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Sermon for Advent III

December 11, 2016

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Isaiah 61

The Good News of Deliverance

61 

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

    and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

    and the day of vengeance of our God;

    to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

    to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

They shall build up the ancient ruins,

    they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

    the devastations of many generations.

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,

    foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;

but you shall be called priests of the Lord,

    you shall be named ministers of our God;

you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,

    and in their riches you shall glory.

Because their[a] shame was double,

    and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,

therefore they shall possess a double portion;

    everlasting joy shall be theirs.

For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]

I will faithfully give them their recompense,

    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

Their descendants shall be known among the nations,

    and their offspring among the peoples;

all who see them shall acknowledge

    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

    my whole being shall exult in my God;

for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,

    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,

    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

11 

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise

    to spring up before all the nations.

     Joy Regardless

“Securing Christmas lights to the tree can be a production. One year, when we finally stood back and flicked on the light switch, I noticed that a branch obscured our prized angel ornament. I grabbed the pruning shears, mounted a stool, and snipped once, and the lights went out. My husband quietly said, “You don’t have your glasses on, do you?”—Lynn Kitchen, Parksville, British Columbia

O.K., that didn’t really happy. That’s from the gospel according to Reader’s Digest. But this did. Last week I stood for twenty minutes in the customer service line to return some unneeded supplies to Wall-mart. Don't ask me why. I briefly wondered if it was worth the gas money and the time for twelve bucks, but then I also wanted to pick up something at the Macy’s Friends and Family sale, return a duplicate gift to the Home Goods, and check the inflation in my tires as the warning light blinked on my dash.

I don’t know about you, but right about now it seems to me that everybody is either a just a little bit depressed, a little bit stressed or a lot overwhelmed with the details. Are you with me?

         Thank God it’s Sunday. Whatever has happened in the past week, it’s over and done. Whatever concerts, shopping, bill paying, toy assembly, hosting of events loom before us, in worship we rest in sacred space where the ordinary is made holy. If only for a moment, the concerns of the world fall away. Here as no other place, we experience joy regardless of what waits for us when we walk out those doors.

Let’s reflect briefly this morning on how it is that we can experience joy regardless of our personal circumstances or the state of the world. Out there it feels like it’s all about us: what we accomplish and how we live. We trick ourselves into believing that if we get this Christmas thing right, if we collaborate with the right beliefs to do the right things we can change the world. It’s not as if doing good in the world isn’t important, it just isn’t sufficient. If we could singlehandedly transform the world through our good words and great presents we wouldn’t need God.

In here, we remember that it’s all about God, everywhere, all the time. This is good news for us in Advent. It is the only antidote for the depressed, stressed and overwhelmed world in which we live. When we let go of our belief that God enters the world in Christ because we got all the Christmas cards out early, or at all, hung the stockings with care, finished the cookies and found the ugly sweater in time for the next holiday party, then we’ve already missed out on God’s good news.

Hear this, God came into the world in the life of Christ without your help. Isn’t that just the greatest news? You weren’t the innkeeper, the census taker, the Centurion guard, the shepherd on the hillside, one of the angels, Mary, Joseph, the donkey, or thank God, the baby Jesus. We re-enact those things to remember what God has already done for us, and to prepare our hearts to receive the light that has already and forever come into the world, but we don’t make it happen. We didn’t make God show up, we can’t make God stay.

The prophetic word from Isaiah begins and ends in the first person, with how God equips God’s messenger to bind up the brokenhearted and bring good news to the oppressed. Jesus came into the world to fulfill God’s promise and intention for life, and God shows us through Jesus how to participate in God’s plans. Nevertheless, it is God’s action across time that reconciles all people and redeems the whole world. Whatever is going on out there, God is at work in through the most horrific evil and the greatest of human achievement. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Isaiah received a vision from God and shared with God’s people this good news:

“For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;

I will faithfully give the people their recompense, that is their compensation or amends for bad things that have been done to God’s people)

    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

Their descendants shall be known among the nations,

    and their offspring among the peoples;

all who see them shall acknowledge

    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”

         It is God that has done this. God loves justice and works across the long sweep of history toward a just and peace-filled world for all people. We may catch glimpses of it, we catch God moments when we know and see clearly that God is with us. When that happens we do our best to live up to God’s best hope for us because we want to be godly people, we want to please God, we want to live for God’s pleasure and to bear witness to the world of what God can do. But we don’t single-handedly create the kingdom of God at hand.

