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Long before the first Christmas, picture a Sabbath morning in Jerusalem. The city might have still been largely a ruin – destroyed by the Babylonians 50 years earlier. Its people carried away in captivity. While in Babylon the exiles began to hear a message of hope. “Comfort O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term. That her penalty is paid.” That you’re coming home.
So it’s a Sabbath morning and some Israelites have gathered together in a makeshift synagogue. They had started doing this while they were in exile, gathering in synagogues. They were familiar with the prophecies about their return. About how God had chosen Persian King Cyrus to be the instrument God would use to bring his people home again. How Jerusalem would be rebuilt and how the temple would be rebuilt.
The reality was tough though. The expected flood of returning exiles was at this point a mere trickle. There is drought in the land. Hunger. There is religious infighting among Israelite priests. There is economic uncertainty. There is a growing distinction between those returning from Babylon, the best educated, the people of most means, and those who had been left behind 50 years ago. As I asked three weeks ago does any of this remind us of any situations we know?
These people are gathered together to hear a word from God. What does God have to say to them? What might God have to say to us this Sunday morning more than 2500 years later, as we listen to the same words? Let us pray…
This group of people in Jerusalem that morning had been hearing about how God would send a redeemer to Zion. They had been hearing about how God’s glory would rise on them like a light in a world covered in darkness, how nations would come to this light and how kings would come to the brightness of their dawn. This may have seemed unlikely to this group of Israelites that morning as they looked around at their reality. This morning though they were going to hear something new. One of the great things about God is that God is always doing something new. Following Christ is a lot of things but it is never boring! A man stands up and proclaims “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” The Holy Spirit in the OT is never some passive ethereal force. This group of people were familiar with how the Holy Spirit worked. They were familiar with how the Holy Spirit had come upon King David from the day he was anointed by Samuel. God’s Spirit was impelling and compelling. One translation of Gen 1:2 reads “A stormy wind raged over the waters…” Earlier in Isaiah 30 it’s compared to an overflowing stream. It can carry you away!
What does the Holy Spirit mean for this man of Isaiah 61? His identity is bound up in God’s identity. God’s Spirit is creating in this servant a love for the same things that God loves, and a desire to proclaim and to demonstrate this love. This is the servant’s job – to show and to tell what God has done, and what God does is deliverance. This is God’s work. This is Christ’s work. This is the Spirit’s work. What does that work look like? It looks like good news to the oppressed – in all the many ways that we can be oppressed, spiritually, materially, economically (because in Hebrew thought there was no distinction made between the heart, soul, body, mind). They all go together to make up who we are. It looks like binding up the broken hearted the same way one binds up wounds. There are actual wounds to be healed yes, but all of these things work on multiple levels. As one writer puts it “Both Judaism and Christianity are aware that to forgive sins is to heal. We possess the great declaration of the rabbinical tradition: ‘No man can recover from illness till his sins are remitted.’” To walk around with sin that is unforgiven or to be walking around with unforgiveness in our hearts is like walking around with a gaping wound. To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners – light to the prisoners. To show and tell what God has done and is doing and will do. To show what God’s work is, what Christ’s work is, and that this work is love and deliverance. Good news to the oppressed. Healing the brokenhearted. Liberty to the captives. Release to the prisoners. These things all work on literal and metaphorical levels and these are all things that God has done for Israel. These are all things that God has done for us.
It’s not just for us as individuals of course. God’s saving restoring plan is for all of creation. They shall build up the ancient ruins, we read in v 4. They shall raise up the former devastations (and many of us know what it’s like to be devastated), they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
This is the mission of the servant. This is our mission. To respond with thankfulness. To tell what God has done. The prophet describes those who accept this mission as oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory. I like that image a lot. Middle eastern oaks are evergreen. Never changing colours or losing their leaves. Oaks of righteousness. Oaks that show and tell of the right way. The planting of the Lord. It’s God’s work in us that enables this showing and telling about God. A tree has little to do with its own growth beyond accepting the fact that it’s a tree. The planting of the Lord to display his glory. To display God’s glory means to display who God is – love and grace and mercy and justice and all that those things entail. This leads to joy on the part of the servant – “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” I was ashamed of who I was and tried to cover myself up and we try to cover ourselves up in many ways and the invitation is here to accept the clothes, because we can either accept them or shrug them off, and be made into someone new – someone who reflects who God is like an oak tree, rooted and grounded in Christ. Do we want this, this Advent season? Do we want to be an oak? Do we want to be a whole forest of oaks that reflect God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s justice?
