Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, 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. 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
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 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, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Gospel Lesson: John 1: 6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Can anyone look at this picture and guess at when or where this picture was taken? I will give you a hint, it was taken on August 29, 2005. Correct, this is a picture from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans. A natural disaster that if we may recall took the lives of more than 1,700 people, and had displaced hundreds of thousands. We may begin to recall those images of people flooding into the superdome looking for safety. After the waters began to recede, there was a strong push to rebuild, an energy in the air to respond, to re-create, and to re-establish living conditions again. People who had been displaced all over the country, staying with relatives in different regions around the continental US, students who had been transferred to different schools for the time being, were relieved and excited to finally go home and begin this process of re-building. Earlier this fall, on August 24, 2011, a paper called Voice of America interviewed a resident named Cheryl Kring who had rebuilt her home alongside the coastline. Her comments were as such, ““When it comes again – it’s gonna come again – and I’m gonna grab what I can grab and get out of here. And I will rebuild right back here again.” Her concluding comments though were these: ““No matter what, I’m still coming back. No matter what, I will be on this corner. So it doesn’t matter. I love Waveland. I love the area that we’re in. It’s home. You can’t leave home.” This story of Katrina, many have not forgotten, but yet the rebuilding is still not complete. Just from our own mission base, SEJ United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, there are still 6 active projects that are requesting missions to help clean and rebuild after Katrina, which was over 6 years ago. The excitement of rebuilding has lost its momentum, and yet there are still people requesting help. This kind of thing though happens all the time, and all throughout history. Katrina is just one example. For instance can anyone tell me then what this is a picture of?
This is a picture of the destruction in Haiti. Unlike the first picture of Katrina, this is not a picture from in the recent events after the quake, but rather this picture was taken on Dec 2nd earlier this month. As you may see there is still much rebuilding that is being done in Haiti, an earthquake that shook the foundations of this entire country back on January 12th of 2010, nearly 2 years ago. Actually, the Washington post just released this blurb on thanksgiving day, “Almost two years after an earthquake devastated Haiti, less than half of the $4.6 billion in pledged aid has been disbursed and political squabbling is threatening to bring coordinated reconstruction efforts to an abrupt halt.” From UMVIM, there are 10 active major sites as well as many ways to donate money to families for farming, livestock, and gardens. Again though, time after time, we see it is not so unusual in the immediate following of events of a rebuild that there is support and a strong driving force to help, but over time that force falls out. Now I shared these stories with you today because these stories resemble the time frame in which Isaiah is speaking in our Old Testament lesson today.
The book called Isaiah is understood by scholars to have been written and assembled over the course of several centuries. This section, or poem from which we read today, is believed to have been written and spoken in the last time period, a time period some years after the return of the first exiles from Babylon, possibly about the years of 530-525 BC. The Israelites had returned to their home, to Jerusalem and found their city demolished. We read accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah about the rebuilding of this city, their daily labor of rebuilding the walls around the city, their rebuilding of the Temple from Solomon’s time. And like any disaster, “whatever joy there may have been in the anticipation and actual activity of returning to the homeland probably disappeared within several years.” Instead of the joyous return and glorious city being rebuilt, years later, the ecstasy of being home had worn off and the days may have felt endless with much frustration of difficult work, poverty, and the dreaded heat of the sun. It is at this occasion that that this prophet in Isaiah speaks to the people of God. Their hearts mourned for their city, for their homeland, and for their temple where God dwelt. These people sought comfort; they sought a place that once again reminds them of the days of King David and King Solomon; when Israel was prosperous, and their nation did not fear invasion and destruction. They longed for a Messiah, a savior to whom would bring their ruling age back. And these are the words of encouragement and of hope that the Lord sent to his people through the prophet recorded in Isaiah. Listen again to pieces of this scripture with the context now in mind. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has appointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;” The prophet speaking about those who are broken hearted over the current state of Israel and yet also the release of the rest of their kinsmen from Babylon. “to give them a garland instead of ashes” Garland, a decorative piece that is used in times of joyous celebration. Much like the garland we have around our sanctuary as we ourselves are preparing for our joyous celebration of Christmas. Instead of ash. Ash as we know was a symbol of mourning, a symbol often related to that of death. In the church we still use Ash on Ash Wednesday when we come to worship and recognize our own mortality and the product of our sinfulness without a savior. But this prophet had come to give them a joyous message, a message that would uplift instead of bring down, a message that could be considered in its most literal sense: a gospel. Gospel in its most literal sense simply means good news. Those who mourn shall be “called oaks of righteousness….they shall build up the ancient ruins, repair the ruined cities”.
