2017 December Issue
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Isaiah 61:1-11

Last week we heard Isaiah sing about comfort: "Comfort, comfort, my people." It was a word that some of us were ready to hear. When we did not know what to say, a Word came from beyond us. The prophetic word came as a tender word. "God is coming," said the prophet. "Prepare a way for the Lord. Make straight a highway in the desert places. In the deadly places. God is on the way." That announcement came to us as a word of consolation.

Today the conversation continues. We are still in the wilderness waiting to come home. A word of comfort comes to us. Yet it comes with a new dimension: as a word of justice. "I the Lord love justice…I will faithfully give everybody what's coming to them."

I'll admit: it's not a word I expected to hear. Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It's the day when we light the pink candle, the candle of joy. It's the day when sour-faced preachers like me give in and let you sing a single Christmas carol. It's still Advent, the season of preparation, the time to get ready for Christmas.

But it's about time we sang something joyful. The scripture texts demand it. Mary sings, "My soul magnifies the Lord; in God my heart rejoices." The composer of Psalm 126 breaks into joyful song," When God restored our fortunes, we were like those who dream. Our mouths were filled with laughter." Isaiah does it, too: "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God." The Word of comfort is a Word of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. So, "God rest ye…."

But there's also something here about justice. And it will not be separated from the joy. The point is: we cannot expect God's comfort apart from God's justice. God comes, not merely to make us feel better, but to make all things right. As God begins to make things right, some of us might not be very comforted.

You have heard the statistics, as I have. This year, there are more soup kitchens open than there were last year. It doesn't seem right that so many people should be so hungry. I've been keeping my eyes open for a Ballerina Barbie and a Tickle-Me Elmo; somebody in my house has put them on her list. Then I read how one-fifth of all American children are too poor to have a Christmas. On December 25, someone will tell them that Santa is too busy to come to them. It doesn't seem right. Like you, I don't have the foggiest idea what to do about it.

That's where this poem from Isaiah finds me. It opens my eyes to see a God who is deeply concerned about making things right. The word here is justice. In Hebrew, the word is misphat. In the Jewish scriptures, justice means a verdict from the highest courtroom in the universe. When God speaks in justice, God makes a clear statement that cannot be questioned. And it is always a holy judgment on how people like us are treating one another.

A few years ago, a magazine ran an editorial about the Texaco tapes. As you remember, some employees of Texaco have sued the company for racial discrimination. As evidence, they have tapes of some nasty conversations among high-level managers. Much of the flak in court has had to do with the racist words that were recorded. But according to the editorial, that's a smokescreen for the real issue. For the real issue is how we treat one another. Why is it, for instance, that a company as large as Texaco doesn't have a single African-American among its department heads and vice-presidents? It isn't because they aren't available. It isn't because they aren't qualified. No, it's because they are being ignored as partners in the human race. And it's not right.

The editorial described how President Eisenhower's intergration of Little Rock's Central High School was not an exercise in teaching cordiality:

He sent in troops. Affirmative action, anti-discrimination legislation, and set-aside programs were all legal expressions of the understanding that, while it was up to white Americans to choose how nicely they would speak to blacks, it was not up to them to choose how fairly they would behave toward blacks.1

There is a higher standard for how we must treat one another. And it's right because it's right.

Yet, it is uncomfortable. Something like this makes me squirm, even in a pulpit. I know that God loves everybody. It's just that I have a hard time loving everybody. I believe the day is coming when God will make things right for everybody. It's just that there are some privileges and possessions I still want to hold onto.

Walter Brueggemann says the text from Isaiah 61 intends to remind us of an unfinished promise. It was called the Jubilee Year, and it's an event described in the book of Leviticus. A jubilee comes every fiftieth year. Now, every seven years, you were supposed to let your farm land take a sabbath. Plant your crops somewhere else and give your land a sabbatical. After seven sabbaticals (seven times seven years), that was the jubilee. Somebody blew a trumpet. In that year, every debt was cancelled. If you owed somebody money, in the 50th year you didn't have to pay any more. Every possession was redistributed. If your family spent 49 years acquiring real estate, possessions, and other good stuff, in the 50th year, everything was given back to its original owners.

The Jubilee was a celebration of freedom. The poor didn't have to bow down to the rich; for everybody started over. The servants didn't have to kneel before the high and mighty; for all layers of status were leveled to the ground. Everybody in prison was turned loose in the fiftieth year; prisoners had served enough time; and everybody began life over again. In the Jubilee Year, it didn't matter who you were, where you came from, what you possessed, what you had done: all of those things were cancelled.

In such a year, you dealt with people in exactly the same way they dealt with you. There were no social classes, no distinctions, no families better than yours. Everybody was free to begin again.

That's what the Jubilee Year was all about. It was one of the great dreams of the Old Testament. As far as we know, it never actually happened. I think you can understand why: it's uncomfortable. You have to give everything up! Oh, it may have happened once or twice, but we can't say for sure. There aren't a lot of records of people setting everybody else free or giving everything back.

One day, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus preached a sermon on this text from Isaiah 61. Some people think it was his favorite scripture text. I wonder if it was simply the lectionary passage for the day. Either way, he opened the scroll and began to read: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has `christened' me. He has sent me to bring news and bind up…to proclaim and provide." Everybody smiled when he handed back the scroll to the attendant. He stood among a group of dispossessed Jews. They were poor, downtrodden, heart-broken. They were beaten down, bruised, and full of tears. This was one of their favorite texts, too. They were delighted to hear Jesus say, "Today is the day! This is the acceptable year of the Lord, the year when God shows favor to everybody." Then he acted as if he meant it. The congregation grew so uncomfortable they tried to kill him.

I hope this doesn't disturb your preparations for Christmas. I only want to say: you can't expect the comfort of God without expecting the justice of God. They go together, because God is holy, and God is on the way.

If justice means anything, it means we must align ourselves with God's good intentions for the whole world. To act with justice means we must love other people as much as God loves them. Biblical justice is love shown in concrete actions. It is love that honors the best interests of your neighbor. It has nothing to do with liking your neighbor. You may not like your neighbor, but God commands you to love the neighbor as much as you love yourself. And that means that you look out for their best interests as well as your own.

That's why the just life, the righteous life, is a life that pays attention to people in distress. Listen where the Spirit of the Lord God sends us: to bring good news, not to the powerful, but to the oppressed; to bind up, not the contented, but the brokenhearted; to preach liberty, not to the apathetic flag-waver, but to the captives and the prisoners; to comfort, not the comfortable, but those who mourn with a faint spirit.

God says, "I will give people what's coming to them and I will keep them in my covenant." Both promises belong together as good news. We have a God who gathers us in love. We have a God who will set things right. It's up to us to prepare the way for our God to come.

Some years ago, David Buttrick received two Christmas cards on the same day. One was pink and blue. It pictured a baby Jesus in a cradle. The caption read, "May the Christ Child come to your heart at Christmas." The other card pictured a bloated baby rocking in the dust of Bangladesh. The caption on that card had the words "Save the Children!" The card was an appeal for funds. The contrast between the cards troubled Buttrick deeply. As he put it: "If Jesus can do nothing more than to come to our hearts while babies starve in the world, then he is scarcely the savior of all."2

It's true: we want a Jesus who will come to comfort, but we also want a Savior who will set things right. And one way to prepare for his coming into our lives is to act toward others today in ways that he will honor tomorrow.

William G. Carter

First Presbyterian Church

Clarks Summit, PA

NOTES

1. Malcolm Gladwell, "St. Nick's Beard," The New Yorker.

2. David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 421.