When God gets specific, I gets nervous.
At least, I get nervous when people living in the very same world I inhabit claim that God operates through hurricanes or floods or fires, punishing for sin people who have absolutely nothing to do with the sin being charged. Like, preachers proclaiming God’s abhorrence for homosexuality using 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina as evidence of God’s resulting wrath. I heard something similar about feminists, too. I won’t say who said it but y’all have the Google machine.
God supposedly unleashes devastation that incurs widespread suffering on thousands of people because of a gay pride parade in a mid-sized, Midwestern city. When these sort of preachers start talking about this outrageous stuff, I feel myriad emotions: anger, sadness, righteous indignation, superiority. I’m upset that they are presenting such a distorted and untheological vision of the God whom I serve. I feel sadness for the people in the path of the storm who are devout, and go to God wondering why God had to punish them for the sin of others. I feel righteous indignation because I know the Bible is used incorrectly to support this reckless theology, and I know that I can decimate in a conversation anyone who spews such drivel to congregants and believers. I feel superior because I don’t do that; I’m closer to God than that; I’m a better Christian than that.
It is that easy to become a Pharisee.
Now, we need to check this word Pharisee because for too long it has been used as code for Jew. And I don’t mean a person who practices Judaism or identifies as Jewish. I mean that mythical Jew of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the Jew who has horns or asks for a pound of flesh; the Jew featured in the sort of odious and dangerous claptrap that has haunted and harassed the Jewish people for millennia. That has become the vision of the Pharisee. But that is not who Jesus meant when he decried the Pharisees. He saw devout brothers in God who were reacting out of fear and for survival; the brief, violent period of the Hasmonean Dynasty had provided a couple generations’ worth of relative freedom before Rome came in and implemented one of the most brutal occupations in ancient history. The Pharisees were trying to survive and to help the people who had been alienated by the Temple and the priests. Pharisees believed that the Law would protect them. Along comes Jesus who appears to flout the Law completely, and they feel angry. Saddened. Righteously indignant. Superior.
Pharisees were good, well-meaning people who simply couldn’t imagine the sort of God Jesus was presenting. They misunderstood Jesus as much as we misunderstand them.
It’s just a glass case filled with emotion, ain’t it?
I give these two examples to situate what we have in today’s passage from Isaiah 61, a text written during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, probably around the time our friend Cyrus the Persian, whom we spoke about a few weeks ago, was assisting to return from Babylonian captivity to Israel those few who wanted to return. It was the best of times it was the worst of times.
In today’s passage we have an example of God getting specific. And I think it is important to talk about how we feel about it.
Isaiah’s audience is people who have been through it. You know what I mean by through it? Like getting from a diagnosis to remission through it? House foreclosed upon through it. Job lost at middle age and pension bankruptcy kind of through it. And so had their parents. And grandparents. There is not a family around that has not been through it. And they have been told that they deserve their struggles because of the sins of those who came before them. People they never even met. Because of things they never did. I can feel the emotions rising up, can you?
Isaiah’s message, then, of hope and change, fell upon eager ears. Frankly, it is also a good PR move for God because people get tired of waiting for liberation and redemption. As they should, especially if they are being punished for something that happened in the recesses of memory, the veracity of which is even questionable itself.
What was that sin again? What did they do wrong and what am I supposed to do about it?
“God has anointed me,” Isaiah says, “to bring good news to the oppressed. To bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoner. A Jubilee Year, I do declare.”
God is getting specific.
References to the poor as a group occur only three times in Isaiah and only once in the book of Amos; they appear over half a dozen times in the Psalms, but as a group they have a rather small amount of prophecy directed at them. The brokenhearted appear only twice, in Isaiah and in Psalms 34:19. The captives are mentioned the most often, in the Psalter, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah. But only here are all of these grouped together.*
Well, that is until Jesus struts into the synagogue, unrolls the scroll, reads the passage, and declares it fulfilled in the presence of all in attendance. All of the Pharisees in the room must have felt like I do when I hear the prophecies linking gays or feminists to natural disasters. Obviously, the content is different, but can you feel the emotions rising up?
When God gets specific, I think it is good that we look first at the things that we don’t like before we do the things that make us feel better. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that God is in the business of healing and comfort, and that’s ultimately what this passage is about, and what we should be looking toward as joyous on the Third Sunday of Advent. But let us not put the wish before the lighting of the birthday candles.
The infinitive translated as “to bind” plays a double role in today’s passage: it means both to bind as one binds up a wound, and it means to unbind, in the sense of “unbinding blindness” that allows a person to see. Sometimes, as is the case here, a legal or political context applies and it is something closer to: “opening one’s eyes.” In other words, the prophecy is, I am going to allow you to see the reality of things so that you can act. I will always be with you, but there are expectations once you get woke, as the kids say.
In Biblespeak, this passage is filled with prophetic prolepses, or flash-forwards; signs abound to let us know that God’s work in Isaiah—and later in Jesus—is unusual. Also telling is the reference to the Jubilee Year, a practice that every 7×7+1 (50th) year is declared a jubilee by God. Slaves are emancipated. Debts are forgiven. Fields lay fallow. Everyone gets to hit a reset button, both personally and collectively. However, scholars are in nearly unanimous agreement that when both Isaiah and later Jesus proclaimed these jubilee years, they were not regularly scheduled programming. Both Isaiah and Jesus claim the authority to declare something that does not fit with the hierarchy’s understanding of how jubilee works.
Because with Jubilee years come excitement. Revelations. There will be dramatic exchanges: flowers, oil, and fresh garments for ashes, mourning, and sackcloth. The transformation is not just physical; it is also spiritual: those who return will be agents of righteousness. That means the Jubilee Year comes with responsibilities. Too often we forget that; look at what Isaiah is saying. “God is going to lead y’all back to the land and the Temple, and you will once again be a royal priesthood. Others will work the land, but for you there will be great rewards.” We like rewards. That’s why we learn to love Christmas as kids. A time when wishes can come true by just simply asking for something. We’re told it will happen if we are good, so we try real hard for a rather short period of time to be good, and then on Christmas morning we are rewarded! Wow, we think. Is this all it takes?
Kinda sounds like how we treat God sometimes, huh? I swear I’ll be a better Christian if you just get me out of this. Or let that happen. I won’t do this or that again if you just take away this pain. I swear, I’ll be good.”
However, some of the people I know who love Christmas the most are ones who grew up in poverty or near poverty. I’ve heard stories of the unimagined for present ending up under the tree because mom worked extra shifts at the restaurant. The presents are great, but the memories that really last are those that feature us realizing how sacrificial love can change our lives. Rewards for some often mean great sacrifice by others.
That’s important to remember in Advent. And it is important for us to pay attention to the pressures of those around us. Not everyone can work those extra shifts to earn money for that special present. With that can come shame or a sense for the parent that they have failed. (That’s why I am so appreciative of the Mission Committee and congregation of FPCYS for the Help a Family ministry.) Christ models for us the power of sacrificial and redemptive love. A love that has nothing to do with material things representing it. A love that comes to you and there is nothing you can do to deny it; no matter how much you feel unworthy or how stridently you fight against it, this love is not going anywhere. It is a love that can shock people. Like Pharisees. Like me. Like the preachers who cannot imagine that God could ever love gays or feminists. May this be a season in which we allow ourselves to be unbound. To see the radical, surprising, sometimes upsetting reality of God’s love.
But let us also understand the responsibilities we have once we have seen it. We know that we are to preach, heal, and proclaim just like Isaiah. Just like Jesus. And I don’t mean standing on the street corner with a placard, yelling at people; I mean that preaching St. Francis told us about: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” The joy of today is that God’s love cannot be stopped; the price? Each of us, myself absolutely included, never forgetting that God loves those whom we dislike with a passion just as much as God loves us.
When God gets specific, I gets nervous.
*The vast majority of the scholarly claims made herein were inspired by the outstanding commentary offered by Dr. Stephen B. Reed on workingpreacher.org