It’s a good time of year to hear about John testifying to the light. The days are short, and even when the sun is supposed to be out the sky is often grey. It’s no surprise that when early Christians talked about God they talked about light. Darkness used to be dangerous.
For us, it’s easy enough to push back the darkness with the flip of a switch. I got a letter from PEPCO last week that compared my home’s electrical use with other similar homes. We are “better than average” but not “the best.” And according to the helpful line graph, most of my electricity use happens between 5 and 11 PM. “Think about who is using electricity in your home at that time.” said the letter. The answer is we all are. That’s dinner time and bath time and if I don’t start laundry now my son won’t have clean pants for school tomorrow time. It’s also a time when I am prone to leave lights on in rooms I’m not using simply because it drives away the gloom. I put the letter on my refrigerator, to remind myself that I should turn off the lights I’m not using and learn to live with a little gloom, but our Christmas tree is up and decorated and electric bill or no electric bill I’m going to have it lit in the evenings.
The stores this time of year are brightly it and aggressively selling CHEER at you. Cheer is not light, but it sure does use a lot of electricity. Cheer apparently comes in red and white stripes and is both peppermint flavored and spruce scented. Outside it’s dark and rainy, but inside it’s warm and bright and there’s cheerful music playing and there is not a problem in the world that cannot be solved with a cleverly packaged gift set of books or toiletries or a six foot tall pre-lit artificial fir tree on a rotating stand. Commercial culture will tell you that no matter what the source of the gloom, you can spend your way out of it.
Into all of this artificial brightness comes our reading from Isaiah, healing words spoken to an exiled people. Listen to the words “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . “ just as in the beginning the Spirit of God moved over the waters. Isaiah is telling a creation story, a recreation story, a story about coming home. For the exiled Israelites who were returning to Jerusalem it was a promise of return to a real place, just as some of us are preparing for a Christmas journey to our childhood home.
But many of us aren't making that journey, because home is too far away, or we’re too busy. Maybe home isn't there anymore, or maybe the kind of home we sing about at Christmas was never part of our lives in the first place. That’s why all those stores are selling us peppermint flavored, spruce scented memories, it’s why we bake the same cookies and play the same songs. In a world as broken as this one, as broken now as it was for the exiled Israelites of Isaiah’s time, we long to build a home for Christmas where we are, just like the one we remember or the one we wish we’d had.
Isaiah reminds us that the home we are yearning for has a source greater than the shopping mall. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” he says, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” The phrase “proclaim liberty to the captives” reflects the commission of the Jubilee year, a time when debts were forgiven and captives were literally set free. Isaiah is saying the Spirit of God is upon me to bring these people home.
Isaiah’s people had been in exile and were returning to Jerusalem, but the place had been sacked in their absence. They weren't coming home to warm hearths and bowls of wassail and celebrations. They had come home, and yet they were still in exile. They were coming home to ruins, and had to build up not only a temple but a society, one that met God’s expectations for justice. “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
Frankly that sounds like an overwhelming amount of work. It must have been tempting for those that had the means to put on the garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and just pretend that the rest of it was true, too. Just as we are tempted to buy the tallest possible Christmas tree and pretend that makes up for all the missing merriment. That’s why we have prophets, of course. Isaiah role was to keep people moving in the right direction, even when the work was hard.
It was this passage in Isaiah that Jesus chose for his first sermon. To begin his public ministry Jesus stood up in front of his synagogue and read that passage from Isaiah, then he told the assembly that the the words of the prophet were fulfilled in him. He was telling them that the time of exile, of injustice, was over, and it was time to come home.
And here we are this Advent season standing in the devastations of many generations. Sure, our church building is beautiful, and we all made it here this morning with clothes on our backs and if you stick around after the service, which I hope you’ll do, there will be an ample coffee hour. But once you step out of this building you will stepping into world so broken, so violent, so hungry, so unjust that just the daily headlines can break your heart. The problems we face, the problems of racial inequality, of economic inequality, of unjust treatment of prisoners, are the work of many generations.
Where are these oaks of righteousness that Isaiah promised, that Jesus promised?
And then I read the scripture again. “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
“They will be called.” Isaiah doesn't say “I will be called an oak of righteousness.” or “God will be called an oak of righteousness.” “They will be called.” Isaiah was sent by the Spirit to bind up the brokenness, not for the sake of wholeness alone, but so that the people of Israel could be oaks of righteousness, so that they can do the hard work in front of them, so that they can build a just society for everyone. There’s no easy way out promised by this passage. We can’t just say “God will sort it out.” because the promise isn't that the problems will be magically swept away. The promise is that we will be strengthened to do the work. The Spirit of God will be upon us, and God will work through us.
To do this work, to restore justice, it will take more than a memory of a more just time, even if we had such a memory, just as creating a true Christmas in our homes requires more than a memory of the kinds of Christmases we loved or wished for as children. We must, as God does, love justice and hate robbery and wrongdoing. We must, as Isaiah did, bind up the brokenhearted. We must, as John did, proclaim the light not only in words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts but in real, concrete actions in our voting booths, in soup kitchens, in schools, in prisons, in the protests on the streets and wherever the Spirit takes us.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28