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Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent - December 17 2017

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year B
December 17, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28

Back in August of 2010, there was a major mining disaster in Copiapó, Chile.  Thirty-three miners were trapped over 2000 feet below the surface.  Families, in fact, pretty much the entire country, and much of the world, were glued to any communications they could find, to keep track of the rescue efforts.  These dragged on for weeks and weeks, with no knowing if the trapped miners had survived, could have survived, or were dead.

Finally, after two months of digging, the rescuers reached the area of the mine where the men were trapped, and found them … still alive.  Hungry, thirsty, tired, weary … but alive.  As you can imagine, there was much rejoicing.  Perhaps you’ve been through something similar in your own life, a time when everything seemed awful and hopeless, but suddenly that which you dared not hope, happened, and the weight lifted and joy filled your heart.  And maybe you are even now in that feeling of burden and loss and fear … and need to hear the words of hope and promise of joy that our lectionary offers us today.

This mining disaster is the event that came to my mind when reading today’s psalm.  The psalm opens with the remembrance of God’s power rescuing the people in the past – perhaps during the exodus – and with a present plea for God to bring power to bear again in the now – perhaps in Babylon.  It concludes with an affirmation that tears will be transformed to joy, that the seed cast on what seems barren ground, in the midst of suffering, will bear so much fruit as to defy the imagination and restore and renew those who are in despair.

It is a powerful message of hope, redemption, and release.

It is a message we hear over and over again throughout the Scriptures:  God will save.  We hear it from Isaiah, too.  The Lord “has sent me to proclaim good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The year of the Lord’s favor is the Jubilee Year – which Israel was to mark every 50 years.  Those who had lost their land would have it restored to them and their families, the prisoners were set free and allowed to return home, all debts were cancelled, and no crops were sown; people were to live on what they had saved, but to have a year of rest, redemption and release. 

This passage in Isaiah comes just after one that finds the people in sadness and despair even though they have returned from captivity in Babylon – because they see the ruins of Jerusalem and the temple and have not been able to restore all that was lost.  Isaiah tells them that God is declaring the jubilee right now.  Surrounded by ruins and unsure of their next steps, they need to hear that they are not forgotten.

The prophet has come to bring good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners, to comfort those how mourn, to provide for those who mourn, to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness, the mantle of praise.  They shall rebuild Jerusalem, repair the devastation and the ruined cities.  The Lord shall repay, and keep covenant with them.

Now, you did notice, did you not, that the Lord is not rebuilding; but the oppressed and the brokenhearted and the captives and prisoners, and the mournful are the ones who do the work – and the Lord will be with them, just as the psalm proclaims the Lord will be with us as we bring home the harvest.

The road through darkness does not end in darkness; it ends in light.

Even in this age – we are not simply waiting for our reward in heaven after we die; no, we are part of bringing heaven into the world today: that is our calling and our grace.  When Isaiah was written, the Israelites did not look to a time after death; restoration and new creation was for this life and this time: where and when we are now.  

The idea of a resurrection into eternal life did not arise until 3 to 500 years after this text was written.  They thought that when people died, that was pretty much the end of everything for them.  We Christians believe there is more to death than death, of course.  This understanding grew over time, when the promises of Isaiah began to fade into the background while the people of the covenant were constantly besieged by great empires, and their own nation’s restoration to greatness seemed never to arrive. 

Right down to today, you will find Jews and Christians who expect that restoration to arrive, the messiah to come, and the world to be set to rights, by the power of God and through the work of their own hands.  Sadly, this belief results in the destruction of creation, the devastation of lands and lives, the waging of war, the dissolution of bonds and a refusal to seek peace, or bind up the brokenhearted, free the captives, rescue the oppressed, or any of those things that Isaiah proclaimed.  This is wrong.  If Isaiah’s words have any application at all today, then the words we have before us have application as well.  We are called to live in the Jubilee, to rejoice, and to turn our backs on injustice, robbery, and wrongdoing.  We are called to be oaks of righteousness, planted by the Lord and clothed in the garments of salvation.  Right now.  Today.  Right here.  In this community.

For the Lord is already here; his Spirit is within us.

Just as John the baptizer told those who came to question and challenge him, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.…”  He stands among us as well.

How shall we find him; how shall we know him?  Look around, do you not see?  Keep looking, and you will.