Homecoming (Dec. 17, 2023) Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

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Imagine with me, if you will, a panoramic view of a land. There in the distance one sees a land that seems to have been devastated by something not natural. And in the distance of this view, one sees what looks like a city. Now the panoramic view is no longer there and a close up shows us the city. It has been plundered and the marks are all around the place. There are the walls of the city broken down and destroyed. There are houses demolished. The ones left standing are burned out and scorch marks are visible. In the center of the city there is what once was a magnificent building, now a burned-out hulk of what it once was. Here and there one sees some signs of a rebuilding phase, a few huts that will house families living in the city, a few places where those returning are trying to eek out a living on the land around the city. It is a sad and sorry place. A place of wretchedness and sorrow. A land that shows the marks of a violent military defeat and conquest. It is the city of Jerusalem.
In this devastation there comes the voice of a prophet or priest, we are not sure. But a voice comes into the gloom and despair of those who are in the devastated area. One who claims that he is anointed by the Spirit of the Lord who is God. Anointing was what was done to kings and priests to “set them apart” from others. It was what made them special. And it is the root of the word Messiah, anointed one. With this anointing, the prophet is to cry out four proclamations of liberation. These are, “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…[1] These are things that would speak to those listening. Each one stating what those listening are feeling at that moment.
The good news to the oppressed can also be translated as good news to the poor. These are ones who are in an economic crisis. They are oppressed by the empire that demands more from them than they can give. They are the poor, the lowest of the low and they know it. They are dejected and moving toward despair. They know that nothing they can do, no matter how much they struggle, that can bring about what they need. And to them is to come good news. Good news from one who has been anointed by God.
Binding up the brokenhearted. Those gathered listening to this would be brokenhearted. They returned from exile to find that the land and the city for which they longed for so long was still in devastation. They no longer were carrying a romanticized version of what would be waiting for them there. They now knew. And what they now knew would break the heart of anyone. But the Lord called the prophet to bind the brokenhearted. To bind like a broken arm so that there would be healing of the heart.
Captives yearned for freedom. As exiles in a foreign land, the Israelites knew what it was to be captives. They were taken against their will and were now being told that they were free. Free to be the people of God who were to follow the God of their ancestors.
The last of the proclamations is release to the prisoners. How many of those in prison long for release? But there are other prisons than the physical buildings that we think of when we hear of prisons. There is the prison of guilt and shame. The prison of expectations. The prison of loneliness. There are prisons of all kinds. And to those in prison the prophet is telling them that they are released. Like the prophet in Isaiah 40, the time of punishment has been fulfilled and the prisoner is to be released. This would hearken back to the year of Jubilee for the Israelites. In this year, all indentured servants or those who sold themselves into slavery were to be released and made full members of the community again. The land was to enjoy a rest and be returned to those to whom it belonged before. It was to be a time of celebration when the old debts were canceled and the people free to rebuild their lives once again.
The prophet continues to let those listening know that this is the year of favor for the Lord. A time of comfort and vengeance for those who mourn. In times of mourning, one would put ashes on their head, not rub themselves with oil or wear splendid clothing. Here the ones who are mourning are called to put on a turban on their heads. They are to rub oil, a sign of the good life, on their skin and no longer show mourning. And finally, they are to put on glorious clothing instead of having a spirit of gloom. The year of the Lord has come, and they are to no longer mourn, but to be glad and celebrate.
The prophet then no longer speaks of himself or of the Lord, but of a they. We presume that the “they” is the people who have returned, the exiles who have come back to whom the prophet has proclaimed the message of the Lord. They are to be like oaks, sturdy and strong, able to withstand the weather that is thrown at it. They are to be God’s planting where there will be glory found.
They are to rebuild. The ancient ruins, those areas that were not repaired in the 150 or so years that the people were away, were to be rebuilt. They are to raise up desolate places and to renew ravaged towns. The “they” here is clearly those who have returned. The Lord spoke and they listened. Now was the time to get to work. The Lord provided the freedom and the end of mourning. The people were now to raise up and show the glory of the Lord.
Then the Lord speaks. The Lord’s words begin like one of the prophet’s, “I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them…[2]The prophets often spoke these kinds of words rather than words of comfort. But God is speaking to them telling them what God hates and what they are to avoid.
But they are also told that all nations that see them will recognize they are the Lord’s people. That the Lord blessed them and that they are under the Lord’s care. They are to be a light to all the nations.
These words would be a balm to those hearing them. They became the words that brought the people to look for a Messiah, an anointed one. One who would set the captives free who would bring good news to the poor, bind the brokenhearted, and release those from whatever prisons they found themselves. The people were looking for an Advent of a new time.
John the Baptist once asked Jesus if he was the one for whom they had been waiting. The reply was not a “Yes, I am the one”, but rather a list of what was being done for the people, a list that is found in Isaiah 61.
In Luke 4 Jesus begins his ministry in Nazareth by reading the scroll of Isaiah and reading this very text. He then states that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[3]The people hearing this were amazed because her was Joseph’s boy claiming that he was the one for whom they all awaited. And they became angry. Not at the message, no, they knew the message and looked for the day when the one would come and save them from the oppressors of the empire of Rome. What angered them was the messenger, one whom they knew and who they believed would never be able to fulfill what was foretold.
We wait for the same things that the Israelites and those in Nazareth did. We wait for the day when the poor hear good news, captives are set free, the brokenhearted are given care and the prisoner released. And too often we get angry when we hear that message because we know it will upset the status quo. We like our things and the system that helps to maintain that status quo.
We are called to bring the good news, to bind, to proclaim freedom and to release the prisoner. And yet we do not do it. Why? Is it because we are afraid of what will happen to our status if we do these? Or is it because we don’t want to? Too often we say that those who are poor just don’t work hard enough, that the brokenhearted need to get over it, the captives can be free if they follow the right path and the prisoner, well, if they had not been doing something wrong, they would not be in prison. We do not listen to the words of the prophet or of Jesus. And God mourns our hard heartedness.
As we continue in Advent, let us take the time to realize that God proclaimed what God wanted done. Jesus proclaimed that the time arrived. We await a second Advent. During the time that we wait, we are to be busy building the desolate places and reaching out to those who are the least of these. Advent calls us to be ready to work and to live out what the prophet proclaimed. The good news is here. It is here for the telling and here for the working. Amen.
[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print. [2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print. [3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print.
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