Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
I will rejoice greatly in the LORD
says the prophet. In some traditions of the church the third Sunday in Advent (today) is referred to as “Gaudete Sunday ,”that is “Rejoice Sunday.” Which, I guess is why this passage from Isaiah is set for today. That is why in some advent rings one of the four candles is pink rather than red. This Sunday is a kind of mid-season break. It is set apart from the other Sundays in Advent that often call repentance and renewal of life as an appropriate preparation for the coming of Jesus. Advent is meant to be penitential season, a time for self examination and reflection. Its mood in many ways should be sombre.
There is much to regret about the state of the world and the state of our own lives. This year, perhaps more than any year, the build up to Christmas is a sombre one. We are living through a more or less unprecedented crisis. Covid has swept around the world and effected nearly every nation to a greater or lesser extent. Around the world it has infected an estimated 72 million people and been implicated in 1.6 million deaths. In our own country, as write, those numbers are 1.81 million and 63,500. That toll has marked this year with an experience of sorrow and loss in almost every place in a way that almost know previous crisis has. Just for a moment the whole world has been united in a shared experience, it it has not been a good one. And that is only the most acute and distressing aspect of this crisis. Not only has the disease been the direct cause of much suffering and death, attempts to control it have led to a transformation of our lives. Many of us have been virtual captives in our own homes for much of the year. We have been isolated from our loved ones and our networks of support. Even when we haven’t been infected by the disease itself our health has suffered. Forced to remain at home, many of our limbs and joints have stiffened. Not being able to go out easily and breath fresh air has affected the health of our lungs. But it has affected not only the personal and the social aspects of our lives, it has also taken a political and economic toll. Politicians have struggled to cope, and their struggles have done noting to improve public trust in them. And the restrictions that have been set in place has damaged the livelihood of many people as businesses have struggled and failed. Yet as this has been happening, for others the experience has been an increased workload, as extra demands have been placed on “essential” workers, who often the least well paid. They often have borne the burden of maintaining as much “normality” as possible for the rest of us.
And this has not been the only thing to burden us this year. None of the world’s other problems has gone away. The climate has continued its apparently inexorable slide from crisis into catastrophe. Ever more gloomy predictions about the speed and effects of climate change are still being made. And those effects, it is increasingly clear, will weigh most heavily on those who are already the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the world. And as all this has been happening, because of events in the United States, we have once again been reminded of racial injustices and the legacy of slavery and colonialism, both there and much nearer to home. And this list could go on, we have had barely time to notice the ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Iraq and Syria that have also added to this year’s toll of misery.
Isaiah rejoices. We might be tempted to reply “that’s easy for you!” No pink candle for us this year!
But this is precisely why we need an “Isaiah Advent” this year. Isaiah invites us to reflect deeply on the meaning of joy and rejoicing. And perhaps what is striking, but easy to overlook, is that Isaiah was able to rejoice in the midst of struggle and disappointment. It was not “easy” for him by any means. The exile of the children of Israel had ended. They had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. But they had returned to ruins. They have struggled and failed to rebuild the temple. A failure which seems to reflect a larger failure to re-establish national life, and to become once more God’s chosen witnesses in the world. The landscape over which Isaiah looked was one of misery and frustration. Yet Isaiah rejoices!
He points us to the reality that real joy is not about personal pleasure or superficial happiness. It is not determined by the immediate circumstances that we find ourselves in. Isaiah found it possible to rejoice in the midst of hardship and disappointment. His joy, all true joy, is not determined by the immediate circumstances of our lives, be they bad or good. Isaiah’s joy comes from a deeply held assurance that the struggles and disappointments of the present moment will one day be overcome. Isaiah has an absolute faith that God will act to save his people. He is so certain that he speaks of the future as if it were already present.
My whole being shall exult in my God for he has clothed me in garments of salvation.
Of course this passage is perhaps familiar to us already. When Jesus begins his preaching ministry, he goes to synagogue in Nazareth. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah is unrolled to the this passage, and Jesus reads:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me. . .
