Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

It is a bit jarring to hear this reading when we’re so close to Christmas, the familiar call from Isaiah 61,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.

We know these as the words Jesus quoted when summarizing his own call in the synagogue in Nazareth, and hence it has always been seen as a call to ministry for those who are disciples of Jesus – us.

We are used to hearing them from Luke’s gospel in the season of Epiphany after his baptism, when the theme is ministry and the calling of disciples.  What is it doing here, now, when we’re preparing to hear about shepherds and angels? 

Today’s passage goes on beyond what Luke quotes, and is full of rich treasures to fill our imaginations about what God Is up to. The Advent season of waiting and hope keeps us focused on the big picture of preparing for the coming of God into our midst….not the manger yet….not the past and the Incarnation yet, but  here, now, and God’s future.  

This passage is the call of a new prophet,….yes, the unnamed prophet we call Third Isaiah, yes, the prophet Jesus sees himself in, yes, the call of John who was witness to the Light of Jesus, and yes, our call as church as prophetic truth-tellers.

The original context of this passage is the return of the Exiles from Babylon, having been released from their captivity, and having then made the arduous dangerous trek across the desert back to Jerusalem.

They have been gone from their land for two generations.  Most of the people travelling from Babylon to Jerusalem were probably born in Babylon. Many of those originally forced into exile when Jerusalem was destroyed are dead or too old to make the trip. Those arriving in Jerusalem had been fed memories of the former splendour of the temple, of the magnificent city walls, the fond longings of the survivors.  

But what they see now are ruins, rubble. 

The people who returned were full of dashed hopes and disappointment.  There is a formidable amount of work to be done to rebuild.  It is not hard to relate to the daunting task of repairing all that is broken.

Personally we know the inner work of keeping on in face of illness or the loss of a loved one.

Corporately We watched CoP 28 this week staring at monumental changes necessary to safeguard Earth.  

We see the devastation of Okanagan Anglican Camp by ravaging fire this past summer. Even having been there and seen the empty spaces and blackened trees felled, still after several months when I imagine being there at camp next summer I go back to the familiar memories of buildings that are actually no longer there.   

Some of you lost homes, or spent time in exile/evacuation and returned to losses, loss of neighbourhood, loss of a feeling of safety. 

We see pictures of people sitting on piles of rubble in Gaza and shudder at the devastation.  How will this damage ever be repaired?  Buildings might be rebuilt but lives and community and trust are lost.  

Into this despair after the Exile, God sends a prophet with vision and encouragement.  We hear this now both as the meaning of Christ coming into the midst of humanity, the meaning of Christmas we are about to celebrate,  and also we hear it now, as vision to embolden us with hope.  

The first part of healing here in this text is that there is a focus on the future rather than the past.  

I think of the resilience of Ian Dixon, the director of Okanagan Anglican Camp; his energy for rebuilding is focused on future vision.  The Isaiah passage is full of verbs of what God will do:  repair, restore, build up, raise up.   

I invite you to print a copy of this text and use your pencil crayons to colour all the verbs of what God is doing.  

To bind up the broken-hearted, to bring good news to the disenfranchised,  to comfort those who mourn, to release captives…to provide for those who have suffered loss….

We do not do these things alone;  we act out of this hope. It is God who is mending the world. We are sent out in this strength, in the confidence of God we have energy to work in cooperation with God for the rebuilding needed in the places we have been planted.

We are rooted in hope from these promises. Henri Nouwen expresses how this hope affects how we do our work:

All Christian action – whether it is visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or working for a more just and peaceful society – is a manifestation of the human solidarity revealed to us in the house of Gd.  It is not an anxious effort to create a better world.   

It is a confident expression of the truth that in Christ, death, evil and destruction have been overcome..  It is not a fearful attempt to restore a broken order. It is a joyful assertion that in Christ all order has already been restored.  It is not a nervous effort to bring divided people together, but a celebration of an already established unity.  

This action is not activism.  An activist wants to heal, restore, redeem and re-create, but those acting within the house of God point through their action to the healing, restoring, redeeming, and re-creating presence of God.”   

- Henri J.M. Nouwen, Advent meditations, compiled by Mark Neilsen, Creative Communications, 2001

Like John, we are not the Light of the World, our hopeful action is witness to the Light of the World. Like Isaiah, we announce what God is doing, and we join in.

“To bind up the broken-hearted, to bring good news to the disenfranchised,  to comfort those who mourn, to release captives…to provide for those who have suffered loss….”

Beyond the familiar passage Luke quotes, there are even more expansive images:

Heartening images of God wanting to give us a change of garment – a garland instead of ashes –instead of the ashes one would pour on their head as a visible sign of grief, God will give a celebratory headdress worn at a wedding. 

For ancient Hebrews anointing with oil was a sign of honor, favour, and joy, so when people are in mourning they do not use oil.  In Isaiah’s vision, God will give the “oil of gladness” to the people.  

Garlands and oil of gladness…

And then this intriguing phrase: 

God wishes to give us “a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”  

In their overwhelmed state looking at the ruins, the people have a faint spirit; there is so much to be done to mend the damage, they lose their courage. They become immobilized. I wonder if we can imagine this antidote to a “faint spirit” – “a mantle of praise.”  

A mantle is a long cape, a protective covering, often a sign of authority and calling, a symbol of power. A mantle of praise, to be clothed in praise would be to focus on God.  

Walter Brueggemann (my favourite Hebrew Bible scholar) says that to praise God is to cede ourselves, yield ourselves, and to put God at the center of our lives. It is what St. Paul is calling us to in the letter to the Thessalonians today, to rejoice in God, to give thanks to God in all circumstances; this is a way of resting in God’s Spirit.  

A ‘mantle of praise” is a Clark Kent in a phone booth kind of change for us, our superpower. To live lives of praise focusing on God is what renews our determination and endurance and fearlessness, and gives us the energy to tackle our calling of the rebuilding and mending the world.   

Juilan of Norwich says we are “wrapped, clasped, and enclosed” in the love of God ,  Wrap that robe around you!

Being in Winnipeg this fall has meant that for the first time in forty years I wake on Sunday morning with a choice of whether to go to Church, and the deciding factor every time is that I need to praise, to worship, to sing out to God surrounded by God’s people, to remind myself what God has done and keeps doing.  I can feel the inner strength this builds in me, singing praise and focusing on what God is doing rather than what I should do.  

This season of Christmas, when non-religious people still come to sing carols together, there is some recognition, I think, of the rejuvenation that praising God brings.  

So this text is an early Christmas gift!  I read about some research on what simple gifts make people feel it was a “good Christmas” – don’t remember all the things, but I remember:

  1. A book – seemed obvious to me.    
  2. An edible treat – which I interpreted as excellent dark chocolate, 
  3. An article of clothing that is cozy – mitts, scarf, fuzzy socks, flannel pjs...I imagine that might just be a northern hemisphere thing.   

But the clothing God longs to give us instead of a faint spirit, “a mantle of praise”,  a protective and energizing cloak, a gift that will last to eternity.

One more phrase about clothing to lift out of this passage of riches:

God covers us with a “robe of righteousness”, righteousness = right relationships.  

I am reminded of the Earth Charter from the UN in 2000

Definition of Peace:  

Recognize that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.

Robe of right relationship

I don’t usually want to give a title to my sermons, but this one I will call: 

“Don we now our gay apparel!”  As we prepare to welcome the Christ Child, I invite you to receive this clothing with which God is offering to adorn us:  “robes of right relationships”, festive garlands of joy, and “mantles of praise.”  

May these clothes renew and strengthen you, this season and always.