The first week of Advent we lit the Candle of Expectation, remembering those who waited with expectation for God’s first grand act of grace seen in the coming Messiah and our own sense of expectation as the people of “already and not yet’ who wait for Christ’s second coming. The second week we lit the Candle of Preparation, remembering to prepare our hearts and lives for a fresh work of God. This, the third week of Advent, we light the Candle of Joy.
We listened as Brian McAtee read the passage from Isaiah earlier in our service. For many, the passage immediately felt familiar. It is one of the great Advent passages. Those who heard it first would have heard an incredible message of hope in the midst of despair. It was a word of promise spoken into a season of darkness and pain. They were a people defined by captivity and hostility. They longed for God to do something. Isaiah’s word for them was that God was ready to move in their behalf. It spoke to the kind of ministry the prophet heard from God; the kind of promise that speaks into brokenness. It is the kind of promise that offers a powerful picture of a coming season of life, of healing, of freedom, and of joy. When the people were returned to the land this passage was heard in different way. It was a messianic prophecy. It promised the people that God was going to break into history and change everything.
We heard leaders from the global churches read our passage that carries us into the synagogue in Nazareth and Jesus being handed the scroll to read. I can imagine the stilled silence as Jesus came into the room and took his place among them. They had heard that he had been teaching in other synagogues and that he has spoken with a remarkable power and authority. But this was different. He was not a visiting teacher, he was one of them. But this was not just the kid from their community. This grown Jesus was the buzz of the region. He stood up and was handed the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. Everyone froze waiting to hear what would come next. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. 20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." I am not sure we can fully appreciate the impact this pronouncement would have head on the hearers gathered in that small synagogue in a second rate town. By pronouncing that this passage was fulfilled in their hearing he was taking on the mantle of the Messiah. Dr. William Loader states; “What were originally were the words of a prophet announcing Israel’s liberation from exile in Babylon in the late 6th century become a self description of Jesus’ role and calling, and, by extension a role description, a ‘mission statement’, for the Church.”[i] I want to leave these words hanging in the air as we finish the story.
At first the response Jesus’ pronouncement was good. 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. But in an instant the mood in the room changed. It was almost impossible for them to imagine that one from their village could be the Messiah, the chosen and anointed one of God. They began to speak out;“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Jesus was not surprised by their response. 23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” Jesus then told them something that shock them to their core. 24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. Jesus went on to tell them that just like God has done before, that his mission is greater than just for them – it was for those beyond them too. The story takes a predictable turn; discomfort gave way to rage, and rage to hatred. Luke tell us; 28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
In pronouncing that the prophetic promise of Isaiah had been fulfilled in its hearing that day he was telling that small group, and ultimately the world, that things were about to be changed forever. The promised one of the Father had come. I think this word may be harder to hear on a day like this one. Our nation morns the unimaginable tragedy that unfolded just days ago in Newtown, Connecticut. It seems stories of unleashed evil finds its way to our news more and more often. It is easy to become consumed by the weight of these stories and lose our sense of hope and expectation. If we are not careful we can begin to believe the evil triumphs. Our joy can be dulled by fear and sadness. Of all cities we know that this is not the first time tragedy triggered by the hands of evil has come home. We also come as testimonies that the story do not – cannot – must not -end with the triumph of evil. There is no better time to hear that God is ready to work again. There is no better time to claim the hope of Advent. There is no better time to seek joy at the feet of Jesus. If ever our community needed for us to live out and speak out as the people of Advent it is now. If ever our world needed for us to lift our voices with the hope of God’s comfort and the power of God peace, it is now. If ever we needed to be the people who are changed by God to speak a word that God can and will still change the world that time is now.
So we come to the self proclaimed mission statement of Jesus. It is strikingly brief but remarkably powerful. It begins; He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners. We have to see this through the eyes of the overall ministry of Jesus. He does not spend energy addressing the political issue of those held unjustly in the jails and prisons of the era. While Isaiah’s original hearers would have heard this as a promise of release from political captivity, Jesus seems to have something much greater in mind. When you look at his ministry you see that he focused on those who were held captive by evil. I do not think it is too much to take the spiritual leap and to focus on those who are held hostage by sin, those who are prisoners to brokenness and addiction. The ministry of Jesus is filled will stories of him freeing those who have been held prisoners to evil by casting out demons and by healing diseases that pushed them to the cultural outskirts and that many tried to tie to sin. The demons of our culture and era look different. If we look around us we see those who are held prisoner to evil, who are held captive by all kinds of addiction. We see the horrific impact it has on them and on their families. Jesus came that those who are held hostage by evil might find freedom; the redemption of their lives by faith.
The mission statement of Christ continues; recovery of sight for the blind. I cannot help but think about the great hymn, Amazing Grace, which sings out “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” These words were penned the former slave ship captain John Newton. His story is filled with examples of his spiritual and emotional blindness. It took God breaking into his life for his eyes to be opened. It is clear that there are many who walk through life without ever seeing. They do not see those around them or the way of God. If we are not careful we can become so comfortable in routines of life and in the circle we call our friends that we do not see beyond ourselves. Jesus comes to give sight to the blind.
The words that Jesus claimed continue; to release the oppressed. The poor, the blind, and the oppressed each find themselves on the outside looking in. Jesus wants it clear that he comes to bring redemption – freedom for everyone, including those that the community pushes down or pushes away. One of my grave concerns is that too many churches are filled with people who look just like each other. They become exclusive religious communities where you seem to have to pass the “like us” test before you are welcomed in. I am thankful that our church progressively looks like the diversity of our community and our ministry now more intentionally reaches out to those who our community drives to its margins. I know that this is not always comfortable, but it is important. We have the rare opportunity to be a model for our city for what a people of faith can be if they look beyond the bounds of race and culture and claim each first and only because of whom we are together in Christ. It means that there is no one looking in from the outside; that there is a place for those who struggle and those of means; and for those who walk the hallways of leadership and those who walk the sidewalks of despair. We have much to learn from each other and with each other. In being Jesus for one another we will better see and understand the depths of God’s love.
The final words from the scroll read; 19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." This was great news to hear. The year of the Lord’s favor was a year of new starts. It was the year of jubilee when debts were forgiven, when hope flourished, when people could begin again. There are many in our community – many in our midst – many of us – who need a new beginning – a redeemed life and a renewed faith.
As we continue our journey toward the manger it is also of value to remember that Jesus, the babe born in that manger, was rejected by many of those around him. There is a price for being a people that have been shaped by the mission of Jesus. But it is price worthy of paying. We are who we are because of God’s great act of love. We come as God’s children through grace by faith in Christ Jesus. We come as those who have been changed and through whom God is changing the world. God is ready to break into lives of others and into our world through you. God is ready to do a new work in you and through you. Have hope and be people of hope. Seize joy and be a people of joy. Be the people of Jesus without apology. Our community and our world need you now more than ever. Amen