Isaiah 61, Abnormal Hope. 13th December 2020.
Third Sunday of Advent.
Also John 1:6-8, 19-28.
Lord Almighty, wonderful in counsel and magnificent in wisdom, help us listen and hear your voice this morning. May we pay attention and hear what you want to say to each of us. Instruct us Lord, teach us the right way. In Jesus name. Amen.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me. On Sabbath – the day for worship and rest, Jesus deliberately chose a passage, to remind them – the listeners again – of the God they worshipped and the hope he – God – sought to bring into their lives. ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’’ He then said ‘today this is fulfilled in your hearing.’ He claimed the passage for himself. The Nazareth Manifesto – as it has come to be known. It laid out what his actions would be, not just in the next 100 days, but in his entire earthly ministry. And in fact, what Jesus would continue to seek to do and teach in after his ascension. As we read the following chapters of Luke, we see what that mission looked like – healing, demons cast out, all sorts invited and called to follow him, and when months later John the Baptist – in prison for his preaching – would send people to ask – are you the One. Jesus replied: ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor.’’
Can you imagine hearing those words of Jesus? Would they have stirred hope within you? If you had seen what was going through Jesus?
These words Jesus quoted – came from Isaiah 61. The plan of God to give hope. Advent is about hope. Those of you who use the Lectio 365 prayer app –well recommended to all – know about Bernard of Clarivaux. He was in the c12th century, founder of the Cistercian Order of Monks. He said Christ comes to us in three ways. Firstly, incarnation. Secondly his return at the end of the age; thirdly – to and in the lives of his followers every day – as Revelation 3 reminds us, he stands at the door and knocks and longs to come in and eat in companionship and fellowship with each of us…
It is possible, that someone watching today, perhaps you have watched over the past weeks and months of these online services, you would honestly say, you feel or hear Christ knocking at the door – the door of your heart – but as someone said, the handle is on the inside, only you can let him come in. And when you do he says, he will come in ‘and I will come in and eat with him and he with me’. The invite for him to come into a person’s life is open to all. Open to you. To enjoy his fellowship, and the hope he offers.
These words of Isaiah come to a nation which is broken. A people who remember the past. A people who have come home from exile in Babylon. There is grief in the present. Struggle. There are ruins with the temple, the city, the land. A sense of despair. Of mourning. People feeling imprisoned even though physically free.
This month is a difficult one. For some the increasing darkness of the days, the lack of light, affects them greatly, a form of depression settles. For others we know, this is a painful time. In this month of celebration – Sinterklaas and then Christmas, memories of parents no longer with us, friends who have died, perhaps the first Christmas without a loved one, or a Christmas or holiday season faced being along, with divorce, children with the other parent. When everyone else has someone or be with someone on Christmas or New Year, some are alone. Then for others, that Corona is just grinding them down. They hoped we’d be out the other side by now. And now we face either a supersnel gap to allow people to visit us, before the shutters come down, or we have to work out which three can visit us on which day over a usually social. You may say – Grant, thanks, I came here feeling good and now I feel a bit like a Scandinavian Noir Series.
In September and also in our Talking Jesus course, we talked about trying to go through life slower – to take time, to notice people around us, like the girl who sees the neighbor who needs help. To notice perhaps one of those people I have mentioned. To drop a card through. Hope can come to someone because – I am remembered, I am seen. To invite someone to join you on one of these holiday season days – to be one of the three. A simple act of compassion can minister. In the last session of Talking Jesus, there is a moving story – so spoiler alert. A police detective working in London Met, shared how, when it came to the Christmas Eve / Day roster, there were a number of officers who would volunteer. They, in her department, were divorced, widowed, alone, with family abroad unable to join them. She had an idea. She thought of the shoebox appeal. She decided to do something similar for her colleagues. She told her church. The congregation immediately wanted to get on board. So a whole bunch of boxes were prepared. The woman, she slipped into the station and department, went to her Chief Inspectors Office and left the bag with a note for these boxes to be given out on Christmas Morning. They were deeply touched. They were seen. Remembered. She shared, even though they don’t go, they now say ‘Eden Church’ is their church. And they asked her, what she will be doing for Easter! Who is struggling around you in these coming weeks. How can they feel seen? How can you bring hope?
When you read Isaiah’s words. These are not to the rich and powerful. They are to the poor, the broken, imprisoned, the mourning. The message is one of freedom, comfort, support, negative things are turned into positive ones. The city needed more than new cement and new houses, it needed a new spirit, a new attitude to help it become truly beautiful.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me… Such an incredible phrase. The Spirit was only given to a right person at the right time for the right task. At his baptism the Spirit descends upon Jesus. He returns to Galillee, in the power of the Spirit Luke shares. The next thing we read in the gospel – he says ‘’the Spirit of the Lord is on me… and Jesus shares why the Spirit is upon him? Why is the Spirit given to you? Why has the very presence of God come to live within you?
The prophet knows he is anointed. Let’s dwell for a short time on these opening verses to catch a flavor of what is being shared with these residents of Judah …
Anointed me to preach good news to the poor. Proclaiming. Telling. What is told ‘good news’. Isaiah 52 – a reading often on Christmas Day – says ‘how beautiful are the feet that bring good news’. The Good news comes to the poor – this is better translated, to the afflicted, the humble – those who wait for the Lord despite their distress. The message of Good News is ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ – his desire to bless them. His desire to be good to them. His desire to transform. To restore. To comfort. You know. It says ‘anointed me’. God was quite capable of sending angels to do the bringing of good news – as we flick through the OT we see many occasions, and again God sent angels to communicate his good news to Zechariah, to Mary and to the Shepherds. Yet he chooses overwhelmingly to use us. To anoint us to bring the good news.
