LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS - A SERMON ON ISAIAH 61:1-11 - DR. MARK HEANEY, ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Sermon: Light in the Darkness Preached: December 13, 2020
St. Augustine Episcopal Church Isaiah 61: 1-11
Who are you? Or perhaps more importantly, who are we? What if we were to define ourselves, individually and collectively by a certain passage of Holy Scripture? What scripture would we choose?
I know many, especially from my hospice days who would say, “I am ready to go now, because I know where I am going.” Their passage of scripture might be John 3:16, “those who believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
There is a temptation, you see, in American Christianity today to individualize the Gospel. To make it be about my salvation alone. To be about knowing where I am going when I die. In this way of thinking, Christianity becomes a passive waiting. Waiting for death to come and to release us from the suffering which we endure in this life. It is a waiting for Jesus to take us to the paradise of the life to come. But is this the kind of waiting that we are called to practice during each Advent season?
Certainly, the passages of Scripture we read today, do not lend themselves to this individualistic understanding of the Christian faith. Indeed, they are, dare I say, political. They call us to active involvement in the world. They announce. They proclaim. They cry out, not for us to wait for heaven, after we have left this mortal coil. But indeed, they fervently address the devastating conditions of their day and time.
Indeed, if we, like Jesus before us who read from Isaiah 61 when he began his ministry, adopted those words as our collective, not individual identity, a radically different image arises in our minds eye. “The LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed….” What if this were the operant scripture passage by which we defined ourselves?
This passage, as a source of identity, has legs. It does not allow us to sit idly by and await the next train bound for heaven’s gates. No, it calls us to action. It propels us forward into the world as God’s agents for justice, liberty, joy, peace and hope for the future.
Dennis Brachter in a commentary on Isaiah 61 which we read today says the key theme of this passage is: “God is at work in the historical events of the day to bring glorious restoration and vindication to the people of God.” Whoa! That is a challenging sentence that is worth repeating! “God is at work in the historical events of the day to bring glorious restoration and vindication to the people of God.”
In the words of Isaiah, God proclaims restoration to the hurting and broken people of Israel. These people were returning from captivity in Babylon to the devastation of the destroyed city of Jerusalem. To those lost and disoriented refugees, God announces that he will restore and rebuild their lives. Could it be that the same promise is available to the broken people of our day? Can we dare to imagine that God’s favor will be upon the downtrodden people of our modern times? I believe the answer to that question is, yes! But I also believe that we are called by God to be fellow workers in that act of restoration. We are not called to sit on our hands and wait. Our waiting is full and active in anxious anticipation of the coming of God’s justice and restoration to this hurting and broken world.
We Christians have a powerful message to bring to the world during this different, strange, frightening and disrupted Advent season. We must lift up the Gospel witness that proclaims the coming of one who is not merely concerned with personal salvation, but with the restoration of those whose lives have been shattered. Indeed, the one coming will be, in John’s words: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, coming into the world…full of grace and truth.” And those words of the prophet Isaiah who proclaims good news to the oppressed, liberty to the captives, comfort to those who mourn, and praise instead of a faint spirit.
But even more than this, Isaiah’s word not only relates to the restoration of the spirit, but to the rebuilding of that which has been devastated in the physical realm: building up ancient ruins, repairing ruined cities, restoring of flocks and vines, and bringing justice to those who have been wronged. It carries an even more radical pronouncement: the LORD will give the people a recompense—double for all that they had lost. These words of the prophet contain a resounding call for justice for those who have been harmed by the political circumstances of their day and time.
This is indeed, a very strange Advent season. Here I stand in a nearly empty sanctuary, preaching to a camera, while faithful musicians and worship leaders stand around me and do their part. All of you, ethereal presences are listening to this worship service in your own sort of exile. An exile not to a foreign country but an exile in your homes, separated from loved ones, deprived of the presence of love and nurture that this season normally brings.
But perhaps God has a message for us during this unusual exilic Advent. Perhaps God is offering us a unique opportunity to be thrown, not by our own volition but through an unpredictable pandemic, into a heightened sense of waiting that more fully captures the theme and purpose of the Season of Advent. From this unique vantage point we can become much more acutely aware of the ruined cities around us. Ruined cities not of stone and mortar, but of failed economics, lost jobs, stressed families, disturbed childhoods, interrupted educations, hungry stomachs, toxic environments, lost hope, dysfunctional governments and weakened faith.
In the midst of our unusual exile, we are waiting. We are waiting in anxious expectation, for the light to come into our world once again. We are waiting with the a far greater awareness of the need for Christ to come into our midst to bind the wounds of the marginalized, lost and devastated people torn apart by broken systems and unjust structures. We are waiting for a light which was first born into a humble shed, of poor, frightened parents. We are waiting for the one who will bring comfort, hope and restoration to a world that is hurting, broken and lost.
Above all, in this season of despair, Advent heralds the arrival of hope. This is not some weak, watered down hope. This hope is not for spiritual enlightenment. Nor is it an individualistic hope that we will go to heaven when we die. No, it is an audacious hope of restoration. It is a hope that cuts deeply into the very lives of those who have been devastated by the powerful forces of evil. It is a hope of good news. It is a hope, primarily not for the privileged and powerful, but for the oppressed, the captive, and the dispossessed.
Behold my friends, the light has come. The light is coming. The light that will enlighten everyone. Let us, as followers of that Light, go forth to bring hope and restoration first to ourselves, then to a world in need of such hope.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Amen.
Dr. Mark Heaney, Guest Preacher
St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church