Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 17, 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Commentary

We often connect much of the Christmas season to happiness.  God’s people love to sing, “Joy to the World.”  We decorate our homes, stores and communities with bright lights.  Most of us like to celebrate with both the young in age and the young in heart.

This Sunday, however, is also a part of a season of some darkness.  After all, the days shrink as we approach our celebration of Christ’s birth.  This Thursday, in fact, is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  Even our churches are relatively dark, symbolically lit largely by the candles of our Advent table.

However, Christmas is also a season, for some, of emotional darkness.  Studies suggest that during this season depression and heartache are all too common for some of us.  What’s more, others’ holiday celebrations sometimes only heighten some peoples’ sense of grief or loneliness.

This evening’s text talks about good news and gladness.  However, it’s not the kind of joy that’s tied to happiness, bright lights around us or gifts under our trees.  It’s not even tied to happy economic, political or sports news.  This joy is, instead, linked to God’s promise to free us from our pain.

Isaiah’s 61’s author knows what it’s like to live in spiritual darkness.  He, in fact, speaks in its opening verses of broken heartedness, grief, captivity and despair.  The prophet probably writes about such darkness after Israel has trudged home from Babylonian exile.  The small remnant of returning Israelites is experiencing persecution, internal division and disappointment.

Some who proclaim as well as those who hear Isaiah 61 know pain that’s similar to that about which the prophet writes.  Something or someone has broken or is breaking our hearts.  Some sit in the darkness of mental illness, fear or doubt.  Others feel as though others’ expectations or our jobs enslave us.  Still others grieve those who have died or our own decline.

On the third Sunday in Advent God’s adopted sons and daughters gladly hear God promise to comfort the brokenhearted.  We gratefully hear the gospel of a servant who will bring freedom from various captivities.

513 American and Allied prisoners of war survived World War II’s Bataan Death March only to have the Japanese imprison them in the Philippines.  Those prisoners nearly gave up hope after three long years of horrendous captivity.  Many others had, after all, already died during the march or in the camp of either malnutrition or execution.

On January, 1945, however, 121 American Rangers emerged from the jungle surrounding their prison camp, chased their guards away and freed the captives.  Hampton Sides’ account of it, Ghost Soldiers, reports, “Slowly the awareness that this was a jailbreak was beginning to sink in among the rest of the prisoners …

“One prisoner wrapped his arms around the neck of the first Ranger he saw and kissed him on the forehead … Alvie Robbins found one prisoner muttering in a darkened corner of one of the barracks, tears coursing down his face.  ‘I thought we’d been forgotten,’ the prisoner said.  ‘No, you’re not forgotten,’ Robbins said.  ‘We’ve come for you’.”

Both those who proclaim and those who hear Isaiah 61 may also feel forgotten, if not by God, then perhaps, like that former prisoner of war, by people.  However, our text’s message is that God has not forgotten those who live under the clouds of sadness, loneliness, fear or grief.  In fact, the Bible consistently insists that just when God’s people feel almost completely forgotten, God comes for us.

The Church has come to link the Old Testament passage the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday to Jesus Christ, God’s promised Savior.  It recognizes that it’s as if on that first Christmas Jesus burst out of the figurative jungles that surround us, chased away Satan and his allies and freed us.

Jesus, in fact, controversially quotes Isaiah 61 in his first sermon in his hometown synagogue.  He even claims to be the fulfillment of this passage of liberation.  So in Luke 7 he says about himself, “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.”  In other words, Jesus insists that his ministry of preaching and healing fulfills God’s promise in our text to free us.

Of course, some who proclaim and hear Isaiah 61 may not feel like we need God to free us.  In the December 14, 2004 edition of the Christian Century, Neal Plantinga writes, “When life is good, our prayers for the kingdom get a little faint … When our kingdom has had a good year, we aren’t necessarily looking for God’s kingdom.  When life’s good, redemption doesn’t sound so good.”

So perhaps God’s people need to look a bit closer to identify the things that may enslave the people we love or even us.  We ask ourselves what’s keeping us from being the godly servants that God has created you and me to be.

Perhaps the guilt about something those who proclaim this passage have done is imprisoning them.  Or our hearers have disappointed both themselves and the people who know about it.  Isaiah 61 reminds God’s children that the One who knows that guilt even better than we do has come to free us from it.

Or maybe preachers, teachers and those who hear us are sitting in a prison anger has built.  Someone has so hurt us that we can’t stop thinking about it.  Tonight we remember that God has come in Christ to replace our anger with joyful songs and dancing.

Or maybe God’s children are sitting in the darkness of an addiction or a bad relationship.  Perhaps the chains of materialism and greed have tightly wrapped themselves around you.  On this Sunday those who proclaim Isaiah 61 announce that God has, in Christ, brought light to those who sit in all sorts of chains.

As my colleague Scott Hoezee notes in his fine December 8, 2014 Sermon Commentary on Isaiah 61, the prophet promises a great reversal of fortune for those who have so little of it: “The poor whose lives have for so long been filled with nothing but bad news get the gift of good news.  Those long held captive in dungeons and prisons of all kinds get promised their freedom.  Those who for years have spent so many days dampening handkerchiefs with their tears get comforted and pointed toward a day of smiles and laughter.

“Ashes get blown away to make way for glittering crowns.  The drab duds of mourning get replaced with festive and colorful garments fit for a really great party.   People who for too long have felt like dead sticks are promised that they will soon stand as tall and sturdy as the grandest oak tree.”

On this third Sunday in Advent God’s adopted sons and daughters remember that Christ has come to free us from our pain, darkness and grief.  Some of our churches even celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to remember how Christ lived, died and rose again from the dead to free us from what enslaves us.

However, as John Buchanan also notes, God comes in Christ to free us in part so that we can respond by addressing others’ brokenness.  After all, God sends God’s servant to free captives and comfort mourners so that we may, according to verse 4, do things like rebuild ancient ruins and renew ruined cities.

So those whom God has in Christ freed look for where we can help rebuild what has been ruined, for where we can help free those who are enslaved.  God’s adopted sons and daughters look to minister to those sitting in some kind of physical, emotional or spiritual darkness.  After all, Christ’s disciples go where Christ leads us.

Illustration Idea

Not long ago people discovered a lengthy correspondence between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his fiancée, Maria von Wedmeyer.  The Nazis had imprisoned him for plotting with members of the German resistance to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  They executed Bonhoeffer just a few days before World War II’s end.

Yet not long before that, on a day like that on which we proclaim and hear Isaiah 61, just twelve days before Christmas, the prisoner wrote his fiancé: “Dearest Maria, let us celebrate Christmas … Don’t entertain any awful imaginings of me in my cell, but remember that Christ, too, frequents prisons, and that he will not pass me by.”


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