Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
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 brokenhearted, 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.
Sermon The Year of the Lord’s Favor?
Good morning. This has been a grim week. On Wednesday, set a new record for coronavirus deaths in a single day, 3,054. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “issued a stark warning about the worsening death toll from the coronavirus on Thursday, saying that in a coming brutal stretch of time the country is likely to see more deaths from the virus each day than from the Sept. 11 attacks or Pearl Harbor.”
On the same day, a panel of advisors to the Food and Drug Administration gave its approval for the use of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer. It’s possible that some nursing home residents and healthcare workers could begin to receive the vaccine as early as next week.
We’ve got an avalanche of bad news, followed by some serious good news.
Can anyone say, whiplash?
That had to be how the people of Judah, the exiles from Jerusalem, must have felt when they heard these words from the prophet Isaiah. They must have felt something like whiplash. Let’s have a quick review.
The Book of Isaiah was most likely the work of three different authors, writing over a span of about two hundred years. The second part of Isaiah was written during a time called the Babylonian captivity or exile. During that time, the Babylonians invaded the kingdom of Judah, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple that King Solomon built, and then they took most of the religious and political leaders captive—they took them off to Babylon.
The exiles were held in Babylon for some 60-80 years; whole generations were born and died there. That was the scene for last Sunday’s reading, when God said to the exiles, through the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” That was when God told them not to give up, not to lose hope.
Our reading today comes from the third part of the Book of Isaiah, after many of the exiles had returned from captivity. Things were no picnic when they got back to their homeland. The people who remained in Judah didn’t welcome the exiles home. They really weren’t impressed. The people who remained in Judah moved on without the exiles. Remember, whole generations of Jews who remained in Judah also were born and died. They wouldn’t really have known who the exiles were or why it was so important that they returned.
When the exiles returned, they found that Jerusalem had been abandoned. Solomon’s temple had been destroyed some sixty years earlier, yet no one had rebuilt it. The temple had been the center of Jewish religious life. So, to return and find everything in ruins, that must have felt like a punch in the gut to the exiles. Imagine their emotional journey:
· They were prisoners in Babylon, struggling to hang on to hope.
· God told them they were going to be released.
· They were released from exile and many returned to Judah and Jerusalem.
· But they weren’t welcomed home.
· What they expected to find had been destroyed.
And now, in today’s reading, God is telling them, through the prophet Isaiah, that everything is going to be good again, everything is going to be made whole. Again, can you say, whiplash?
It must have been difficult for the people who returned from exile to hear this. They must have had trouble believing that the news was good. The rug had been pulled out from under them so many times before. They must have had trouble believing that this was the year of the Lord’s favor.
That phrase, the year of the Lord’s favor, has a very specific meaning. It refers to the Jubilee year, a year in which all debts are forgiven and all property is returned to the original owner, or to the owner’s heirs. What God is saying, through Isaiah, is the land that had been taken from the exiles is being returned. And their sins—or the sins of their ancestors—have been forgiven. That is, they have been released from the debt of sin. Furthermore, when Isaiah says:
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.
He’s referring to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the construction of a new temple, a new center for Jewish religious life. God is entering into a new covenant with God’s chosen people, Israel.
This is really important to us as Christians, as well. In Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Luke, in the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus walks into a synagogue and he reads this passage from Isaiah. After reading these words, Jesus says: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). And that’s why we’re hearing this scripture in Advent. In Jesus, our sins are forgiven, our debts are paid. This is our annual reminder of the coming of our Lord and savior, the one who sets us free.
In 2020, this is a little bit more challenging. Honestly, 2020 hardly seems like the year of the Lord’s favor; it’s no Jubilee, for sure. But I gotta tell you, some really good stuff has been happening. And it’s really easy to miss the blessings in a year when the suffering is so obvious.
On a personal level, I got some great news last week. I was approved for a grant of $10,000 to be applied to my student loans. You have no idea how much joy this has brought me.
