2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Part 1

Originally observed only in the city of Rome, the third Sunday of Advent is now celebrated widely as "Gaudate"—the day we "Rejoice." Rejoicing is a prominent theme in our first three lessons. We need to take care to understand what it means, though. We are not simply to be happier on Advent's third Sunday. To rejoice is to engage in a radical act and to adopt a certain stance toward God and humanity. To understand this rejoicing in theological perspective, we must look to other prominent themes in our readings: those of witness and the Spirit of God—particularly the case if the Magnificat is selected rather than the Psalm.

We continue our Advent discipline of pondering our existence as God's people in the tension of memory and hope, the tension of the time between the first and final comings of Christ. In the midst of this tension, we are called to rejoice. Our lessons give two crucial indications of what this means. The first—though in the order we hear the lections it will be spoken last—is given by the Gospel lesson. It is the only reading that does not speak of rejoicing. Rather, we find here John the Baptizer making a three-fold denial, "I am not the Christ/Elijah/the prophet." He is, we have already been told by the narrating voice, a witness. He is no less and no more. To claim rejoicing as a radical act before God and humanity, we first recognize our limitation. We are to be modest in our claims. Is not Christ present in and through and even as the community, the Body of Christ? Yes, but we do well to remember Karl Barth's words that while Jesus Christ is the Christian community, the community is not Jesus Christ. The equation works in one direction only. Christ does not live and act today because of the church. For this we should thank God. The church lives and acts because of Christ.1 For this, too, we should thank God! The church does not rejoice in its own work, but in Christ's work that takes place in its common life.

Christ's work is made possible by the Spirit of God. This is our second indication. The Isaiah lesson provides the words Jesus used to interpret his ministry (Lk 4:16-19). John Calvin called these words the very commission of Christ. Calvin also saw here a connection to the whole church. Christ received anointing for the whole Body, that the Spirit's power might be present in it as well.2 The church is not Christ. Thus it must be modest in its claims concerning its work and its life. It is, however, anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, the "down payment" that the church holds in the "in between time" (Ep 1:13-14)—to proclaim and to serve the good news as did—does!—Christ.

How may we speak of the Spirit in so brief a forum as this? Most basically, the Spirit is God acting in God's freedom. In both First and Second Testaments, the word for Spirit (ruach, pneuma) means also "breath" or "wind." Like the wind, the Spirit of God cannot be controlled. Like the wind, the Spirit comes without our beckoning (cf. Jn 3:8). Like breath, the Spirit cannot be held in indefinitely, going outside the boundaries within which we may presume the Spirit will work (cf. Ac 10:44-48). The Spirit makes possible the acts of God in human life, and for the church's life to reflect God's purpose.

Alisdair Heron indicates that early prophecy was marked by ecstatic possession by the Spirit. In the age of the early canonical prophets, the authority of the Word of the Lord displaced supernatural possession. In the time of the exile, prophecy was once again ascribed to the Spirit.3 Only the power of the Spirit of the Lord could bring restoration to a destroyed land. Only the freedom of God could overcome exile's bondage. This is the case in our lesson. It is the case in Advent proclamation. Restoration for persons on the margins, freedom for the oppressed; by the Spirit's power the proclamation draws close to the reality.

Restoration and freedom, further, do not mean mere temporary relief. Barth noted that the image used in our lesson for the year of the Lord's favor, later of Jesus' own time, and—we would add—the time of the church, is the year of Jubilee. Whether it was ever actually practiced every fifty years in Israel or not, as a symbol it proclaimed a vision of liberation and restitution for all creation. It offered a glimpse of the joy of God's Reign, joy intended for rich and poor, humankind and otherkind, alike. It stood as a promise that God would freely act to bring salvation, and indeed already acts in the freedom of God's promise. In the tension of memory and hope, the year of Jubilee symbolizes the free work of God on behalf of the world. It is in this work and reign of God that the church rejoices. This work and reign of God provide the context of the church's participation for which it is anointed. It is a symbol of the life of God's people.

The manner of the church's participation in God's free work is also set forth in the Isaianic vision. The final verse speaks not of a once-for-all inbreaking. Rather, salvation is depicted as being tended and cultivated. It is, according to Claus Westermann, steady and uneventful in its coming. Biblical liturgical time ripens to fullness and completion.4 It is thus an emblem of the church's communion with God, in which the church is more and more conformed to the image of Christ in and through its common life. In the "in between time" of Advent, the church not only joins with all creation awaiting the completion of God's free work. It is called and anointed to embody life under God's reign even now. Baron von Hügel noted that such living in God's presence calls forth one thing—rejoicing.

Philip E. Thompson

NOTES

1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958), pp. 651-57.

2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), pp. 495-96, 761.

3. Alisdair I.C. Heron, The Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), pp. 13-15.

4. Philip H. Pfatteicher, Liturgical Spirituality (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997), p. 107.