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Looking at Salvation with Advent In Mind

A sermon delivered byWendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 11, 2011.

Isaiah 61:1-11

61The 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 favour,
   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.

5 Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
   foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
   you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
   and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their* shame was double,
   and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
   everlasting joy shall be theirs.

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.

Luke 4:18-19 indicate that Jesus read from this passage the first time he returned to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth after his publicly ministry began.  These words have a commissioning ring.  They bristle with purpose and promise. 

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me …  The Lord has anointed me.  [H]e [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; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,  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.

These prophetic words of messianic hope had been cherished by Jewish people of faith for centuries before Jesus read them in the Nazareth synagogue.   These words show what the readers and hearers of this passage understood salvation to mean.  They understood that God’s Anointed—the Messiah/Christ—would be a change agent whose work would make a holy difference to vulnerable people (“the oppressed,” “the broken-hearted,” “the captives,” the prisoners,” and “all who mourn.” 

The readers and hearers of these words understood that the messianic objective is to produce salvation defined in terms of righteousness and justice.  These aren’t words of partisan politics.  However, they are clearly words about social justice and messianic activism to achieve it. 

The anonymous prophet who penned our text asserts a mission for the Messiah—The Lord’s Anointed—that surely was important to the exiles who were the first hearers.  The prophet’s words were “good news” to people who had been exiled from their homeland, separated from ancient sacred places, sights, and sounds, and whose depression, despair, and sense of defeat seemed overwhelming. 

The prophet predicted a change in their circumstances.  “Salvation” meant changing conditions for oppressed, broken-hearted, captive, imprisoned, and exiled immigrants.  It meant going back home.  It meant freedom from oppression.  It meant a righteous and just society where vulnerable people would be comforted and vanquished hopes would renewed, re-validated and vindicated. 

The Anointed—Messiah/Christ—would come in God’s name with God’s authority to turn the world upside down so that it would be right side up.  Based on these words and what we see in the preaching of John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth, “salvation” has a lot to do with something John and Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” 

As we ponder the prophet’s words in the 21st Century of the Christian era, it’s worth mentioning that the righteousness and social justice concept of “salvation” addressed in the prophecy found at Isaiah 61 and the words of Jesus at Luke 4 appear to have been replaced.  The “salvation” envisioned by many people today seems “other worldly.”  It largely focuses on life after death (“where will you spend eternity”).  Preachers and evangelists call on people to profess faith in God’s power, revealed in Jesus, to “save” a person so that person can go to heaven and live with God when this life ends. 

But what does this “life after death” notion of salvation mean about God’s passion for righteousness and justice for “the oppressed,” “the broken-hearted,” “the captives,” “the prisoners,” and the other vulnerable and mourning people and conditions the prophet mentioned?  Has God forgotten righteousness and social justice?  Or have we somehow chosen to substitute a “life after death” notion of “personal salvation” for the kind of righteous living and just society Jesus read about in Isaiah 61 on that first trip back to Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry?  Has the meaning of “salvation” changed in the mind of God?  Or did we change it?

Followers of Jesus can’t avoid these questions.  The messianic view of salvation proclaimed in Isaiah and the “kingdom of God/heaven” proclaimed by Jesus and promised by John the Baptizer confronts us every day.  Evidence that people are “oppressed, “broken-hearted,” “captives,” “prisoners,” and otherwise vulnerable are everywhere we go and look.  That evidence is in jails and prisons, retirement homes, struggling neighborhoods, and on the faces of tired and struggling people of every background and situation. 

Like the exiles that were intended to be comforted by the words of our text, people today need a vision of God’s salvation that loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing [Is. 61:8].  People today need a vision of salvation that will inspire them to see themselves as “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD” [Is. 61:3].  They need a vision of salvation that impels them to be agents of restoration and repair for the human condition and all that its sinfulness has ruined. 

The kingdom of God that Jesus read about from this text, preached about during his lifetime, and was crucified about involves people living in the spirit of Isaiah 61 under the rule of God’s Messiah.  It involves people living out the prophetic claim that God will provide deliverance from oppressive conditions.  The kingdom of God that Jesus read about involves people who believe that God sent Jesus to lead and call us to build, repair, encourage, heal, set free, welcome, and vindicate God’s people from all hellish realities they experience due to human greed, pride, cruelty, hate, and fear. 

When we live our faith in God according to this sense of salvation people will join the anonymous prophet whose words at Isaiah 61:10 and 11 conclude our lesson.  They will say, with the prophet—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 jewels.  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 nations.

People will know heavenly joy and peace and goodwill on earth because we are obeying the Messiah’s mandate to be people of righteousness and justice.

This, beloved, is the salvation that Jesus affirmed and lived.  In Jesus, God sent “good news to the oppressed.”  In Jesus, God sent healing to “the brokenhearted.”  In Jesus, God proclaimed “liberty to captives and release to the prisoners” of every wicked and unjust system and power that holds people as hostages and prisoners.  In Jesus, God calls us to be agents of this kind of salvation.  This is the kingdom Jesus instructed his followers to enter.  This is the will of God Jesus taught us to do “on earth” because this is the rule God exercises in heaven. 

Jesus didn’t come preaching about preparing to go to heaven, but about entering “the kingdom of heaven” by fulfilling God’s will for righteousness and justice on earth.  Any notion of “salvation” that ignores this divine mandate is one we’ve chosen to substitute for what the prophets declared, what Jesus revealed, and what Jesus prayed the Holy Spirit would empower us to fulfill.  So, the big question is not where you and I will spend eternity after we die.  It’s whether we will spend ourselves in doing the work of righteousness and justice here and now.   

At Advent Season and always, followers of Jesus declare we are “saved” to be agents of divine righteousness and justice.  We are “saved” to be holy activists, healers, liberators, encouragers, and radical forces for divine justice.  The kingdom of God is within us.  We must not shirk or shrink from doing the challenging work of salvation God anointed Jesus to do.  The Spirit of God is upon us and the Lord has anointed us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day that God vindicates and comforts “all who mourn.” 

Your will be done on earth as in heaven.  We can trust God’s grace and power to make us agents of the kingdom of heaven in this life.  We can trust God’s providence for all that comes after this life ends.  Until that time comes, we have work to do.  Let’s do it with every breath and heartbeat until we are called from the world of duty to the world of rest.  Amen.