Messengers of Anticipation and Hope 12/17/2017
Sojourn Sermon – December 17th – Isaiah 61
The other day Megan said to me, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas.” And at first, I didn’t really know what that meant. To confess, I don’t love Christmas. I don’t hate Christmas, or really have any misgivings about Christmas. I just don’t love it. I like Easter, and not necessarily for its religious and theological significance, that’s part of it, but really, I just love pastel colors and brunch and spring time. That’s why I love Easter.
So I asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well there’s no snow.”
“Yeah that’s lame.”
“And we don’t have any Christmas decorations.”
“And we haven’t done anything Christmasy.”
Which is also true.
“It just doesn’t feel like Christmas,” Megan finally said again.
I’ve been thinking about this conversation a lot. And I’m a very philosophical person, you might have caught on. I like definitions, and so I’m asking myself, “Okay, what’s the thing. What is the principle or concept that’s missing that makes it not feel like Christmas?”
So here is what I came up with: anticipation. The kind of anticipation that you can feel in your bones. If you grew up in a house that had Christmas presents under the tree you know exactly what I mean. You have this constant reminder that something awesome is going to happen on Christmas morning. You don’t know, what’s beneath the wrapping paper, but you might dig through to see what your presents look like, and low and behold, that big box in the back has your name on it. You just know that’s going to be something good, just look how big it is.
And you have all these reminders that Christmas morning, or Christmas Eve, depending on when you open your presents, is going to be awesome. The snow on the ground reminds you its Christmas, and the lights, and the tree and weird Christmas covers by pop singers reminds you. It all adds to your anticipation.
But as adults, that anticipation is diminished. Christmas morning means figuring out where family is going to sleep when they come to town. And cooking for large groups of people or having to be around family members who say off-color things. Sometimes you’re so busy that even putting up decorations, which should sound fun and exciting, just feels like another chore. If you’re familiar with the T. S. Elliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men,” I sometimes think that is a pretty good literary depiction of adulthood. Written just after the First World War, the poem represents the feeling of disillusionment that was felt by the young men who returned from the Western Front after a feeling of great excitement and anticipation before the War.
“This is the way the world ends,” Elliot says,
“This is the way the world ends.
Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”
While this comparison may seem overly macabre, and perhaps too dramatic, I want to suggest that a deep feeling of disillusionment and disenchantment that tends to come with increased age, is really a tragedy, and, similarly, it is a failure of the religious imagination.
If you weren’t with us last time, our topic for advent is an exploration of this term, “the religious imagination,” which OT scholar Ellen Davis defines as the “ability to imagine that the world could be significantly different, for better or worse, than we and every other generation have experienced it.” I suggested last week, that the Christ event made a new future possible and the church is called to imagine this future and to live it out as if it were already a reality. Today I want to suggest that part of the religious imagination is to anticipate this future with eager longing and hope. Part of the religious imagination it to go through the ritual motions of preparing the way so that, much like Christmas decorations, and snow, and lights, and bad covers of good songs, we are continually reminding ourselves and building this anticipation.
Both of the texts we’ve read tonight fit well within this paradigm of building anticipation around what God is going to do in the world. This act of building anticipation is firmly rooted in the Jewish cultural understanding. In fact, it is a characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry that God is going to act in the world. Even the most desperate and fearful Lament Psalms, end with words of anticipation.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” Psalm 22 begins, and it ends,
“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
Before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him, future generations will be told about the Lord and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn saying, “He has done it.”
You can hear the anticipation in the psalmist’s words: God is going to act.
There is a similar tone in the Isaiah passage we just read. You might be familiar with this text because it is quoted at length in Luke 4, where Jesus is asked to read at synagogue in his home town. Luke’s use of this text is to suggest that Jesus is a fulfillment of this prophecy. The easy reading would suggest that in penning these words, the prophet who wrote them acted as a vehicle for God and predicted God’s future revelation in Jesus, and, of course, that is how Christians tend to read this text. Jesus will eventually fulfill this prophecy, and therefore, we read this text as if it is about Jesus.
If that’s our reading, however, we ignore that this text was written some 500 years before the birth of Christ, and in fact, communities of faith found this text to be meaningful to their lives in that interim period, that’s why they continued to transmit it to later generations. In 500 BCE, you can’t just copy and paste the text of your favorite prophet, it took years of papyrus production or entire herds of cattle to produce the leather to write down these words. Why? Why take all that time and energy and money if this text were just about Jesus?
It is more accurate to say that the kind of leader Jesus would be was anticipated in the kinds of leaders Israel saw as ideal. It would be more accurate to say that part of what made Jesus so special was that Jesus was so firmly grounded in Jewish tradition.
