Sunday, December 14, 2014

Great Expectations

1   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; 
2   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, 
          and the day of vengeance of our God; 
          to comfort all who mourn; 
3   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. 
4   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.
46b My soul magnifies the Lord, 
47       and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
48  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
          Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
49  for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 
          and holy is his name. 
50  His mercy is for those who fear him 
          from generation to generation. 
51  He has shown strength with his arm; 
          he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, 
          and lifted up the lowly; 
53  he has filled the hungry with good things, 
          and sent the rich away empty. 
54  He has helped his servant Israel, 
          in remembrance of his mercy, 
55  according to the promise he made to our ancestors, 
          to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Tis the season for great expectations. The decorations are up.  The last pushes of pre-holiday shopping, baking and shipping are taking place. The baby is almost here and the excitement runs high.

All of us have visions in our minds of a perfect Christmas. My own expectations focus upon Christmas Eve—family together, inspiring worship, a dusting of snow and a quiet cup of tea by the lit up tree. I am all about a silent night and some candles.

Christmas comes as a promise, a reassurance that someday all will be right with the world and in our lives.  We love this. We long for this. We need this. But there is a prophetic aspect to Christmas as well.  The Advent readings from Isaiah are promising and hopeful, but they also show us what is wrong with the world.

Isaiah’s great expectations are for a world of peace, where people turn swords into plowshares, where lambs and lions lie down together, where a child can play over a nest of snakes and not be bitten.  Isaiah tells us we can expect the brokenhearted to be comforted and that good news will come for the oppressed. The captives will be set free and there will be release for the prisoners.

This is all wonderful news. It leads us to expect great things from God. But accompanying all of Isaiah’s great expectations, there is another message—a message that when God judges, someone will be be found lacking.  When we lit the Advent wreath, we heard in Isaiah 35:

Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.

Yikes. That doesn't sound very Christmasy! Then the Old Testament reading Isaiah 61 reads:

  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;
2   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, 
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
          to comfort all who mourn;
3   to provide for those who mourn in Zion —

Who wants to hear about vengence this close to Christmas?
Isaiah is declaring a day of peace AND the vengeance of our God. There’s good news for the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive and prisoners. Presumably there’s bad news for those who do the oppressing, heartbreaking, and those who take captives and prisoners.

Fast-forward several hundred years to Mary’s song. I’m sure you remember that in the nativity story Mary, a teenager, has become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Mary, too, has some great expectations. Mary proclaims a message of good news and judgment in Luke 1. Mary expects that God will reverse things. That she and her people will no longer be downtrodden and hungry. Mary’s great expectation is that God will scatter the proud and bring down the rich. She says:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
 but has sent the rich away empty.

Isaiah's and Mary's words leave us with the hard question: Where are we in these stories? Are we the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, humble and hungry? Or are we the oppressors and heartbreakers? Are we the proud and the rich? 

We are used to hearing the words of good news and have great expectations of what God will do in the world and in our lives. So much so that we tune out the not-so-nice bits. But, embedded in this good news is the message that God has great expectations for us. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Isaiah and upon Mary and called them to participate in the work of God. They responded by being obedient and by preaching the gospel.

The Spirit of the Lord has named and claimed you and me, too, in our baptisms. We are God’s anointed. We are God’s prophets. We are vessels of God’s good news. We are called to live into the great expectations God has for us. We are called to be promoters of peace, preservers of dignity and feeders of the hungry in a world that is frightfully broken.

Isaiah and Mary lived in a broken world like ours. God gave them a word and called them to participate. We are expected to participate in the Kingdom of God that Jesus shows us in his words, ministry and life.

Speaking of expectations, this message of God's expectation and judgment might not meet your expectations of what a sermon should be so close to Christmas. You may have expected to something uplifting, not challenging.

You may prefer to hear only the good news that Jesus came for you and died for you—that by God’s grace you experience salvation. You are saved by God, not by your good works. This is true. Hear and believe this good news.

But, remember before Jesus was born, Isaiah preached good news. Mary preached good news.  Jesus preached good news  before he died and was resurrected and before people thought about what that meant. 

Before Jesus died he taught people how to live the good news. We are called to participate in the gospel that Jesus preached with his words and with his life.  The spirit is upon us. We are anointed. God has great expectations.

I know, I know, our lives are hectic and complicated and we just want a little peace.

We want prophets who speak happy news, a silent night, a baby that doesn’t cry and a savior that doesn’t bleed. Our expectation is that Christmas should be well-lit, well-decorated, and the story well-sanitized.

We create Christmases that are about pretty trees, lovely manger scenes and shiny trappings. But just like in our homes, all that Christmas beauty doesn’t just appear out of thin air.

Somebody has to do the unglamorous job of carrying the tree into the house, sweeping up the pine needles and wrapping the lights around it. Someone has to wash all the bowls and cookie sheets that produced the beautiful tray of cookies.  Christmas, like Christianity, is a participatory act.  

Have you been in a house where  one person expected help at Christmas, but feels like they are doing all the shopping, cooking, decorating and wrapping for Christmas? I can tell you it does not create goodwill toward men! Christmas requires that we all come together to get things done. Christ expected his disciples to participate in ministry.

In our scriptures today, the Jewish community had great expectations. They were expecting a messiah to come and restore their fortune. Many of them were sure that the new King of the Jews would be a literal King like David. He would increase the military might and lead them to independence and prosperity. The mighty arm of God would sweep away the Babylonians or Assyrians or Romans restore Israel. Israel would finally be at peace.

But the messiah didn’t meet their expectations. He wasn’t a warrior.  He didn’t have an army. He didn’t even defeat the Romans. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first recorded teaching begins when he unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…
Then Jesus began to say to them, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Note that Jesus “began” to say to them. The fact that he fulfilled the scriptures isn’t the last word, but the first word of his ministry. He created expectations with that reading. His whole life shows what the fulfillment of the scriptures looks like.  It doesn’t look like a warrior king. It doesn’t look like the mighty arm of the LORD sweeping swaths of people out of the way so that the Israelites can feel powerful again.

Instead, that fulfillment looks like a baby born to teenager who feels blessed by God. It looks like a teacher who feeds thousands of people on a hillside or maybe a school teacher who slips $5 to the kid from subsidized housing so that she can eat lunch.

The fulfillment of the scripture looks like a leader who gets over his revulsion and touches lepers or a nurse who works with Ebola patients.  It looks like a man who eats with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners or helps out at the food bank or takes a casserole to a grieving family or provides medical care to the homeless.

The fulfillment of scripture is a savior who shows us how to live.  It looks like the God of the universe becoming vulnerable as a baby. It looks like the most powerful person on earth being humble, empty and obedient on a cross.  It looks like Jesus calling you and me to participate in the promise of good news.

My husband Matt takes the Parkway East to work every day. After many years of commuting, he says he’s learned an important lesson about traffic. 

You don’t get STUCK in traffic. You ARE the traffic. 

I wonder if the same could be said of us as Christians. 

We aren’t just called to HEAR good news. We ARE good news. 

We are called to the hope of a better world. We are called to the manger to see a baby. We are called away to be the good news of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world. The spirit of the Lord is upon us. We have been anointed to bring good news to the poor, healing to the hurting and freedom to the captives. This is a great expectation indeed.

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