I took out about $38,000 in loans to go to seminary. It took me another 15 months after graduation to finish the ordination process and receive my first call to ministry—and that first position didn’t pay very well. So, by the time I started making payments, the debt had grown to about $42,000. The expected payoff date for my loans was May, 2027. Currently, my balance is a little over $29,000. Until I found out about the grant, it felt like I would never get out from under that debt.
Next week, the funds should be applied to my loan balance. That’ll wipe out about a third of my debt. On top of that, I learned that I’ll be eligible for a different grant next year. That one is only $5,000, but it’s still a huge amount of debt relief. If I get that early next year, over half of my debt will be erased in a span of about two months. For a long time, when I thought about my debt, I only saw darkness. Now, I see the light dawning. I can see that I will be released from my captivity much sooner than I had imagined. This gives me great joy!
I’ve seen a lot of hopeful and joyous things in our church, too. For instance, a few weeks ago, we received a generous donation from a member to provide for some new audio/visual equipment. This will enable us to provide a better experience for online worship. Also, it will ensure that we continue to have a strong online presence after the pandemic is over.
I am also overjoyed with the response I saw from the Property Commission over the last week, as they dealt with the aftermath of a structure fire next to the Christian Ed building.
I’m guessing that most of you know this already, but last Sunday, there was a fire in a small building on the property next door to the church. The fire burned so hot that it broke about a dozen windows in the CE building. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the damage to our property was relatively minor—we lost some windows and some air conditioning units, but not much more than that, and insurance will cover the losses.
What was amazing to me was how quickly—and how well—members of this congregation responded to the emergency. Sam Daesener was on the scene right away. She communicated with the firefighters on the scene, and then she reached out to members of the Session and the Property Commission—everyone knew what was going on right away.
Larry Moran and Barry Fitz came out right away to put plastic over the broken windows. Barry brought his grandson, Alex, to help, too. Larry also found a contractor who would come and board up the windows the following morning. Charles Rudderow helped out in the next couple days and so did Scott and Robin Fox. In fact, Scott was invaluable in dealing with the fire marshal and the insurance adjustor. I’m sure Barbara and Charlie Lloyd should be thanked for something, too, even if they haven’t yet played a role in the response to the fire.
My point is, even in the midst of all this awfulness—the pandemic and the fire—people in this congregation continue to show up and step up. Yes, it’s tougher to see and the good and hopeful things that are happening in the congregation. It’s harder to feel the joy when we don’t gather together as often as we used to, and in a sanctuary that’s so large.
Yes, it’s harder to feel the joy than it usually is, but it’s there! You have to look for it, but it’s there! Like the hope and the peace that we celebrate in Advent, if you’re having trouble finding joy, you need to reach out. You need to reach out to your church family and let us know you’re struggling. I’ve got lots of joy to share this year; I’m sure I’m not the only one.
We can create joy by sharing the joy we have with others. We can also create joy by doing the work of God and proclaiming release to the captives. How? You could make an extra gift to this church. You might offer a donation to help reduce the church’s mortgage. The more money we can raise for this, the sooner we can get out from under that debt, that captivity.
Or perhaps you’d like something with a more immediate impact. If so, I’d suggest making donations to the Open Door food pantry or the Emergency Housing and Advocacy Program, EHAP. These are both ministries of the Freehold Clergy Association and they do vital work in our community. That work is even more challenging in the pandemic. Frankly, it’s hard to serve people when you can’t gather in large groups. Nonetheless, your donations to these ministries will provide release to people who are held captive to hunger and homelessness.
The year of the Lord’s favor, the year of Jubilee is a moving target. But we can, as the Church and as individuals, proclaim the good news, proclaim release to the captives. We can share the joy we have and find more joy by sharing what we have with others. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, look for the joy around you and share it with others! Proclaim the good news and offer release to the captives. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Peter Sullivan, “CDC director: US COVID-19 deaths likely to exceed 9/11 toll for 60 days,” The Hill, 12/10/20, retrieved from: https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/529709-cdc-director-us-covid-19-deaths-likely-to-exceed-9-11-toll-for-60-days