Five hundred years later we have another servant who accepts the clothes. This time it’s maternity wear. She is visited by an angel called Gabriel who calls her favoured and she doesn’t know what this means. He tells her that she have a son and he will be great and be called the Son of the Most High and that the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his ancestor and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and that his kingdom will have no end. I love Mary’s response, she’s thinking very practically. She doesn’t question what any of this might mean (reign forever? kingdom without end?) but asks quite pointedly “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She’s told that that same Spirit who was on the servant in our Isaiah passage, that same compelling and impelling Spirit would bring all this about - that Cousin Elizabeth is six months along and she was said to be barren because nothing will be impossible with God. Mary can’t have any idea of the implications of any of this. We’re in much the same position aren’t we? How could we ever fully grasp the implications of God’s love for us? Of God’s mercy toward us? God grant that we’re coming to a greater understanding of it though. God grant that we might be saying along with Mary, despite our shared lack of understanding – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Once again, the activity of the Holy Spirit is clearly evident. Mary goes to a certain town (we don’t know its name) to the house of Zechariah to visit Cousin Elizabeth. Immediately upon greeting her (and it’s important that we’re always meeting each other with the good greeting) the child in Elizabeth’s womb does something more than just its usual kicks. The child leaps for joy in his mother’s womb! “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord.” Blessed, happy, joyful are those who believe that what God promises God enacts. Here too we have that great question which I think we should always ask when confronted by God’s unmerited favour, that thing we call grace. Why me Lord? Following that “What would you have me do? Here am I your servant.” God’s saving project is not one that is based in religion and ethics you see. I’ve heard it said that for the follower of Christ, religion is grace, and ethics is gratitude. Faith, hope, and love are founded in God’s grace. The fitting and proper response to God’s grace is gratitude.
Then Mary starts to sing a song of gratitude. It’s called The Magnificat in church tradition after the first word in the Latin translation of v. 46. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” What does is mean for our soul to magnify the Lord? We could translate “soul” here as “my whole being” – the essence of our existence, the vital force that animates us. The word translated magnify means to deem or declare great. It also means to make conspicuous, to…. Magnify. What would it mean for us that the essence of our being made God conspicuous. What might it mean for us to respond with thanksgiving for what God has done, is doing, will do.
What is it that God does? One writer describes how verses 52-53 contain “in sharpest focus what has been called a classical statement of God’s activity.” What does God’s love look like? It looks like a reversal. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. It doesn’t often look like this to us. The powerful seem only to gain more power while the lowly remain low. Mary is proclaiming here a different reality. There is a higher power in creation that is concerned with justice and mercy and grace and love. This power has acted and is acting and will act. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. There is a longing in the human heart, isn’t there. A hunger. A longing for relationship, for acceptance. We try to fulfill this longing in many different ways. In the person of her son this longing will be fulfilled. These words anticipate those of Jesus who said that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – for the right way – will be filled. Those who try to fulfill this inner longing with all the things that this world tells you will lead to transformation and acceptance will ultimately find that these things leave you feeling rather empty.
In Christ, God’s work is revealed. God’s work is love. Christ’s work is love. Around thirty years later this child that Mary carried would stand up in a synagogue in his home town. It’s a passage that has taken on so much meaning for our church. This man who was sent from God and of God and filled with God’s Spirit fully and completely stood up and read from the same part of Isaiah we read this morning 2,000 years after him. “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 favour.” He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Then came the new thing. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is what God’s love looks like. It looks like deliverance. The kingdom is coming. It’s also here. It’s also inside you, because, to paraphrase Marshall Mcluhan, the messenger is also the message. The one who showed and told us what it meant to follow him and participate in God’s delivering, loving work is also the one whose Spirit would enable it in his followers.
So what does love look like for us this Christmas? What does good news to the poor, release from captivity, sight to the blind, freedom from oppression, the year of the Lord’s favour mean to you? What has it meant to you? What might it mean to those around you? What might it mean to those in your house, on your street, in your building, around our city, around the world, as we celebrate Christ’s birth? Let us say with Mary “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The innermost part of my being magnifies, makes apparent, makes conspicuous the love of God. May this be our prayer this Advent. Be magnified, O Lord, in every part of me – heart, soul, mind. Be made apparent Lord, in all I do and say.
The thing of this is, it needn’t be grandiose. You never know what God will make of your smallest words, your smallest actions, when this is our prayer. We had a friend of Larry Matthews’ come visit Out of the Cold one Saturday night recently. He’s involved with work among street youth in Moncton. One thing that Larry’s friend shared really struck me afterward. We sometimes talk about ministries like Out of the Cold as a band-aid, or as something that doesn’t really address the root of a problem. We could say the same thing about our Wednesday drop in. Larry’s friend noted the welcome interpersonal warmth, the social contact. He said that these kinds of things can be instrumental in changing someone’s life over time and that even small gestures that treat people as people are important. Small gestures, acts, words that let people know that they are beloved children of God.
So may we say with Mary this Christmas, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. May it be with me according to your word.” May good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, the proclamation and demonstration of the year of the Lord’s favour be with us all, according to the living Word.