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17th December 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
15 December 2017

Readings

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Isaiah 61 is one of the best known passages from this part of Isaiah because it was quoted in Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. Verses 1-3 are the self proclamation of the prophet as the offspring of the servant, a prophet who is especially designated to proclaim liberty to the captives, to comfort all who mourn, transforming mourning into gladness.  The result of the ministry of the prophet is a life with strong foundation that enables people to repair the ruined cities.  However by the time of compiling this section of Isaiah this work is seen as speaking to other people in the post-exile period, people building a strong nation on what has gone before through the priests of Yahweh. [1]

The gospel writers see Jesus as the working out of this continuum in the building up of the people of God or establishing God’s realm.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 

The prologue of John’s Gospel (John1:1-5) places Jesus into eternity with God involved in creation.  This is a changing of gender from the Hebrew Sofia/Wisdom who is with God in creation in Proverbs 8:22-31 to the Greek Logos/Word of the prologue which creates one of the strong foundations of later Trinitarian theology. 

Having established ‘Christ the Word’ as eternal our reading begins with the introduction of John the Baptist in the spiritual gospel where Jesus is much more God aware than in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark Matthew and Luke) and the Word metaphor changes to Light. 

In the second section of our reading the connection between John the Baptist that is alluded to (by reference to descriptions in Hebrew Scripture) are highlighted in question and answerer form so we discover that John might be like Elijah but he is also part of the prophetic tradition like Isaiah who talked of preparing the way for what, by the time of the gospels, was the expected messiah.  As usual there is at least as much theology as narrative in John’s Gospel.  However the Advent theme of our readings continue to prepare us to meet Christ at Christmas by preparing our way through instruction on the nature and relationship with God of the baby we will encounter in the birth narratives.

Sermon

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. (Isaiah 61:1)    

In this opening verse of our Isaiah reading the prophet defines his objectives in a time of returning from exile in Babylon.  The prophet is able to make these pronouncements because he has received God’s spirit and the message he is inspired to deliver is one of Joy that gives hope for the future.  Isaiah’s message is that, although the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed and neglected, it can be rebuilt.  People who have been held captive will return home and restore the city. 

As Maurice Andrew points out, by the time this section of Isaiah was compiled the prophets words were seen to be speaking to people in the post-exile period.  A message of hope and joy to people who were building a strong nation through encouragement gained from their past. 

We can also see encouragement in these words for a post earthquake Christchurch as our past points to the joy of who we can become in the future.. 

Much rebuilding of Christchurch has already occurred but people are still held captive through unresolved insurance claims and substandard repairs.  In the central city the free market has not provided the leadership some expected of it.  But Christchurch as been a great and beautiful city in the past and those memories give us hope.

The memory of who we have been is inspiring new leadership to seek an even better future.  Having battled for justice for his clients over dodgy insurance claims the new Christchurch Central MP already has a private members bill in the ballot called the ‘Fair Trading (Oppressive Contracts) Amendment Bill’ which prohibits unfair contract terms in standard form contracts - like insurance and finance contracts.  Dr Webb likes to refer to it as his ‘Stick it to the Man Bill.’ The bills number hasn’t been drawn out of the old biscuit tin yet but he is confident there will be plenty more chances.

Just as we can relate Isaiah’s words to our challenges so Luke was able to use those words to introduce Jesus’ mission.   Mark has Jesus come from his time of temptation in the wilderness and proclaim ‘The good news of God and saying, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:14,15)

But Luke appears to want Jesus to be a bit more specific about ‘The good news of God’ and so Luke has Jesus read the opening verse from our Isaiah text and then claim that passage as his mission statement.  If you recall that incident in Jesus’ home synagogue you will remember that the congregation become very angry that Jesus claims the Isaiah quote for himself. However, Luke is presenting the quote as a challenge to those of us who would follow Jesus and that can be frightening enough to cause anger. 

We much prefer to be sentimental about the baby born in a stable surrounded by all the cutesy animals.  But the story has hard edges that are safer to ignore. 

The stable undoubtedly smelt and a feeding trough was not the most hygienic place to put a new born baby. 

Both todays readings challenge us to ask serious questions about this Jesus we travel through Advent to meet at his birth.  The opening verse of the Isaiah passage was not only picked up by Luke as Jesus’ mission statement but if we are to be Christ to others it is an outline of what it means to be Christlike.