This is an important distinction to make, because this text is also important for us in its own right.
Isaiah 61 is among the last 11 chapters of Isaiah. As a book, Isaiah can be split into three distinct sections, and these separate sections are denoted by differences in language and topic. The first section of Isaiah can be found in Chapters 1-39. Here the prophet deals with the threat of Assyria, and was written near the end of the 8th Century BCE. Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel and deported the people. Those they deported are now known as the Lost Tribes of Israel. The Assyrians then occupied the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and much of these early chapters are responses to this threat.
Chapters 40-54 deal primarily with Babylon, and was probably written near the beginning of the 6th Century BCE. In these chapters we encounter the servant songs where the prophet describes God’s servant Israel, who suffers on behalf of the nations, and describes the exile in Babylon.
Finally, these last Chapters, 55-66, are written after the return to Judah, and they anticipate the rebuilding of the temple and the city of Jerusalem.
The historical context of this passage is of a poor group of exiles, returning to a land they’ve never known, but probably heard their parents and grandparents speak about. As the Torah was codified in the exilic period, these exiles returning home would have heard of a home land flowing with milk and honey. They would have been told of a great city and a beautiful temple.
They would find a city in ruins and great poverty.
We read in the first Chapter of Nehemiah that an envoy was sent to those who were still held captive in Babylon, and this is what the envoy says, “The survivors who there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” In this context the prophetic word from God was one of hope and rebuilding. That those who mourn on Zion would be comforted, and they would receive a garland instead of ashes. These last 11 chapters bring an anticipatory message that God is going to act on behalf of God’s people, that their descendants would be known among the nations as people blessed by God.
In addition to this historical context, there is an important literary context to consider. As I said, in Chapters 40-55 we find what scholars call, the Servant Songs. These songs describe Israel as this idyllic servant, and just like our text for today, these themes are picked by NT authors and embodied by Jesus. For example, the Song of the suffering servant in Chapters 52 and 53. In these Chapters a servant who is rejected and scorned heals the peoples wounds through his own injury, and is exalted for his suffering.
In Chapter 42, the prophet describes a servant who will bring fourth justice, and the prophets speaks the word of God saying, “I have put my spirit on him.”
Here in our text for today we read, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…” to in effect, “bring forth justice.” This is a fascinating move for the prophet, because it places the author directly into this role of God’s servant who has been spoken about in the Isaiah school. Rather than claiming a Messianic role for him or herself, the messianic expectation was only in its infancy then, the prophet assumes the role of messenger. The prophet of third Isaiah is the one who will remind the people of God’s message of hope that fits within a continuity of prophetic expectation. And what’s more, this role of Hope Bringer is ordained by God.
It’s hard not to hear echoes of this in Mary’s Song. Much like the prophets in Isaiah 42 and 61, we read that the Spirit of God will come upon Mary in v. 35. She, like the prophets of old, will bring forth hope in a completely new way. Mary is anointed to bring forth hope in the form of a child. This is a physical hope, a tangible hope. There is her song a similar thematic element – God’s hope bring forth justice, filling the hungry with good things.
This continual anointing, this continuing to bring forth hope from ordained messengers, is the story of God. The Spirit comes to those God ordains with this message to bring to the people: God is going to act. This is the work of anticipation.
It is work, and its grounded in ritual. It is no coincidence that after being anointed, both the Prophet and Mary break into song. It is a form of ritual praise. Anticipation requires ritual, it requires building the feeling that something awesome is going to happen. And on some level we know this, otherwise we wouldn’t hang lights, put up Christmas trees, and bake cookies, because on some level we want to believe something awesome is about to happen. We want to have that feeling.
I want to ask you a serious question though. Do we believe?
I read a story in a book one of my seminary professors wrote. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom writes that on a Christmas Eve service at her Church, North Park Covenant, she overheard a conversation between a mother and her daughter. After the call to worship, in which the congregation spoke about Jesus coming to be with them, the young girl looked up at her mother excitedly. “Jesus is going to come here tonight!” she asked her mom. “Not really honey,” the other replied, “we just pretend he’s going to come tonight.”
I am the kind of person to make light of the Spirit of Christmas. I’m much more like Ebenezer Scrooge than Bob Cratchet or Tiny Tim, and I suspect that’s true of more of us than we let on. But here’s the thing, in Acts 2, a strange thing happens, the Spirit of God descends on the church. The church is anointed to be God’s new messenger of this anticipatory hope.
The spirit of the Lord is upon us, to proclaim the good news.