“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 broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
3 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.
4 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.
8 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.
9 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.
10 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.
11 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.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The original hearers of these words were people carrying a double burden. The people of Israel carried with them a recent history of living in a strange land with nothing familiar, in the knowledge that Jerusalem, their home and the site of their beloved temple, had been destroyed. And – in the wake of that not so distant time of trauma, they were returning home only to have any hope of a speedy restoration tamped down by the realization that it would be excruciatingly hard work to rebuild anything on the ruins of their dreams. Theologian Elna K. Solvang writes that “the mourning in Isaiah 61 rises out of frustration and humiliation over the failure to rebuild the city and the temple to match its former glory and the failure to reconcile the economic disparities and the religious and political factions within the city. The reality of life in Jerusalem,” Solvang writes, “was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees…” (Elna K. Solvang) These hearers are a people in between two calamities – the great trauma they had just lived through in exile and the great disappointment of realizing the impossible task before them of rebuilding a home of equity and justice.
We know something about living as a people between two calamities, don’t we? Some of us don’t know how we made it through the last 9 grueling months of pandemic life that has scarred our souls, and as we look at what’s been revealed in this time about disparities of race and class, it can feel impossible to imagine a way forward. Some went to war with family members over this last election and now we look ahead at how to be a family in a pandemic this Christmas when the shambles of those relationships don’t make us feel merry or bright. We have exhaustion and trauma in the rearview mirror and so much uncertainty and ambiguity ahead. How are we then to be God’s people as we wander around the rubble of our lives? What is God’s answer to us, a people between two calamities?
Isaiah 61 gives us an answer, and it comes to us like a bright pink candle in the middle of an Advent wreath full of deep purple. A prophet calls out, with a commission to “proclaim liberty” to captives, to give good news to the oppressed, and to set actual prisoners free. This is language that comes directly from the instructions for observing the Jubilee Year in Leviticus 25. Solvang writes that “during the Jubilee [year] property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged… The use of the Leviticus language in Isaiah 61 is a clear indication that the liberty proclaimed is intended to be made permanent in new social and economic relationships within the community.” (Elna K. Solvang) What’s so interesting about this call in Isaiah 61 is that, though this Jubilee action was prescribed for Israel every 50th year, the prophet is calling for this tangible action to be taken now, right in the moment when Israel is exhausted, in the time between trauma and disappointment, when it seems impossible for such a future of new life and mutual care to emerge.
And who is to lead the way in building this new world? The text says that it will be the people who have been closest to the pain: the ones who have been oppressed, broken-hearted, mourning, captive, and imprisoned. They are named as the ones who “shall build up the ancient ruins… raise up the former devastations… repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” The people of Israel are called in this impossible moment to radically change the socioeconomic power dynamics in their midst by literally setting prisoners free, as they participate in the Jubilee practice of giving land back to those it belonged to originally and canceling actual debts that people owe. Tangible reparations are step one for Israel – with those who have harmed making tangible restitution for the injustice they have perpetrated. And after this redistribution of power has occurred, it is the former prisoners and captives, the mourning and oppressed ones who are commissioned by God’s prophet to lead the way in rebuilding the new world. Because perhaps the world they envision, as those who have suffered most at the hands of injustice, is the world that is closest to what God has in mind for all of us, a world where no one suffers in the first place. In Isaiah 61, we get a call for divestment from the practices that punish and harm to control the oppressed for profit so that new investments can be made in the kind of world where those who once mourned can flourish like oaks of righteousness, like a garden where seeds sprout with new life.
In short, friends, God calls a weary people to respond to the ruins around them by defiantly embodying the kind of world God intends. We are called to be pink protest candles in a sea of penitential purple, saying “Yes, we know the world is broken, but in the now, we will live the world God has promised us.” In a time when the world says that punishing people is the way to address harm, we are called to set free those in prison and learn from how they would build a new world. We are to be an injection of joy in a world of hurt, a spark of new life in a land of death, a burst of hope where it is least expected.
This word from Isaiah could not possibly be more timely for us today, at a time when so many are asking, “How are we to rebuild the world we are living in?” Friends, according to Isaiah, there can be no new world of equity and thriving if there is not first a radical redistribution of wealth and power and a deep listening to those who are closest to the pain of injustice. This is a hard pill to swallow for those of us who have always been at decision-making tables, a tough reality to face for those of us who have been served and privileged by our institutions as they are now. This is a call beyond charity, not simply giving of our excess to those who have less, but instead giving away our power so that there are no longer people who live less in the first place while we have more than enough. We are called to an earthy, tangible transformation that is so physical and material that, as our text says, everyone else will be able to see it with their own eyes! “Their descendants shall be known among the nations,” Isaiah writes, “and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.” We are called to the kind of bold embodiment of resistance to death-dealing forces in our world that makes the world ask, “Wow, would you look at that pink candle of joy in the midst of all that purple. I wonder what those people are all about?”
I’ve never seen this lived out more clearly than when news finally went public that you all, this congregation, had given half of the church’s land to the local housing authority so they could build affordable housing for those who need a stable place to live. It was a move beyond charity to solidarity, in which you all as a congregation decided to divest of our own control of property so that those without access to a roof will be able to build a life. And that is how I know this new world is possible, because of church families like you, who look around and say, “Yes, we know the world is broken, but in the now, we will live the world God has promised us,” a world where no one wonders where they will sleep that night, a world where power is to be shared with all instead of hoarded for some, a world where every person feels like an oak of righteousness with roots well-watered and grounded and whole.
So may we continually ask our God in these difficult days how we can move beyond charity into redistributing wealth and power in the radical practice of Jubilee. May we ask every day how we can listen deeply to those who have suffered most as they point us to a more equitable world. And may we never forget that this new world grows not from our own power, but instead because “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up” in us before all the nations. Amen.