As Christ was sent to bring good news to the oppressed and bind up the brokenhearted so we, who would be Christ to others, must also bring and be good news.  In this world where refugees pour across the face of the planet those who would be Christ to others are not only called to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners but Isaiah claims we are also empowered by the Spirit to do so. 

We can only imagine the oppression and brokenhearted despair of those taken into slavery in Babylon after their city was destroyed.  With our earthquake experience we can also visualize the disconnection with their past of those who returned. But modern communication technology allows us to see the despair of those who flee from a whole host of wars only to become despised and unwanted refugees and boat people in other parts of the world.   According to Al Jazeera, hundreds of African refugees are being bought and sold in ‘slave markets’ across Libya every week.[2]

Most stable nations are fearful of big influxes of refugees and the destabilizing effect they have on their economies.  In New Zealand we are mostly sympathetic to the plight of refugees but the pressure immigrants put on our housing stock makes us nervous when we remember we have New Zealanders living in cars. 

The real joy for any refugee would be a safe and hopeful life in their own country which is why we support Christian World Service and other community and peace building organizations that strive to take away the reason for war by helping people find economic justice in the land of their birth.

Releasing prisoners in New Zealand is more controversial because we want bad people locked away to keep the rest of us safe.  Furthermore the news media seems to thrive on interviewing victims of crime who feel that punishing the offender will somehow give them closure.  However, compared with other OECD countries, New Zealand’s rate of incarceration is 155 per hundred thousand people making it the seventh-highest in the OECD, just below Mexico. [3]

So do we have more crime in New Zealand than other places or is it a case that we make less effort to rehabilitate offenders.  To proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners in a criminal justice setting could well involve releasing offenders from their mindset and world view that leads them to crime, which is not always easy.  Just like international peacemaking however we can make an effort to reduce the stresses that cause children to grow up to become criminals. As a nation, and as individuals, we can free young people from cycles of dysfunction and violence. 

Last week Liz took a whole carload of Christmas presents to Pillars for children of prisoners.  Those presents were donated by people from the congregation and the community who use our building.  Not only does that make Christmas special for children with a parent in prison but it sends the message that there are people who unconditionally care for others and that may be just one ripple in a world of dysfunction.  Such a ripple may well be like the butterfly whose flapping wings causes a tornado on the other side of the world, an action that not only brings joy at Christmas but opens the possibility of hope for a better future. 

Luke linked Jesus to the first verse of our Isaiah reading and Jesus to the prophetic tradition and messianic expectation.  But our John reading comes from the opening of that Gospel that places Christ in eternity with God.  The section we read introduces John the Baptist and makes it clear that John is not the Messiah or Christ but indicates that one greater than John will follow. 

Just as there was a significant section before our gospel reading there is an equally significant section that follows were John recommends Jesus to a couple of his disciples.

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples and, as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘look here is the Lamb of God!’ the two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. (John 1:35,36)  

So the reader is not only told that John came to prepare the way for Jesus but some of John’s disciples became Jesus’ disciples.  So the Jesus movement evolved from the John the Baptist’s reform movement. 

Both today’s readings combine to inform us that Jesus was part of a prophetic justice and reform movement grounded in the Hebrew tradition.  Jesus not only came from God but was and is God.  Furthermore to follow Jesus is to take up the idea that, as God acted in the world through Jesus, God acts in our world through those who choose to follow Jesus.

We follow our Advent journey, as we have many times before, a journey in which our theology and commitment to Christ is renewed and refreshed in the light of our changing world and our growing understanding.  Advent is a journey that prepares us to worship and celebrate the birth of Jesus with renewed faith and understanding of what it means to commit our lives to the Christ child. 

To worship Jesus as Christ, God born into our world as each person is born, is to open ourselves to the Divine Spirit and reaffirm that, through baptism, we who are likewise born, are commissioned to be Christ to others.  We too are called by Christ and commissioned by the Spirit to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. 



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.442

[2]http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/african-refugees-bought-sold-murdered-libya-171129103602048.html

[3]http://archive.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/government_finance/central_government/nz-in-the-oecd/justice.aspx

 

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