2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Part 2

As Nazi troops close in on her family, a Jewish woman laces dough with jewelry. She rolls the cakes, and each family member dutifully swallows them raw. Soon soldiers will tear the family away from portraits, furniture, old letters, fragrances, foods, each other, and all other things that blended into the rhythm of daily life and gathered memories and meanings. This bleeding of souls started the long bloodshed called the Holocaust.

This scene from Stephen Speilberg's film, Schindler's List, offers a glimpse of the initial shock of exile to those of us who have never experienced it and who can therefore never fully comprehend it. Yet, if we take scripture seriously, we must try to understand because much of the conclusive editing of the Hebrew Bible took place in the context of exile and recovery from exile. The Hebrew Bible is like the jewelry rolled in dough for desperate consumption. Ancient Hebrew scholars compiled and edited the sacred works to preserve something holy after the temple crumbled, something precious after so much loss.

"Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" (Ps 137:9) the exiled psalmist cried to Babylonian captors who treated their sacred songs as amusement, their tradition as a side show. In the humiliation of the present, the psalmist angrily swore never to forget Jerusalem, never to call any other place home. Yet, many resigned to their captors and blended in, rooting themselves in Babylon. Memories of God's liberation and love for their ancestors took on a fresh urgency in the face of such drift.

God ultimately guided back to Jerusalem those who let the memories nurture their faith, but the psychology of exile continued. Jerusalem was not yet home. The relics, refuse, and wasteland reminded them of their loss and how far they had to go to regain their dignity. The neighbors resented their return. With their arrival, the shock and numbness of loss must have resumed, and after that, long, dry days mixed with agitation and lethargy.

If most of us cannot truly understand exile, we can at least understand homesickness, that nauseated sadness of feeling rootless and faceless in an indifferent world. One searches for something familiar, someone who shares the same memories, some task to carry on that once gave life meaning. In the long run, one forges a new identity in the eyes of others and oneself.

In Isaiah 61, the prophet offers healing for the homesickness that still plagued the remnant who returned. He is "anointed," chosen like a priest to reveal God to a people homesick for their Father. He portrays their future hope by displaying the jewels preserved in the exile: themes from scripture stories. God will deliver them. God will give them a new home in Zion, and they will build in joy. God will make a covenant with the chosen nation. God will give them the task of highest purpose: to reveal God even through their sufferings. The world will wake up to the truth that God set them apart, made them holy.

In the end, Zion will be their home, but not their only home. The world will be their home, even that world in which they once lived as aliens. The world will honor them as devout people honor their priests. As the anointed prophet is to Israel, Israel will be to the world: a priest, a light, a messenger of wild hope.

It seems too good to be true, and in a sense this promise never came true. Things got better, but never again like the old days. The remade temple never inspired awe like the old one. Israel never came to good terms with the neighbors, and certainly no nation ever honored them as a priestly people. Nations just don't do that.

But nations honor those jewels they swallowed, those holy scriptures that helped them remember who and whose they were even in exile. Those scriptures became jewels to the world's other two major monotheistic religions later born, Islam and our Christian faith. Virtually everyone who believes in the one God holds up those jewels in the light of day and admires their fire. We do not claim them like looters; rather, they reveal God's claim on us.

By honoring Israel's God as our own, we honor Israel whose sojourning and suffering reveal God. Israel never had such honor in mind. Nobody wants such honor. We too would swallow our jewels in fear of losing our home, our identity, our dignity in a hostile or indifferent world.

Yet, for the returned exiles in their homesickness and for us in ours, God offers the terribly beautiful jewel the exiles almost left behind: the biblical truth that through the very suffering that bewilders us, God's chosen ones will reveal true righteousness and holiness. God will fulfill the vocation of the chosen not despite the shame of exile, but through it. By calling the people "the planting of the Lord" (v. 3) and likening their righteousness to the sprouting of God's garden (v. 11), the prophet reveals the long, dry days of homesickness as days of germination and new growth. If they wait, they will flower.

We wait for Jesus, who opened his ministry by reading this prophecy in worship and declaring himself the one sent to declare God's liberation and healing (Lk 4:14-21). He then called disciples, healed strangers, opened eyes to the kingdom, overturned tables, and suffered a death that revealed God. Yet, in the spirit of the prophet, he did not claim this calling only for himself. He bid all who call on his name to participate in God's work of healing and liberation. He also bid us wait for God to reveal righteousness through our suffering. It is the honor we do not want. Yet, it is the ultimate consolation for our homesickness.

J. Marshall Jenkins