         Think about the freedom of that! We can come to church, and read our Advent devotional book and attend concerts and go to Christmas parties, and order books and electronic stuff from Amazon, and bake blueberry cakes if we want to, just for the joy of it. But none of these things are duty driven. The world doesn’t rest on the shoulders of our actions. God is already loosed in the world through Christ: binding, building, redeeming, healing, forgiving, restoring, reconciling, all creation, even if we take to our bed and don’t lift a finger between now and the first of the year.

         That said, when we love God, and when we’ve been on the receiving end of God’s forgiveness, grace, mercy, healing, hope-filled, joyous peace, we want to do stuff to please God. Picking out the perfect present for our child, grandchild, partner or best friend simply reminds us how much we want to present our best self to the world as a sign of God’s transforming love for us.

         Last year I couldn’t decide what to buy my husband for Christmas so I bought him everything I thought might please him. I didn’t break the bank, but it was a little overwhelming. I bought him four pair of new shoes when one pair would do. God isn’t looking for us to prove anything through our extravagant preparations. God just needs us to show up in the world fully present to each moment, each person, faithful to simple acts and simple gifts that reveal our love of God and one another.

         There’s a story about the joy that comes from simple acts of faithfulness regardless of what that outcome looks like to the world.

It has been told that long ago an aging emperor in what was then called the Far East decided on a novel way to choose his successor. He called the city's youths to his palace. Handing out some special seeds, he told them, "I am going to give each one of you a seed today. One seed. It is a very special seed. I want you to go home, plant the seed, water it and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from this one seed. I will then judge the plants that you bring to me, and the one I choose will be the next emperor of the kingdom!"

One boy named Ling took his pot home and planted the seed. Every day he watered it but nothing grew. Even though his friends at school were talking about their growing plants, flowers and shrubs, Ling only had an empty pot.

He felt like a failure, but he continued to do as the emperor requested, watering and caring for the potted seed though nothing grew.

When the day came to return to the palace, Ling went with a frightened heart. The emperor appeared. All the other youths had magnificent plants.

When the emperor saw Ling's empty pot, he summoned him to the front and announced to the crowd, "Behold your new emperor! One year ago today, I gave everyone here a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds that could not grow. All of you, except Ling, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you.

Ling was the only one with the integrity and trust to return to me a pot with my seed in it as I requested. He was the only one who stayed faithful, watering his seed every day whether it grew or not. He is a person of integrity and trust, and will be a wise ruler over you all.

Give yourself a break this Christmas. When you leave here today, consider the single seed of faith God entrusts to your care. God calls you to water and nurture that seed of faith, whether it appears to grow in your keeping at any given moment or not. Your faithfulness is sufficient. Then do whatever brings you joy, regardless.

God has made a new covenant with us through the life of Jesus. The wrangled and over-wrought world entangles itself now as it always has done. You can’t fix it or change it. It’s too big for that. You don’t have to. God made a new covenant with you and me to be our God and we respond with our desire to be God’s people. This is God’s doing through the life of Jesus who is the Christ, the light and redeemer if the world. Receive this good news of great joy for all God’s people.

Amen

PRAYER OF THE DAY

Spirit of the Lord God,

You bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the prisoners. You comfort all who mourn, and shower your people with the oil of gladness instead of mourning; a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. We will greatly rejoice in you, O Lord, our whole being exults in you, O God, for the sake of the one who brought righteousness to life, Jesus Christ, the Lord of Life and Redeemer… Amen.