The incident and the words which Jesus reads are sometimes referred to as the Nazareth Manifesto. Isaiah announces, and Jesus reads, and we continue to believe, that this is a succinct portrayal of the mission of God. This is what God intends to do. And is perhaps right to call it a manifesto since it has a distinctly political tone. God promises a great reversal. Those who are oppressed and broken hearted will receive good news. Whatever it is that is holding people down or holding people back, and very often this the words which are spoken to them, or the find they speak about themselves, whatever that is, it will be replaced by good news. God will speak a word that lifts the spirits of the downtrodden and the down hearted. With that word comes also the announcement of release for those held captive and those imprisoned. Above all God is a God of freedom. God promises liberty from captivities both literal and metaphoric. God promises a world where flourishing is possible for all human beings. Frustration and disappointment will be swept away God will speak a word of comfort to those who mourn. That will be word spoken to both those who mourn a personal loss, but also those who regret the state of the world. God will comfort those who are anguished by the injustice and apparent futility of our existence. All that sorrow will be turned around to joy. God will speak and act:
to give them a garland instead of ashes
the oil of gladness instead of mourning
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit
All this talk already has a background among God’s people as Isaiah was speaking. This is a language of Jubilee. Every 50 years in the life of Israel the were supposed to press the reset button. Debts were cancelled and the land redistributed evenly among all the people. God’s intention is that no one among his people become rich at the cost of poverty of others, no one should be powerful by oppressing others. Jubilee was a mechanism established to prevent the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. Jubilee was this promised great reversal put into action Whatever the current circumstances people find themselves in, God’s promise is that all the negatives will be restored.
In Isaiah’s case, in the immediate setting in which these words were spoken, he is able to promise that the ruined cities of Judah will be rebuild. That despite their failures and setbacks national life will be re-established.
Our perspective is a little different. Not long after Isaiah had spoken these words also became associated with the idea of someone who God would send, the one on whom the Spirit of God rests who speaks at the beginning of the passage. This passage very quickly becomes associated with the Messiah. That is why when Jesus reads these words in Nazareth, his sermon is a single sentence:
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:21)
And as Christians we trust in the accuracy and truthfulness of that assessment of Jesus of himself. We believe and trust that Jesus in and by and through whom these things will be brought about. Through Jesus, God’s promised reversal, God’s great and permanent Jubilee, made by Isaiah is what we continue to look towards.
At the heart of these words and this idea of Jubilee and the great reversal in fortunes lies the character of God. These things will happen because of who God is, and what God is like. In the middle of this passage God speaks directly and speaks about himself:
For I the LORD love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
Martin Luther King, during one the earlier outbreaks of resistance against racial and economic injustice said:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. There is much in history and in the present moment which is to be regretted. There is much in our own lives that is source of sorrow and disappointment. But like Martin Luther King we should recognise that that our perspective is small. Even this year as dreadful as it has been is just one small scene in a very long drama. Our faith, our confidence, is that the underlying plot is a positive one. Behind the world that we see, which at times seems cold and heartless, lies the God of love and justice. Because of that all the negatives that we see and experience will be turned to positives. Sorrow will become joy. Captivity will become freedom. Even death will become life. Because God is the God who speaks through Isaiah, and who sends Jesus.
We read Isaiah’s words at almost the darkest moment in the year. In a little more than a week we will reach the shortest day. Perhaps this year this is metaphorical as well as actual. The days and the weather are gloomy. And to some extent they may reflect our mood. But I heard someone say the other day: “In the dark it is easiest to see the light” I began Advent by saying “This too shall pass.” That is certain. Isaiah rejoices in the midst of his struggles and frustrations and disappointment because has an absolute confidence in God. What God has promised God will do. The current darkness will be made light. Perhaps with the arrival a vaccine we can begin to see an end to this crisis. Perhaps this time the voices raised to demand racial and economic justice will be heard and acted upon. But even if they are not, God is good and because of that the arc of history bends toward justice. That jubilee, that great reversal will take place. As we reach the shortest day of the year there is a turn around. Slowly at first and then more quickly the days lengthen. Light and life return to the world. That is the kind of certainty and confidence Isaiah has in God:
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.
That is why, even now, we can rejoice.
Rejoice! by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0