2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Briefs: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Walter Brueggemann writes that this text is wondrous for Advent.1 Among the reasons for this claim, Brueggemann observes that it enacts hope that a genuine, public transformation is in prospect. Such a transformation may be understood from different dimensions by different communities of people. Ethnic Albanians anticipate when they may live without fear of the Serbs. Protestants and Roman Catholics hope for a peaceable arrangement of shared power in Northern Ireland; political prisoners look for release from their unjust imprisonment. All people long for a genuine, authentic world where they may give full expression to self free of societal pressures to conform. The latter is given beautiful expression in the musical number, "Reflection" (Pop Version), of Disney's Mulan. Here are heard the words, "I am now in a world where I have to hide my heart, And what I believe in, But somehow I will show the world what's inside my heart, And be loved for who I am."

This hope for transformation is given voice in William Willimon's sermon, More.2 Willimon begins his sermon, "There is more to life than meets the eye." There is more in our past than history can tell, more going on in the present moment than we know, more in our present relationships with one another than we are aware of. Seldom, argues Willimon, have we been content with what appears on the surface; we know there is more.

Though we know there is more we tend toward reductionism. Rather than exploring possibilities, enriching our sense of what is not known, life is reduced to simple equations and techniques. We fail to lean forward into the future with a sense of expectancy and, observes Willimon, the body adjusts to its cage. But occasionally a nerve is touched, we twitch in discomfort and remember that there is more. It is to this knowledge that there is more—the hunger to experience more than present reality—that this Advent text speaks.

Isaiah promises a transformation of the present reality. Isaiah says: God has intervened, God has anointed One to take action. That action is political—release of prisoners, reparation for the ruined cities, justice. The "year of the Lord" promises that there will be more. And thank God, says Willimon, that because there is a God, circumstances of the worst broken heartedness, captivity, imprisonment and mourning do not have the last word. There is more.

Willimon shares that when we come to church and are exposed to such speech from Isaiah, we are beckoned out beyond the world of predictability into another world of risk and gift. Divine intervention enables new life to break our prosaic reductions, to subvert tamed expectations, to evoke fresh faith. Dangerous hope leads to daring resistance. Docility is no longer possible for those who heard tell of more. The Prince of Darkness is still there, says Willimon, whispering, "adjust, adapt." The prince wants to keep the world closed, for a closed world is easier to administer, and people without a future are more manageable than those with imagination. But Sunday, at its best, is a summons toward more.

Jesus The Messiah?3 is Mark D. Roberts' sermon on this text. Roberts begins with the assertion that often we use words without really understanding them. Sometimes we know what a word identifies, without having the foggiest idea what the word itself actually means or where it comes from. He offers as an example the Academy Awards—the Oscars. We all know that an Oscar is a gold figurine given to honor purported excellence in acting and filmmaking. But though we can identify that uniquely shaped statue as an Oscar, few of us know why we call an Academy Award by this name. In fact, the 13 -inch-tall figurine did not have a name for its first few years. In 1931 Margaret Herrick, then secretary but later the Executive Director of the Academy, looked at the statue and exclaimed, "Why, he reminds me of my Uncle Oscar." A reporter who heard this remark used the name, and it stuck.

The word Christ is like the word Oscar, in that we know it refers to Jesus of Nazareth, but few of us know what the word truly means. Many Christians say, "I believe that Jesus is the Christ," without having a clear idea what they are saying. What did it mean for Jesus to be called the Christ in his day? And what difference does it make for us if we know Jesus as the Christ today?

Part of the answer, of course, is found in this text from Isaiah. Here the mission of God's messiah, the Christ, is pictured not so much in political as in deeply personal terms. He will bring good news to the oppressed: "You are oppressed no longer! You are free!" He will bind up the broken-hearted, comforting those who mourn and healing those who have been emotionally wounded. He will proclaim liberty to the captives, bringing freedom to all who have been in bondage. Roberts asks us to imagine how this prophecy would have been heard by Israelites who were experiencing literal oppression and bondage, along with emotional brokenness and spiritual enslavement. The coming messiah would touch their deepest needs. He would answer their heartfelt prayers and bring wholeness in all dimensions.

