Sunday, December 10, 2023
Deacon Stephanie Anderson

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 

Grace and peace from our God who created, redeemed us, and moves among us still. Amen.

I get asked a lot about the difference in our stoles – mine and Pastor Jason’s. Called to word and sacrament ministry, Pastor Jason’s stole represents Matthew 11, when Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This is this yoke around his neck, guiding and leading him as Jesus calls.

Called to word and service, Deacon stoles like mine cinch at the hip and represent John 13, when, as scripture says, Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” and then goes on to tell his followers “you also ought to wash one another’s feet”. This is where a towel would hang in the washing of feet and acts of service that Jesus calls us to.

Many of you have things you wear or adorn yourself with that have similar meaning for you. These things might remind you of God’s faithfulness or the ways you are called into the world; they might remind of where you’ve been or the people or experiences that have formed you. Some of the things we wear are incredibly practical for our day to day life: we might wear work uniforms for our various professions; we wear baby carriers or diaper bags to do the hard work of parenting; we wear life alerts or pagers or other devices to stay close to our roles as caregivers. Some wear things that show the world value they hold or something they believe in. Some wear rings to symbolize their partnership or commitment to another person. There are lots of ways we adorn ourselves – sometimes for beauty, sometimes for practicality – that speak to our values and our day-to-day callings.

Isaiah 61 addresses our collective calling; it’s spoken through the voice of a prophet, for an entire community, who has been anointed for a mission of God. The commission given to the people in today’s text is – honestly – a pretty tall order. They are asked to:

  • Bring good news to the poor or oppressed
  • To heal or to bind up the brokenhearted
  • To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners

Now, let’s think about this together – if someone asked you today to proclaim liberty to the captives or to release the prisoners (you! actually you!), you’d likely assume that meant to do what you can in your own sphere to somehow release people from a fear that they might hold or an insecurity they might have. A metaphorical type of liberation or release from the things that hold us back. I might encourage a friend to try something new or I might offer some perspective or support to a friend who is struggling with a decision.

And while those efforts are certainly worthwhile in our lives, the scholars who dwell deeply in these texts – like today’s from Isaiah – have taught us that the commissions in Isaiah 61 aren’t actually metaphorical at all; it’s a tall order because the prophet means what they say. Based on the original Hebrew phrasing, the specific context in which this was written, and some of the details included that we might miss in our modern English translation, we know that this commission is grounded in the concrete, material conditions of society. So this means that:

  • God’s people are to not just feed the poor, but fix the conditions that made them poor to begin with.
  • To not just support the brokenhearted, but work toward ending the situations that broke their heart.
  • To not just proclaim liberty metaphorically, but work toward a future where those who are in prison can see restorative justice and can go home.

That is hard, big work.

And we can also tell, thanks to the specificity of language from Leviticus, that the liberty proclaimed – all these tasks at hand – are meant to be sustaining; they are intended to be made permanent in a new social and economic reality in the community.

Which – I suppose – shouldn’t be surprising to us as we move through Advent! This is a season where we wait for a God who breaks into this world to turn it upside down. Isaiah 61 – this text from today – is the passage that Jesus reads to the crowd at the beginning of his ministry in Luke, after which he says, “Today’s scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus himself uses these words from Isaiah to teach us about the character of the Christian gospel itself.

Just like Isaiah, Jesus himself didn’t shy away from speaking to the material conditions of society. Lifting up the poor, healing those who are hurt or sick; releasing prisoners – these are all embodied practices of the Jesus we know.

Jesus’ teachings were so often an intervention in the status quo because he knew then, as now, that our world – our society – is not unfixable. It’s easy to look out and feel hopeless, but we are reminded today that places of devastation can become places of flourishing and righteousness. We have the capacity, as architects and engaged citizens and God’s faithful people, to create a lived reality in which all people have enough, broken hearts are healed, and captives are released.

A new future is possible; it’s a future for which we wait and we prepare this Advent season. And today we hear God promise in verse 8, “I will make an everlasting covenant with them” and then, if we look closely, God provides us the appropriate “work clothes” for this commission: garments of salvation, robes of righteousness.

That is, the courage and the faithfulness to do these things. You were made, by God, for this. Because your salvation is already taken care of; you are freed for this work. Because our deepest, truest identity – the thing we always wear – is beloved of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever. Thanks be to God. Amen

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