2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Preaching: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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 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 reason that this literature came to expression is that many people in exile (Is 40-55) and upon return from exile (Is 56-66) doubted that God had the power to release them from exile, and then to rebuild their homeland. Many people in our congregations share this doubt. This question is conscious for a few people, but the question is not specifically named for many others. The preacher could help the community recognize ways that this question is still alive. The preacher can discuss the nature of God's power, and its ways of working in the world. For me, one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence is the continuing faith of the Jewish people. Despite 4,000 years of struggle, each Sabbath evening, the sound of praise rises from the synagogue.

Authority, a hot issue in today's church, suggests yet another possible sermon. Whom should the church regard as an authoritative interpreter of the divine? What content should the church regard as an authoritative interpretation of the gospel for our situation? In the world of Isaiah, a call narrative such as vv. 1-4 was regarded as a warrant for the trustworthiness of the claims of the speaker or the text that followed. The preacher could help the congregation explore those sources that today's church can regard as authoritative in helping us interpret the divine leading in our setting: the Bible, Christian tradition, experience, reason, and their interaction.

Ronald J. Allen