This was certainly an invigorating message to the people of Israel, one that I am sure raised the spirits of the many who were working and mourning the beloved city of Jerusalem. Bringing hope to a people that Israel will be led by a Messiah, a Christ, restoring the people Israel and once again reign and glorify God.
Now I would like to jump ahead about 500 years. To the time of our Gospel lesson from John. The context still remains very much the same as before. However instead of a literal destruction, the people of Israel have been facing a political destruction. This time the Jews remained in their land, but they were once again being controlled by foreign governments. For the previous 300 years or so, they had been ruled by the Egyptian Ptolemies, the Syrian Seleucids, the Maccabeans, and now they were being controlled by the Romans. And the Jewish officials, those who were priests and Levites had heard of a man who was out in the wilderness that was baptizing people. They came out from Jerusalem to this man seeking and possibly hoping that he was the Messiah, who would maybe rid them of these government oppressors. Maybe John is going to be the one to whom would fully re-establish Israel again like that of King David. Maybe John will be the military leader to overthrow this oppressive Romans government. And so, they come out to this man named John and simply ask, “Who are you?” John understands more fully who it is that they were seeking, and replied “I am not the Messiah.” They respond asking if he was Elijah, the prophet who was supposed to return before the Messiah. And again, John says, “no.” “Then certainly you are the prophet?” Again John says, “no.” Finally, they are getting a little perturbed for having to ask a third time, well then who are you? What do you say about yourself? And John finally responds with the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.” Now last week we spent a little bit of time of John the Baptist and his message of preparing yourself for the Messiah, the one who was coming after John. But what I would like for us to establish from this gospel reading is more so who was it that they, the Levites and priests seeking and why? They were seeking the Messiah, the one who would re-establish the kingdom of Israel. Still, 400 years after the time of re-building the Temple from its first destruction, they as a people still sought the one who would restore their people, who would be the light amidst the darkness of the world around them. They went to John longing and hoping that he was going to be that person. As the Levites longed for this Messiah to restore Israel, it would be just the next day that Jesus comes, the one to whom they await. And after Jesus’ baptism, he goes out to be tempted for forty days, but then according to Luke chapter four returns from the wilderness to his hometown. Where Jesus goes to the Synagogue, and is handed the scroll of Isaiah 61, the scripture we just read, and reads these same words. As he sits down as it is custom to preach sitting down, Jesus begins his ministry by saying today, this day, these words of Isaiah have been fulfilled. In other words, I am your hope, I am the one who will bring joy to devastation, I am love amidst fear, I am the Great I am.
I would like to close today simply with this reflection of my own. The Israelites sought and hoped for Christ, a Messiah to restore Israel. They sought Jesus whom we understand to be the Jewish Messiah, who brought about order though in a different way than they had expected. In this very season of advent, we await and seek the child, Jesus, we again seek the Messiah, the Christ. We long for and HOPE for Christ, the one who will restore order not for Israel, but rather for the entire kingdom of God. We, like the people of God rebuilding their destructed nation are in need of the reminder that there is hope in the world today. A hope through the Grace found in Christ, for ourselves to be restored to the will of God, and of being re-created into the image of God.
Finally, upon the hearing of this message of hope, the people rebuilding the holy city did not simply quit working these hard days and the work magically was done, but rather their spirits were restored and they continued to labor. The work remains for us yet to do within ourselves, within the body of Christ, and through Christ, but my hope, is that this message today helps restore your desire to seek Christ, a Hope for the future of your own spiritual life and the life of the church, a renewal of recognizing our need for a savior and remembering that God is making all things new. Today I would like to ask you to meditate on this question throughout the rest of this advent season… “How have I sought God in my actions, in my words, in my time, and how has God sought me?”
 (Miller 2011)
 (Associated Press 2011)
 (Everson 1978), 69