Doug Hood

NOTES

1.Walter Brueggemann & others, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV - Year B (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 24.

2.William H. Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas, More, Preaching to Strangers: Evangelism in Today's World (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), pp.113-118.

3. Mark D. Roberts, Jesus The Messiah?, The Library of Distinctive Sermons (Sisters, Oregon: Questar Publishers, 1996), pp. 253-262.

PREACHING

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 important to the text and to Christians. Behind this motif is the idea that Jewish people and gentiles descended from common ancestry. Children of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob is the progenitor of the Israelite community, Esau the gentiles. Although siblings, the two are disfranchised.

Isaiah 61:5-7 affirms that "strangers" and "foreigners" will gather near the community of Israel. The wealth of the nations will flow into Jerusalem. Strangers, foreigners, and the nations are gentiles. Isaiah confirms that gentiles will serve the God of Israel by serving the Jewish people ("feed your flocks…dress your vines").

This passage stops short of declaring gentiles full-fledged members of Israel. However, the text is part of the root system of a tree of thinking that gives the fruit of the anticipation of a day when gentiles will be reunited with the Jewish people in the knowledge and service of God. Many Jewish texts anticipate that this development will come about in the eschatological age.

According to Christian theology, Jesus Christ makes it possible for gentiles to know and serve the God of Israel as gentiles (for example, Lk 2:22-40, the text for December 26, 1999). Hence, on this Sunday, we gentiles have special reason for joy. Isaiah's hope has become our reality. In joyful gratitude, how can we gentiles feed the flocks or God? Dress the vines in the vineyard of God? Use our wealth to glorify God?

Today's passage points to the shared work of prophet and priest. While I have earlier spoken of this passage as a call to prophesy, the text also describes the community as priestly (v. 6). The priest helps the community recognize and respond to the divine presence, promises, and commands. Prophecy takes place within the larger priestly role. The prophet alerts the community to imbalance. At times, the people forget God's commands and drift into idolatry and injustice. The prophet calls for repentance. At other times, the community forgets God's promises and power. The prophet calls for trust.

Another sermon could develop the motif of the priestly role played by the community. How can our congregation mediate God's promises and commands to the other communities of the world? What does God offer to the neighborhood, the city, the state, the nation, and the world? What does God require?

Still another sermon could deal directly with a theme that is behind this passage and much of Isaiah 40-66: God's power. One Today, we light a pink candle, representing joy, on the Advent wreath. Today's passage contains many reasons for joy.

One sermon is suggested by the fact that the passage is a call narrative. The people have returned from exile. When they left Babylon, they anticipated that they would joyously and quickly rebuild their former way of life in Palestine. Upon arriving, they discovered that the cities were in ruins and that the land itself was barren. Some people oppressed others. Some people turned to idols. The people became discouraged.

This passage certifies that God has poured the spirit on the prophetic community to announce that God is reversing the situation. God will liberate the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn in Zion, those of faint spirit. The time of the Lord's favor is coming. God will judge ("the year of vengeance") those who have conspired with other deities and who have engaged in economic exploitation.

The preacher can ask the congregation to identify with the prophetic community. How, through the Advent season, does God call the congregation to announce these tidings to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners of today? The preacher needs to identify these persons and groups in our setting, as well as the specific ways in which God is moving for their liberation. What are the former devastations and the ruined cities that the spirit empowers the church to rebuild today?

In a related sermon, the preacher could ask the congregation to identify with the people who receive the good news of this text. Are we oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, imprisoned? How is God acting to bring us good news, binding, liberty, release?

Inversely, the preacher could ask the congregation to identify with those in the text whom God judges. Do we serve other deities? Are we complicit in oppression? If so, the preacher can help us name how, and can help the community recognize that the consequence of such behavior is the dissolution of community. However, if we repent and join God in love and justice, then we can enjoy blessing.

A sermon could also arise from vv. 5-7. By omitting these verses from the reading for today, the lectionary omits a theme that is