The Great Reversal
Isaiah 61: 14, 811, Luke 1:46b55
Well, what is God up to? What does God do? What is God about? For those who believe in God these are important questions. What is God up to in the world, in our lives, in our community? What is God doing? There are some philosophies, of course, the old deism philosophy for example, believe that God created the world like a watchmaker making a watch. According to this perspective, God wound it all up, set it into motion and then God left and observes from a distance, uninvolved.
But that view of God is not the view of Biblical religion. Biblical religion presents for us a God who is an activist; a god who is engaged with God's world; a god who is involved, concerned and working out God's purposes in the world and in history.
Our wonderful Old Testament lesson from the book of the prophet Isaiah is taken from a terrible time in the life of ancient Israel. In fact, if we're to understand something of the situation of Israel during the period of the kings of Israel we have to understand that Israel wasn't like the United States at the end of the 20th century. Ancient Israel and Judea were not the superpowers. They were the little weak nations who were pawns between the great powers of their time. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, these were the great powers and Israel and Judea were set in between them subject to the global world politics and military matters. These little kingdoms were often overrun by or at least dominated by these great powers. Israel and Judea were more like Poland in the 20th century in terms of their historic geopolitical situation.
Finally in 587 BC the country was completely destroyed. Jerusalem was burned down. Solomon's temple was taken apart and burned, the people were carried off as exiles, as refugees of the war and for about 50 years or so they were refugees in captivity in Babylon. Then Babylon's empire crumbled and the Israelites began to come home again.
What did they find? They found rubble. They found a city that had been destroyed and burned out, 50, 60 years before. Can you imagine what that is like? The desolation, the ruins. You thought, you hoped that you were coming home to Zion. Instead you came home to ruin, wreck and ashes. The prophet Isaiah said to the people, "Comfort, comfort my people." The prophet Isaiah said that there was a word from this activist God who is involved in the world and the word is "Good news to the oppressed. Comfort for those who mourn. Provision for those who grieve in Zion, a garland instead of ashes." Do you hear it? Do you hear what an incredible message of mercy, love, care, restoration? The word of God to a people who were bereft of everything they believed in, hoped for, dreamed of, the word was comfort to those who mourn, provision for those who grieve in Zion, a garland, not ashes. The text tells us that the purposes of God are to lift up the downtrodden, to lift up the broken hearted, to lift up the poor and the oppressed. Give them a garland instead of ashes.
The Gospel lesson is much like this. It is a poem that we sometimes call "The Magnificat." It is a poem spoken by Mary when she went to visit her relative Elizabeth. Both of them about to bear sons—Elizabeth to bear John the Baptist, Mary to bear Jesus. Mary, who was she? She was a peasant woman, a young, peasant woman. The scholars and the archaeologists tell us that the little village of Nazareth in the highlands of Galilee where Mary lived was a village of 150 maybe 200 people at the most—a subsistence culture where everyone was a peasant. And yet she had a promise of God. God who has lifted up the lowly. God who will reverse the fortunes of the poor and she sings of it in this mighty poem we call "The Magnificat." She sings of a day when the weak and the poor and the hungry will be lifted up and granted what they so desperately need.
Friends, that's what God is about. God's agenda in our world is the binding up of the broken hearted. The freedom of the oppressed. Hope for the captive. Recovery of sight to those blind of eye or heart.
These things are the agenda of God and today we become in a very small way, partners—partners with what God is doing. We bring these gifts wrapped in white tissue paper to be distributed to some of the children of our city, who are the weakest, the downtrodden, the ones who have the least, the ones who have nothing. And if it weren't for people like us, the children who have no one. When we do this, it is a small thing, to be sure. It is hardly a dent in the magnitude of the need, to be sure, but it is our way of saying that we are going to be a part of the agenda of God. We say that we are going to do something that makes some small difference in the big difference God is about in our time. And friends, there is nothing more wonderful, more glorious than being a partner with God, being a coworker with Jesus Christ. Being one of those who puts your shoulder to the wheel and begins to make some small difference. And one other thing, as glorious and wonderful and full of joy, the way this lifts up our hearts, for all of that, one more thing, let this day not be the end, let it not be a kind of tokenism, but let this day be for everyone of us a renewal of our commitment to those who are troubled and in need. Let it be for us a down payment upon the future reign and kingdom of God. Let it be the beginning of our ongoing engagement with God and God's work. Let it be so. Amen.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck