Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28
One day this week Kathy Lamb forwarded me a poem via email, I don’t know who wrote it but it is a rhyme that describe the reality we are living in.
It starts out- T’was a month before Christmas,
And all through the town,
People wore masks,
That covered their frown.
The frown had begun,
Way back in the Spring,
When a global pandemic
It goes on into some more detail and then says-
It’s true that this year,
Has had sadness a plenty,
We’ll never forget,
The year 2020.
And just ’round the corner,
The holiday season,
But why be merry ?
Is there even one reason ?
- Then the author decides to go ahead and decorate for the holidays, even though there is no one coming over this year, and ends with-
Christmas ain’t cancelled,
And neither is hope,
If we lean on each other,
I know we can cope.
Beloved there is so much as we look around this year, this holiday season when we want things to be happy and lighthearted, so much that pulls on us, so much to grieve.
Many of us grieving the loss of a loved one, for some a recent loss, or it could be from years past and the holidays can be a tender time to be in that grief. Our family is kind of used to not seeing our extended family for the holidays but we probably would have traveled later this month, if not for COVID so the weight of not seeing any family for quite awhile now is starting to weigh on us. Maybe you have had to cancel plans to see family and that is weighing on you. my family doesn’t even have roots all that deep in the community after just 2 and half years, but we ate at a local chain a couple of times, Ryan’s place, you know, pre-pandemic; and this week we read that the Hanford and Visalia locales are going to be sold. I don’t even know the owners or employees personally but I’m still sad for them. There’s an awful lot to make you sad, an awful lot to grieve. I know many of you have personal struggles, some around health some around employment or even dischord in the family. And I will admit, I’m sad that we had to put off our worship one week, that we aren’t in person together today because of the weather. All of it amplified in one way or another by the pandemic that instead of letting up is getting worse and worse.
This passage from Isaiah brings a message of great hope in specific ways. First I want to tell you about the situation the people were living. They had been sent into exile for about 70 Years. They were forced to leave their homeland and live faraway under the rule of the Babylonians. Then they were allowed to return. It was a long, hard journey, walking back from exile with what they could carry. But when they returned, they got discouraged all over again because there was so much work to do. 70 years is a long time for a city to be left to itself. Jerusalem had to be built up all over, fields had to be re planted and wells dug and each home rebuilt- all at the same time. And how are they supposed to survive while doing all that hard work? What they had been so excited to return to is now another wave of grief that they ever had to leave at all..
Then comes this message from Isaiah. The spirit of the Lord is upon me- to do all these concrete things that God does for us. Bring good news to the poor. Free the captives. Bind up the brokenhearted. Liberate the oppressed ones. To proclaim the year of God’s favor and comfort those who mourn.
God gave this message to the prophet because God knew they were mourning and they needed a new song to sing. God is going to change our ashes for a crown! God is with us and helping us. An oil of gladness- think of this as a happy scented perfume. Think of how smells can impact us, our mood- the prophet says God has anointed him- oil has its scent, God comes into their midst through this message of what God wants to happen for them.
The poem Kathy Lamb sent me Ends with the idea that if we lean on each other all will be well, and yes, I like the sentiment, I agree with the idea of it and email forwards can be sort of non-specific that way… but as a pastor and follower of Jesus, feel it’s lacking that sense of, it is because of God at work in us as we lean on one another- because God has been with us before and promised to be with us again. To have something to give away of ourselves, to be healers, first we need to find that balm ourselves. We believe that God gives that to us, even when God gives it to us in each other. There are many ways God works in us and among us to bind up our broken hearts, comfort those who mourn, liberate the oppressed. We know this well because we know God has become flesh, has entered our human history in the person of Jesus.
For these same words that Isaiah uttered to his fellow Israelites from the exile, Jesus would later speak in his hometown of Nazareth as an adult, according to Luke chapter 4. He said the spirit of the Lord is upon ME- to do these same things, speak good news to the poor, let the captives go free, ?? He used these words from isaiah as his mission statement- what his purposes were. He interpreted to his people that they were living in a time where God wanted to give them a new song and new healing to their heart-wounds. But the people would try to kill him for saying it. They didn’t want to face the changes they needed, the ways they needed God to help them, in Jesus standing there before them.
Sometimes the pain of the situation is so great that denial is the only way people can cope. They would rather pretend nothing is wrong than admit how terrifying reality is. I wonder if that is what is happening in some of our fellow Americans who cannot see the role they need to play in helping slow the spread of this virus.
But while this reaction can happen, is very human, if we say we follow Christ then we do not deny the reality before us. Those Israelites returning from exile started to put ashes on themselves, a mark of mourning, feeling the weight of what they had to do. Isaiah interrupts- God hears your grieving, sad among these ruins, but God wants to change your clothes and change your attitude. We look to God first for our help, then we seek out situations where we can be the helpers, the healers. Once we have received the comfort we need from God, We take on the mission statement Jesus borrowed from Isaiah because as his followers we have this same mission. A mission of bringing hope, more than anything else, in all of these specific ways.
I ask you, beloved, When was there ever a time that needed more spirit-sent healers?
Our nation is word down by the virus, by division, by lies and deceit. We are longing, hoping for the day we can embrace again, when employment levels will bounce up, when the vaccine will become available and it will be safe again to return to our church building, to go on trips, without putting ourselves and others at risk. When we won’t keep hearing these numbers of newly infected and newly deceased go up and up. It feels like we have such a long way to go to get there, we can feel like those Israelites who might have wondered, can we really do this?
But because of God who gives us hope, who invites us into comfort and joy, we too can say, the spirit of the Lord is upon us.
Yes we can acknowledge the awfulness, but we can also find God at work in our midst. Can you consider, Where is your role in rebuilding relationships, helping people rebuild lives, find housing, jobs? Where is your part to play in planting hope? and I know many of you do. And some days we can and somedays we need to cry out to God first – and some days just acknowledging the depth of our pain is healing in itself.
The gospel of John tells us that John the baptist knew someone was coming, even though he didn’t know who. Before he met Jesus according to John he did what he could- he spoke about the brightness that was about to break into the world. I am not the light, but a wonderful healing transforming light is coming, he said.
We know this brightness, this shining this transforming presence, we know that Jesus has come into the world. Because Jesus has come to brighten the shadows, we find the holy empowerment to be able to shine as well.
This weekend we are delivering gift cards to 5 families we know could use a little help for the holiday season, out of our local benevolence fund. A way to show concretely the complete healing God wishes for all of us. Susan has made gift bags to distribute to some of our Sunday school kids. A source of joy. We lift one another in prayer when we know of a need. We dream of the day we can rebuild life together.
It is certainly a different sort of holiday season this year, Beloved. But yes there is still reason to be glad. It is a Christmas without parties and gatherings, without embraces, and for many a Christmas to make do with less. But we have hope in God, God who has come to be with us, God who has shared every kind of human suffering in Jesus, God who pours out the Holy spirit upon us. Not only to be comforted, but also to participating in helping and healing others.
No Christmas is not cancelled, God has not abandoned us, and with God’s help we can help one another towards healing, freedom, wholeness, may it be so, Amen.