December 9, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday December 11th, 2016. From our Advent series, “The King is Coming.”
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
A familiar voice
The remnant of God’s people Judah were returning home after more than a generation of exile in Babylon. They came back to find their homes overgrown and dilapidated; their temple a pile of rubble; and their land overrun with foreign settlers.
Surely they knew that’s how they’d find things when they returned. Of course folks from the neighboring countries would claim plots in the abandoned land by squatter’s right. And of course those recent immigrants weren’t going to rebuild their houses and temple for them.
Still, it’s one thing to know something in your mind; and another thing altogether to see it, to live in it, and to hold the ruins of your family property in your own two hands.
I’m sure their journey home was baptized in joy. But the mess they found when they got there … Well, to say it was a buzzkill would be a gross understatement.
But as the people picked through the rubble of their nation, wondering: Okay, what now?, a familiar voice rang out from among the ruins.
It sounded a lot like the prophet Isaiah.
And here’s what that familiar old voice said:
The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor …
In the long ago, the prophet Isaiah had spoken up for the poor and discouraged. Through his words, God had called the wealthy and powerful to account for at best neglecting and at worst abusing their poor neighbors. But the voice that once spoke words of judgment now speaks words of joy. Isaiah’s voice, which had afflicted them when they were comfortable, had become a source of comfort in their affliction.
Because they were pretty much all afflicted, now. A nation of poor people, trying to rebuild their lives, just barely holding on.
And for the first time in national memory, a prophet bringing good news for the poor was bringing good news to everybody.
Isaiah proclaims a Jubilee
And out of the ruins of their nation, that old familiar voice continued to broadcast the joyful news:
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and a day of vindication for our God,
to comfort all who mourn.
And the people realized what God had in mind for them. The year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God could only mean one thing: God was calling a Jubilee!
The Jubilee had been instituted back in Leviticus 25. Every fiftieth year, on Yom Kippur—the Day of Reconciliation—the Jubilee began. It was a year of forgiveness. A year of homecoming. A year of joy. The residents of Israel, and the land itself, were given a year to rest. But God promised that the land would joyfully yield enough for everyone. Slaves and prisoners were set free. All debts were forgiven. And all the land was returned to the families who had originally settled it. It was a year of God’s vindication—when he settled all accounts, and made everything right again.
At least that’s how God envisioned it. But according to the prophet Jeremiah, the people hadn’t followed through on God’s vision. Jeremiah 37.17, 22 reads: Since you have defied me by not setting your fellow citizens free, I’m setting you free, declares the Lord, free to die by the sword, disease, and famine! … I will make Judah a wasteland, without inhabitants. But God had told Isaiah that the day would come to speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim … that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins! (Isa. 40.2).
And now Isaiah’s voice joyfully proclaimed to God’s people that this day had finally arrived. Their penalty had been paid. So now:
Instead of shame, their portion will be double;
instead of disgrace, they will rejoice over their share.
They will possess a double portion in their land;
everlasting joy will be theirs.
In other words, since the people had paid fully for their sins, God was about to fully restore them. This is in keeping with God’s character. I, the Lord, love justice, God reminds them through Isaiah’s familiar voice. That means he won’t keep punishing them forever, because that wouldn’t be justice. In the Bible, justice leads to wrongs being made right. The goal of biblical justice is restoration—being made whole—and reconciliation. And that’s what God does in our lesson today. He declares a year of amnesty for the prisoners and captives. He’s bringing about a day of rescue for the poor, the brokenhearted, and all who mourn. Because that’s exactly how a God who loves justice would respond to his people after they’ve suffered shame and disgrace in Babylon. He declares amnesty and rescues them, so they can be reconciled to him, and be restored.
In times past, God’s people had forgotten about the Jubilee. But God has not forgotten. Through Isaiah, God proclaims a joyful time of Jubilee for his people. The land has gotten its rest while they were in Babylon. Now God proclaims to his people that their debts are forgiven. They’ve been released from their slavery. And now they’re free to come home and start rebuilding. With God’s blessing.
Jubilee, Exodus, and return from exile
God first laid out his plans for the Jubilee year to the generation he’d rescued from Egyptian slavery. It seems that God’s big idea with the Jubilee was that every family, every Israelite, in every generation would get an opportunity to experience the joy of release. Just like the generation of Israelites who experienced release during the Exodus. God wanted his people to know the joy of being set free to make a good life for themselves and their children in the land he settled them in.
All of this is tied into the logic of creation itself. God had made humans in his image and likeness—representing God on earth. When God created humanity, he commanded: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it (Gen. 1.28). In Gen. 2.15, we find God settling the first human in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. If we put this all together, we see the big idea for how God, humans, and the rest of creation are supposed to work together. God is the landlord of the earth. He has placed humans on the earth as caretakers for his property. Humans were meant to reflect God’s image through their creativity and care for creation. As they multiplied and filled the earth, they were to expand the borders of Eden—cultivating the land as they went forth. Caring for the earth and the other creatures. Building cultures and civilizations that reflected God’s self-giving, care-full, creative love. The logic of creation is that God gave humans charge of the earth so that they could carry on the creative work God had begun.
