at the table.” As we desperately flail about seeking relevancy in an effort to recover what has been lost, the culture, for its part, largely yawns at our all but feeble efforts.
But the good news, as Robinson goes to great lengths to point out, is that we have an opportunity to speak in new ways to a culture that seems to have largely forgotten God, as well God’s ways, much like ancient Israel.
Isaiah’s message, in other words, still has great power even if not especially in our day. The first task, however, is to finally let go of our largely unconscious desire define ourselves according to dictates of secular culture (a holdover from the American Christendom days) in order that we might present a new and life-giving message to our world, a world otherwise in desperate need of good news.
The ancient role of the church, with its roots going all the way back to Abraham, Isaiah, and Jesus is to present the world with a welcome message of deliverance, salvation, and the power of faith to transform lives. Such is a timeless need. Amen.