Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sound The Ram's Horn!

I'm indebted to the writings of Andre TrocmeJimmy Spencer Jr., and Walter Brueggeman for planting the seeds for this sermon.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

John 1:6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
 “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

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; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It’s “Joy” Sunday in the Advent season, and we’ve lit the pink candle! Every week the sanctuary is ever so much brighter as another candle in the wreath burns.

But for the citizens of Jerusalem, the men and women who Isaiah speaks to this week, the idea of joy is laughable. Bit by bit, those who had been exiled to Babylon, and more likely their children or grandchildren, were returning to the rubble of their city. For some, their homes and their land had been taken over by squatters. Still others, relying on their reputation and whatever wealth they had hoarded up during the exile, took back what was theirs, and more. What little was built back was getting done slowly, and people were falling deeper and deeper in debt to lenders who cared little for the Biblical mandate against charging interest. More and more people went to debtor’s prison, and had their children sold into slavery.

This was not the way it was supposed to be.

What happened to the Jerusalem that Isaiah cried out to in last week’s reading? The people who were being comforted because they had paid double for their sins?

Well, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.” Just as Isaiah had foreseen, the people of Jerusalem, far from learning the lesson the exile was meant to teach them, had withered in their resolve, had faded in their faithfulness, had gone back to their old oppressive, unjust ways.

Now, there is something going on in our Isaiah passage this morning that isn’t obvious at first glance. The language, in addition to being poetic and beautiful, is revolutionary in what it is proclaiming. So revolutionary, in fact, that when Jesus read these words in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and proclaimed them fulfilled, those listening tried to kill him!

For background, we need to go back to the 25th chapter of the book of Leviticus. The Children of Israel, this recently-freed nation of slaves, was en route to a homeland they had never seen, set to inherit homes they had not built, orchards and fields they had not planted, riches beyond their wildest dreams! But God intended for the nation of Israel to be ever mindful that they – like us – owe everything they have to God.

So every fiftieth year, any land which had been sold was returned to the seller; any persons who had sold themselves into slavery were freed; any money owed was forgiven. The slate was wiped clean. Sure, fifty years is a long time, and yes, adjustments in how much land or loans cost would be made based upon how close to that fiftieth year you were, but in the end, on that fiftieth year, when the ram’s horn blew, everything reset at zero. The poor were restored to wholeness, and the rich had just enough.

You can probably imagine how unpopular such an idea would be with those who had wealth, power, and status. To be sure, most scholars think that this “Year of Jubilee” happened rarely, if ever. There were judges who could be bribed, and priests who could be paid to forget what year it was.

And the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.

This is the dark hole of despair into which Isaiah’s words speak. Sound the ram’s horn! Proclaim good news to the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty to the slaves, release to the prisoners, comfort for those who mourn – The Year of the Lord’s Favor, Jubilee, is coming!

The late Liberation Theologian Andre Trocme suggests that, when Jesus spoke these words, the rich and powerful understood that he was calling for Jubilee – the restoration of the poor, the cancellation of debts – immediately, and they could not abide such a threat to their wealth. That’s why they immediately tried to kill him, and he escaped by the skin of his teeth.

But I wonder: in the long run, the people who had made their money by cheating the poor, by bribing officials – and this is by no means an indictment of all rich people; I am speaking of a specific situation where, despite the Mosaic Law forbidding charging interest and demanding a Year of Jubilee, people had knowingly and arrogantly broken the law for their personal gain – I wonder if, deep down, after recovering from the shock of the loss, they, too, would have felt a restoration of joy?

You don’t have to look too far to find people who are fabulously rich, but seem miserable. Just about any Hollywood celebrity or reality-show “star” comes to mind. For that matter, Donald Trump never looks happy, either.

How much worse would it be for someone who had climbed to the top on the backs of the poor, overcharging, enslaving, cheating? Wouldn’t you always be looking over your shoulder to see who was going to stab you in the back? There couldn’t be any joy in that kind of life; rather, that person would always be eaten up by worry, scrabbling for more, making sure his back was covered, make sure he knew where his enemies were hiding. Jubilee would, in the end, be a relief, wouldn’t it?

The real gift of joy in the Year of Jubilee, though, was in its reminder that God, and not human beings, truly held the deed on the land the Israelites occupied. God, and not human beings, controlled the wealth in the land. In the Jubilee year, the poor would no longer be poor. Those rendered homeless would get their houses back. Those sold into slavery to pay debts, and those in debtor’s prison, would find freedom, their debts wiped clean.

In the Year of Jubilee, God sets everything right again. Isaiah proclaims that the Year of Jubilee is coming. Jesus confirms, when he reads this passage in the synagogue, that the Year of Jubilee, when God will set everything right again, is, in fact, at hand!

In this Advent season, isn’t this a word for us? In a world where nations, and entire continents, are in near economic collapse, when mortgages are under water and people see no end to debt, when the gap between the rich and poor is growing wider and wider… Sound the ram’s horn! Good news. Healing. Liberty. Release. Comfort.

In this Advent season, isn’t this a word for us? In a world where natural disasters have devastated Haiti and Japan, where years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans still struggles to recover, where places like Tuscaloosa, Hackleburg, Cordova and Pratt City, Alabama, as well as Joplin, Missouri are still picking up the pieces from tornadoes… Sound the ram’s horn! Good news. Healing. Liberty. Release. Comfort.

In this Advent season, isn’t this a word for us? In a world where one in seven people worldwide are hungry, where eleven million people face famine and starvation in eastern Africa, where, right here in the United States, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are homeless, right now… Sound the ram’s horn! Good news. Healing. Liberty. Release. Comfort.

Advent calls to Jubilee – to reconsider our priorities, to find joy not in how much stuff we have, where we live, who friends us on FaceBook or what team we root for, but – like John the Baptist in our Gospel reading today – in who we point to, who we worship, whose image we reflect.

We, the Body of Christ, are called, as one, 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. We are called to comfort all who mourn… we are called to rebuild the ancient ruins of broken lives, to heal the devastation of hunger and disaster and homelessness, and, like John the Baptist, to proclaim to each and every one, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

In this Advent season, isn’t this a word for us? And isn’t it time? Sound the ram’s horn! Good news. Healing. Liberty. Release. Comfort.

1 comment:

  1. John, thank you for posting your sermons. It's been a while since I have read any, but dare I say something is happening in my heart? Indeed! I'm being called home.

    Thank you for being faithful to your calling