After human sin put the project of creation in peril, God called Abram and his wife Sarai. He likewise blessed them to be fertile and multiply. And then he settled their descendants, Israel, in the land he had promised. God set Israel free from Egypt and led them to the land of Canaan to do what he created humans to do, and be who he created humans to be. When God instituted the Jubilee, he said: The Israelites belong to me as servants. I brought them out of Egypt’s land (Lev. 25.55). That was to remind the Israelites that he released them from bondage to joyfully serve him by caring for the land where he settled them. God also reminded them of the logic of creation: the land belongs to me. You are … tenant farmers working for me (Lev. 25.23 NLT). God is the landlord, and his people honor him by caring for the earth he created.
But just as the sin of the first humans had put God’s creation project in peril, so did the sins of God’s people Israel. And just as God exiled the first humans from the garden of Eden, God’s people were exiled from the land where God settled them. But in our Isaiah reading today, the people are returning from exile. There’s a new Exodus going on in the later chapters of Isaiah. And now God has announced a Jubilee for the remnant that has returned. Through his prophet, God says that he has restored his people to their work of caring for his land.
And so Isaiah tells the people God wants them to get to work putting his land in order, with the same joy that the first humans found in caring for the garden of Eden. They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, Isaiah says. And as they go about the work God has set them free to do in the land, God will pour out on them oil of joy in place of mourning.
Priests among the nations
Isaiah also tells the remnant returning from Exile: You will be called The Priests of the Lord; Ministers of Our God, they will say about you. More good news for God’s people to rejoice over! Because it’s another sign that they’ve been restored to their work as God’s people.
Way back in the days of the Exodus, when God first led his people out of captivity, he had told them: if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation (Exod. 19.5-6). In other words, the work of the whole nation of Israel was to be God’s priests, representing God before all the other nations of the earth.
Priesthood is also tied into the logic of creation. Later in Isaiah, God will remind the people: Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool (Isa. 66.1). So in the first verse of scripture, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, he was building a temple in which to dwell. And as we heard earlier, God created humans to represent him on the earth. In other words, humanity was created to be God’s priests in God’s temple. Serving God, worshiping God, observing his instruction, protecting the creation.
The first humans had failed in their priestly duty, and so had been exiled from the garden. Likewise, God’s people Israel had failed to be a kingdom of priests for God, and had been exiled from the land. But now God has returned a remnant of Israel to the land, and told them: You will be called The Priests of the Lord.
That was very good news. A reason for God’s people to rejoice. Because it meant that not only was the story of God’s people getting back on track; the story of humanity itself, and the entire creation was being put back in order.
In Israel, the priests lived off of the offerings brought by the people. Isaiah’s familiar old voice says it will be the same for God’s priestly nation: they will live from the abundance of the nations of the earth. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and fatten yourself on their riches. But God doesn’t mean his people will enrich themselves by exploiting other peoples. It was just that kind behavior by Israel’s priesthood in times past that helped send them into exile. Instead, God promises to bless the other nations of the earth through his people: I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant.
The nations will be enriched by God’s people, too. Just like God had told their ancestor Abram when he called him: all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you (Gen. 12.3). Through his people—his kingdom of priests—God will call all the peoples of the earth into an enduring covenant with him.
With God’s people resettled in their land, and restored to their work as his priests among the nations, there was much to rejoice over. God was working to set his world right again, by making all the peoples of the earth his people.
Joy for our journey
C. S. Lewis once said that “joy emphasizes our pilgrim status; [it] always reminds, beckons, awakens desire.”
Joy isn’t just a feeling or an emotion. No, joy is a motion. Joy is reaching out. Joy is running toward. Joy is leaning into. Joy means we don’t resign ourselves to the present reality. Joy means we trust that there’s something better beyond what’s happening now. And that longing for something better, truer, more beautiful is what gives us the resilience to go on.
That’s what Isaiah was doing for the people in our lesson today. Imparting joy by reminding them that they were on a journey that wasn’t over yet. He pointed them toward the Exodus and the Jubilee year. Joyful events from their past that reminded them that God is a rescuing, reconciling, and restoring God. And then Isaiah said: That’s what’s happening now. God’s calling you back home. God has proclaimed a Jubilee! He’s making right what we made wrong! And that joyful reminder beckoned them to embrace the future God was planning for his people. It awakened their desire to rebuild their temple and their cities. It reminded them that God still had plans for them. And those plans were not only for their good, but the good of the entire world. Through Isaiah, God called the remnant of Israel back to work as his priestly people among all the peoples of the earth.
The prophet Isaiah pointed back toward the Jubilee to inspire joy in the remnant of Israel in the present, and hope for their future. During the season of Advent, the church does something similar. We remember that the Messiah of Israel, God’s anointed king Jesus, came into the world bringing joy. He preached good news to the poor. He gave sight to the blind. When he met people who were oppressed by diseases or demons or sin or shame, he set them free. And he left behind a people—a church—to be a kingdom of priests who bless all the families of the earth. Our priestly work is to continue what God began in Jesus.
The joy that sustains our priestly work is that we know our King Jesus has come, and will come again. And when he comes all creation will be set free in a forever Jubilee. In the meantime, our work as God’s priestly people is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and to comfort all who mourn. Our work is to be God’s good news to the poor. To keep on binding up the brokenhearted, and proclaiming release for captives, and liberation for prisoners. To keep spreading the joy that King Jesus has brought into our lives.
We lose our joy when we lose sight of our pilgrim status. When we forget that we are moving through God’s story that moves from creation to new creation. That we are journeying toward a new heavens and new earth and a forever Jubilee. When all creation will know the joy of release from the exile of sin. When God will make right what sin and death have made wrong. Let us be reminded that we are pilgrims on a journey, traveling the way King Jesus has made for us. And so let have joy in our journey.