The good news of Jesus is the core of our faith. Incredible that phrase. The Good news of Jesus. We are invited to be those heralds to bring it. This can be through many means. One means to discover it, is via Alpha. We run Alpha once or twice a year. We will run it again next month. An opportunity to explore the core parts of the Christian faith, to talk honestly with others about what you think and why, which bits matter, which bits confuse, to explore why we have good news. Alpha is open to all – this means members of All Saints are invited to come along, maybe you need to rediscover why your faith is good news. Perhaps you feel you have lost the good part of it. Or there is someone you know – you have been praying across these past weeks since Life Groups began, and you think they are open to exploring Christianity or even have shown real interest. Alpha could be for them. Why not ask them – all you can do is invite them, their response is in their hands and in God’s. There may be people online. We would like to offer Alpha online as well as in person this year. Perhaps Alpha is right for you now. Please let us know as a church if you’d like to join in…
He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted. He the prophet and us are called to fulfill a duty described of God. Psalm 147 – v3 – ‘he heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds’. Psalm 34 – ‘he is close to the brokenhearted and saves those crushed in spirit’. The word for broken – can be like when a defence is broken through – for example a door broken through. Or beauty broken / destroyed – as hail destroyed trees in Egypt. How the tablets – things of great value and sacred – were smashed at Sinai. How the wind before Elijah, broke apart the mountains. Shattered. Heart here means not just emotions, it is about the mind thoughts emotions, the centre of your being. A person, at the core of who they are, whose defences have been broken down, someone whose outward / inner beauty has been damaged / destroyed; person whose things of great value have been smashed into pieces; a person who has been shattered….
Isaiah shares hope. That the people who are broken hearted, can be bound, healing can come.
Freedom for the captives. Release from darkness for the prisoners. The word liberty takes us to Leviticus 25, how people could end up in financial debt; but God created the Year of Jubilee – after 50 years, all debts were cancelled and people could return to the land that they had lost. They were set free from debt. Totally. Not a bit. Not partly free. Totally. Yet these Hebrews Isaiah wrote to, were physically free – they had returned. Yet God says they are not free. They are lowly and broken in their inner being. They are in prison as if they were in exile. Their spirit is flickering. They live with shame, due to their past sins, which they see around them every day in the physical ruins. Already God is saying – his desire – is to bring freedom. Jesus declared it in his own words and showed it in his ministry. In John 8: ‘’If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’’ Later, in John 10 – ‘’the thief comes to kill, steal, destroy, I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.’’
That is the image of Isaiah 61 isn’t it. When God anoints. The prophets knows the ministry the mission to which he is called. He will show the character and the kingdom of God, that God still is, as he said in Exodus,– ‘’I am the God who heals you – and what it means to have God as King.
And that brings us back to hope. We are people of abnormal hope. The folks in Israel thought that is all there is. Their burdens were heavy. Their spirits flickering like a candle burning low. The task looked too great. Yet Isaiah proclaims hope. How can that happen. Hope we have despite all that we can see around us. For some people, who listen to us, that is abnormal. A bit like Abraham. Abraham was given a promise of what would be. It says ‘against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations.’ Circumstances said. Nothing can change. Logic. Biology. Time, All said. Nothing can change. Yet Abraham against all hope, in hope believed. Isaiah – gave hope, to reinterpret their circumstances. We are people of abnormal hope. We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as it can be. That is what Isaiah is sharing. That is what Jesus was sharing in that synagogue in his home town. See what the world can be. Be stronger than the times you are in. Yet, as we shared with the opening carol – we live in the now and not yet. Abraham did not waiver. What do we do when God says one thing and yet circumstances clearly say another. Hope believes, trusts in resurrection. That is what Isaiah shares: beauty instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning, praise instead of a spirit of despair, ruins can be rebuilt.
In Exile Ezekiel shared an incredible vision. Of a valley of dry bones. Dried up. God says: these bones are Israel, they say’’our bones are dieed up and our hope is gone, we are cut off,’’ Life is uncertain, the promises of God are not. And into that vision, comes spirit – ‘’I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.’ The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord rests on you – the one who has lost hope. On you the one who feels life is ashes, mourning, despair. Resurrection can come. Romans 5, encourages us – suffering, produces perseverance, perseverance character and character hope. Suffering can be a factory of hope. Hope can grow even in suffering. And it says hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. Somehow, God’s love can be poured deep into our brokenness, to help rebuild hope again….It reminds us of those words later in Romans: may the God of hope, fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope, by the power of the Spirit. That resurrection can come.
I have said, we are to be people of abnormal hope. That sounds weird. But in fact we are to be that, for often circumstances we are in, we know people are in, what we share – good news, God’s favour, freedom, comfort, support, negative things turned into positive ones, a new spirit, a new attitude – these all sound strange, impossible, abnormal. Yet Isaiah speaks into the situation of the Jews; Jesus spoke hope into that synagogue and across Galillee; and Jesus seeks to continue to do that through each of us in the Advent and approaching Christmas season…
Shall we pray.
A simple prayer for each of you:
May you be filled afresh today with the Spirit of the Soverign Lord. You have been anointed. May you bring good news to the poor, afflicted, the needy. May he sent you to bind up the broken hearted. May he use you to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and release from darkness for the captives; may you proclaim share the favour of the Lord, may you be a person of hope this advent and Christmas season. Amen.