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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent 3 - Rejoice: Good News for the Poor!

I have sometimes been accused of having no holiday cheer.  People have said that I don’t know how to celebrate Christmas.  And, while it may be true that I tend toward the melancholic, I do know that we are to Rejoice during Advent - these weeks before Christmas.

I may grumble at way the holiday (that is “holy-day”) has become an orgy of consumerism and greed.  I may snarl a little bit every time someone mentions Santa Claus or Frosty or Rudolf.  I may say “merry Christmas, move along,” as my holiday greeting, but I really do – deep down in my two-sizes-too-small-heart believe in Rejoicing during this season.

The lectionary gives us two related texts for this third Sunday of Advent.  We have before us a reading from the prophet Isaiah (61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11) and from the gospel of Luke (1: 46 – 55). Both mention rejoicing.  But I am convinced that that Rejoicing has nothing to do with carols, or Christmas trees, or gifts, or any of that stuff.  (None of that is bad, of course. You can have it if you want it.)  The Joy of Advent – the Reason for the Season, if you will, is not in any of those things.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion-- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.

"For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity. In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed."
I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8 - 11 (NIV)

This is the text that Jesus adopted as his “mission statement,” and in it we find what should be reason for the season.  This is the good news that should cause us to rejoice.  Unfortunately we rarely hear this good news.  We rarely hear this gospel.

This is why we should rejoice – because God has good news for the poor.  His anointed servant will bind up the broken hearted, will proclaim freedom to the captives, and will release those imprisoned in darkness.  God’s anointed servant will announce that this is the year of God’s favor.

And this means something.  This is the announcement of the year of Jubilee. In the torah given by God to his people they were instructed to celebrate every 7th day as a Sabbath day of rest.  They were also told to celebrate every 7th year as a Sabbath year of rest for the land. And they were also to celebrate every seventh 7th year -that is, every 49th [i]as a year of Jubilee.  During this year all debts were to be cancelled.  Slaves were to be set free. Prisoners were to be released and property that had been sold was to be returned to its original owner. 

This is good news, indeed. All debts cancelled, property returned, slaves and prisoners released! Can you imagine? This would be reason to rejoice.

But we rarely hear this good news.  Instead we are told that the “year of God’s favor” means his grace, his love, and his mercy toward us.  And all of that is true.  But it isn’t the whole truth. 

The truth is that God is concerned for the poor – more concerned than many of his followers have been.[ii]  Too often the church and God’s followers have sided with the rich and the powerful.  We have marginalized the poor.  We have dismissed them.  We call them lazy.  We call them greedy.  And we establish laws and practices to make sure that the poor stay that way.

But the law given by God to his people included this “year of God’s favor” so poverty would never become a crippling condition for the people, so that the gap between the rich and powerful on top and the poor and struggling beneath would not continue to grow larger year after year.  The law of God protected the poor.

Now I will admit that this year of Jubilee would not eliminate poverty.  No.  It was not a magic cure-all.  But the year of Jubilee  made it impossible for generation after generation to be crushed under poverty. There would be a regularly scheduled redistribution of the wealth.

And this was good news for the poor.   Good news, indeed, for the poor – but can you imagine the horror of our contemporary leaders?  Redistribution of the wealth?  Cancellation of debts?  What that’s downright socialist!

And what is it that Mary, the mother of God sang after the angel announced that she would carry the messiah in her womb?

 And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me-- holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."
Luke 1:46-55 (NIV)  
Did you hear that?  She was rejoicing, just like the prophet Isaiah, and for the same reason.  Mary, the mother of God rejoiced because God had good news for the poor.

Listen to her:  “He has brought down rulers from their thrones and lifted up the humble.”
Why, she’s talking about revolution and the overthrow of governments! 

Listen to her: “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Why, she’s talking about class-envy and class warfare.  She’s talking like a Marxist![iii]

This isn’t to say that God dislikes the rich, or that the rich are evil because they are rich.  But, instead, that God has sent them away because they’ve already had enough.  They’ve had their reward already.

I struggled all week to collect and to organize my thoughts for this sermon so that I could speak without sounding angry.[iv] But I am so very tired of hearing those who would call themselves Christians deride the poor.  I am disgusted by those who talk about the ‘faith that made America strong’ but ignore the cry of the poor.

The Lord hears the cry of the poor. He has good news for them, and it’s not merely a pie-in-the-sky-someday-by-and-by kind of good news.  Too often the church has sided with the rich and told the poor that they will have their reward in heaven.  But if the Kingdom of God is here (and Jesus said that it is, that it is within us!) then we have our mission statement laid out for us.

We are to announce the good news – the gospel – to the poor.  If we are to rejoice during this season… if we want to celebrate the reason for the season, then we need to announce the good news to the poor. 

[i]  Or 50th – depending on the counting and interpretation…
[ii]  I’ll be more willing to believe that this is a “Christian” nation when we start putting this into practice.
[iii]  Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Marx spoke like Mary!
[iv]  It didn’t work.  I was (am) angry.

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