December 13, 2020   

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24, Luke 1:26-38                                        


        It is not possible to preach from the Gospel of Luke without coming back to the book’s major themes: Jesus enters a messy and dangerous world to bring salvation. Children, women, shepherds, the poor and sinners are welcomed in and loved. The  Holy Spirit is actively at work, and prayer is divine gift. And then of course there is joy! Joy runs through the entire Gospel, from beginning to end. People, once they realized that God’s salvation in Christ has arrived, respond with joy. Mary and Zechariah sing God’s praises, Angels praise God saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace”.  Simeon, guided by the Spirit of God, praises God.  When Jesus, later in the book heals the blind beggar, the beggar, glorifies Gods and “all the people praise God”.  

            Luke is therefore the perfect Gospel to read on this third Sunday of Advent when we light the joy candle!

            We too believe that God’s salvation in Christ is ours to embrace. We too want to respond with joy and gratitude. God’s love, in the person of Jesus entered our broken, harsh and loveless world. And now we too can rejoice and sing God’s praises, guided by God’s Spirit and in prayer. We are part of this community of faith because God’s Spirit somehow moved us to respond to God’s love. By the grace of God, we embrace the Good News of God’s love of us, revealed in Jesus. Directed by God’s Spirit we are part of the church, the Body of Christ and we want to do what God requires of us. We want to grow in devotion, in faith and commitment to God, serving God’s world as best as we can.

            Which leads to the question: “What do we need to do to grow as God’s people?” Perhaps another way to ask this question is: “What can we learn from the way people in the Bible responded to God’s immeasurable love of them?”

            Luke’s reading gives us a good example of how Mary responded back then. We have to admit, that we have romanticized Joseph and Mary’s situation back then. We think of them as a beautiful young couple who receives a remarkable message and who are told that Mary was God’s favored one. There are angels, shepherds, wise men and heavenly hosts singing beautiful hymns. We think about their story, when we decorate our homes with trees, lights and ornaments, we place expensive presents wrapped in charming packages under the tree and we eat cookies and delicious dinners before we relax in front of the fire place, with eggnog or a glass of fine wine.  It is a merry time! I don’t say this to make you feel guilty or to question our traditions. I, for one love and embrace every single aspect of it.

            But it seems to me that it is important to be reminded that Mary and Joseph did not have our luxuries.

            Let’s revisit their situation:  Mary was very young. The custom back then was that girls when they turn 12 years old could be engaged. After a year of engagement, they could get married, an arranged marriage of course. Even before the announcement that she was pregnant we sense that the young Mary was perplexed and afraid. And then came the announcement that she was to conceive a son. Not all pregnancies are planned, but this one is particularly shocking. No wonder Mary says: “How can this be, since I am a virgin.” Let me give you one more piece of information: A girl engaged to be married back then was treated exactly like a woman already married. According to Deuteronomy 22:23 if a woman who is engaged or married falls pregnant with another man’s child she and the man are to be put to death by stoning! So, Mary’s situation was more than uncomfortable, it was outright dangerous!

            And yet, how does Mary respond? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”  Her words express a deep-rooted trust in God. Her trust flows from the words of the angel that nothing will be impossible with God.  Mary, in spite of her challenging, uncertain and dangerous situation was able to trust God unconditionally. It was her trust in God that became the fountain of joy that she expresses in her song of praise a few verses on.

            It is clear that people of faith, who put their unconditional trust in God find joy for they are convinced that nothing is impossible with God. Their joy is not dependent on, or determined by external circumstances. People of faith have discovered that real and lasting joy are not linked to stuff, or gifts or even with their situation. They know that real and lasting joy is to trust God unconditionally for God knows what is best for them. Even when things are challenging and dangerous, God will be in control- for nothing is impossible with God.

            We all can learn from Mary’s unconditional response when she says: “Here I am Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

            The Apostle writes his letter to the Thessalonians about 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the oldest piece of Christian literature in the NT. At the end of this letter, the Apostle appeal to them to respect those who labor among them. He says that every member of the church has a responsibility for the church’s well-being. Everyone is urged to help one another, to care for one another, to admonish one another, to encourage the faint hearted, to help the weak and to be patient with each other. They are urged to do good to one another and to all. They need to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances and to rejoice always.

            When I read the Apostle’s words, I realized that people are meant to part of a healthy community. People find purpose and meaning, direction, joy and happiness when they have a sense of belonging. People need to be part of a community where people are respected, we all need opportunities to encourage others and to be encouraged, to help the weak knowing that I will receive help when I am weak. We all have to seek opportunities to do good to one another, to rejoice and to be grateful.

            We at CCRC are blessed to be part of such a community.  We are fortunate to have communities of family and friends, colleagues, and other connections. We sometimes take our communities for granted.

            Many people don’t feel that they belong, they don’t have the network of support that we have.

            Some communities have been devastated by the war on drugs where fathers are in prison. Some communities are destroyed by redlining, urban renewal, and other discriminatory practices based on race. Others are destroyed by natural disasters and gang-violence. And our country is being ripped apart by our internal divisions.

            We, the church cannot fix everything everywhere. But as people who have been welcomed in by God, who trust God and who believe that nothing is impossible to God, will do everything we can to welcome others in so that they too can experience the joy of belonging. We should work together so that everyone has opportunities to belong, to give and receive help, to do good and receive respect as human beings.

            This brings us to our Isaiah reading. This time from Trito or Third Isaiah. The situation has now again changed. The Jews are not in Babylon anymore. God’s promises to Second Isaiah that they would return has been fulfilled – but only partially. They expected a more glorious restoration. And as we page through Third Isaiah we see that they did not learn a lot from their history. It did not take long for them to fall into their old habits. Third Isaiah warns and urges them to be obedient to God’s law – for God is the Holy One. Therefore, they have to worship God in the right was and they have to keep the Sabbath. True worship, he points out, has to do, not with fasting and rituals but with justice and righteousness: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them….” (58:6-7). And then the unknown prophet gives us an idea of what and for whom God’s good news is: “The Spirit of the Lord 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 to proclaim the year of the Lord.” Then in verse 8 he says: “For I the Lord love justice….”

            God’s news that will bring great joy is good news for the oppressed and the broken-hearted. It is a message of comfort and consolation to those who are vulnerable and are struggling.

            God wants for the individual and the community to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners to proclaim the year of the Lord and to do justice!

            I wonder what the words about releasing the prisoners mean for our time. We do live in a world where there are violent and dangerous people.  Sometimes individuals have to be removed from a community to ensure that the community is safe and healthy. This is part of our broken world.

            I could not help thinking of some statistics of prisoners in the USA. Did you know that the American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people? I was shocked to learn that while the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. 4.4 percent of the world and 22 percent of the world’s prisoners?

            I refuse to believe that Americans are more lawless than people in other countries.  I don’t know what the solution is, but maybe we need to think about this as it seems to me that the Bible speaks about a message that should bring joy and hope to all-including prisoners.

Our readings today tells us what God wants from people:

            God wants people to place their unconditional trust in God for nothing is impossible with God. We are communal beings. We all need a community where we belong, are respected, where we feel safe, where we can help others and, if needed receive help ourselves. Also, God wants all of us to work for justice, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners and to proclaim the year of the Lord. The year of the Lord points to restoration and specifically the restoration of wholeness. Third Isaiah speaks of oil of gladness instead of mourning- garland instead of ashes! God wants all communities to be restored to wholeness.

            Our willingness to join God’s work in this regard is linked to joy and purpose! Are we willing to join God’s work!  Amen.