When The Good News Sounds Like Bad News

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 who 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 fort 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.

My very first sermon, while a teenager, was on Paul’s description of the body of Christ from 1 Corinthians. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

I don’t remember a lot about the sermon save for the fact that it wasn’t a very good one. To begin, I had never preached before, nor had I given a lot of thought to what preaching was supposed to sound like. Second, the text itself was plenty confusing on its own without some teenager trying to wax lyrical about it. And finally, it wasn’t very good because I ended with an overly long description of the human body that bled into a call for each person in the congregation to figure out what body part they were for Jesus, and get to work.

In my head this sounded like a good charge to propel the congregation forward to do the work of Jesus in the world. But what really happened was a bunch of people left church that morning trying really hard to not think about being Jesus’ thigh, or clavicle, or pinky toe.

Jesus’ first sermon was on the text from Isaiah 61: “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.” Though upon reading from the scroll to the gathered congregation, he rolled it back up, sat down, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And, as scripture tells us, when the people heard what he said, they were filled with rage, drove him out of the synagogue, and forced him to the brow of a cliff so that they could hurl him over the edge.

Good News - Bad News signpost with sky background

I get the frustration people can feel with regard to preaching. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was sitting on the other side of the altar during worship. But what kind of sermon is worth killing over?

Isaiah, like Jesus, was tasked with speaking to a people divided, where leaders played to the powerful and privileged, justice was available for the highest bidder, and inequality reigned supreme. The prophet attempted to bring good news to a people where isolation was more important than community, and where word of God’s extensive work was met with frustration, disapproval, and even violence.

How can good news sound so bad?

It’s all well and fine when we hear about what God is going to do for us, but when the scope of God’s salvation stretches to those other people, it’s a little harder to swallow.

Isaiah paints a picture of God’s work: The oppressed will hear good news, the brokenhearted will be healed, the captives will be set free, the jubilee year will begin.

In other words: the poor and the weak will be given power and strength, the people who mourn for better days will be rewarded, people in jail will be released, and all debts shall be forgiven instantaneously.

Now, if we were in prison, or heavily in debt, or ostracized to the outskirts of society, this would sound like really good news.

But if we made money off of those in prison, or grew powerful by lending money, or sat in the places of respect and comfort, this would sound like really bad news.

The people of God during the time of Isaiah needed hope. They were oppressed, imprisoned, and brokenhearted. And through their ruins God was going to spring forth new life, their offspring would be known among the nations, and they would be blessed.

As Bob Dylan put it, the times they were a changin’.

But it’s hard for us to side with those who are oppressed, because we’ve got it pretty good. We were able to make it here for worship on a Sunday morning, we don’t have to worry about being persecuted for our faith, and should something terrible happen we know that we have a church that will help to see us through.

It’s difficult reading Isaiah’s words because we’ve grown so comfortable with God’s love that we forget God has the capacity to hate. God is love such that all things that go against love are against God.

Isaiah boldly proclaims that God hates robbery and wrongdoing, God hates when the people take advantage of others, and God hates injustice. Which is really problematic when we live in a society that rewards those who make the most with the least effort, who prey on the weak to grow strong, and who define their own understanding of justice.

Here is where Isaiah hits home for us. Because on the surface, it might look like we’ve got it all together, but even the best among us have hidden struggles under the surface. There are things going on in our lives that we don’t want anybody else to know about and we try so hard to keep these secrets and shames bottled up. Christmas, however, has the power to reveal even the deepest secrets we keep locked away. There are the broken relationships, the ignored addictions, the denied depression, the raging affair, the greed, the hatred, the fear.

So, with all of this bad news tucked away from prying eyes, where is the Good News? Why read these words from Isaiah on the third Sunday of Advent, a day dedicated entirely to joy?

When Jesus sat down to preach for the first time, he declared that he was the one who would bring God’s transformation to a broken world. In him all would be made new. He looked out at that congregation with all their expectations about what God would do, and he exceeded them exponentially.

One of the challenges with scripture, and in particular preaching, is wrestling with what and who the Word is for. Is this text from the prophet Isaiah meant for the people of his time, and his time alone? Are the proclamations from the pulpit limited to the Advent of God in Christ and the changes that began in Bethlehem? Are Isaiah’s word meant for us today in this place at this time?

But there is yet another angle by which we can approach God’s Word today… What if its less about the past, the days of Isaiah? What if its about more than the arrival of Jesus, what if this text is describing the already, but not yet, of the future?

God most certainly sent Jesus to inaugurate a new time, a new beginning for God’s people. In Christ the Good News entered the world, but the vision of Isaiah hasn’t come to complete fruition; at least not yet.

The people receiving Jesus’ first sermon were uncomfortable with his proclamation, enough that the wanted to end his life. They couldn’t imagine a God who would so subvert and change the priorities of existence. They were far away from encountering a God who would resurrect his Son from beyond the grave.

They, in some ways, were a lot like us.

They had families to take care of, debts to manage, and secrets to keep hidden. And to hear this Jesus say that God was going to bless everyone, and in particular the people not in the synagogue, is hard to swallow when you consider all the problems you have.

So, it would seem that we have to ask ourselves a question, one we might not want to consider… If this word angered and frightened the people so much that they wanted to harm the messenger, what does it say about our church today? If we were to take stock of who we are and what we’re doing, is this church in line with God’s vision from Isaiah, are we helping to turn the world upside down?

            If not, what more can we do?

God has a vision for us here, and for Christians everywhere. God dreams about the coming future, and with God’s help it can become a reality for us.

God desires a community of faith where all are welcomed. And all means all. This implies a day when those who mourn and those who rejoice can sit next to one another in the pews, where the wealthy and poor can befriend one another, where gay and straight can feast at the table at the same time, where even republicans and democrats can find common ground.

God dreams of the day when the ancient ruins of the past will become the foundation for a new way, when the old can teach the young and the young can teach the old. This coming reality is founded upon the belief that all will know the story that reshapes all stories and that story, God’s story, will have more power than anything else.

God hopes for a day where our allegiances are not divided amongst a sea of desperation, but instead directed totally toward the Lord.

God yearns for the arrival of a new day where we cast away the idols that dominate our lives, where we replace the ashes of destruction with garlands of beauty, where justice rains down like waters.

And when that day comes, when the future breaks into the present, we shall dance and greatly rejoice in the Lord. Every fiber of our beings will exult in the Lord. When we look around we will see one another clothed in garments of salvation, with robes of righteousness, and jewels of grace. The world will cease to be what it is now, and will be like the new heaven and the new earth where tears and shame and weeping will be no more.

That day will come, though we know not when nor how. But we know that is coming. We know that it is coming because God is, was, and always will be be the Lord of all things. We know that it is coming because God always makes a way where there is no way. We know that it is coming because even when the good news sounds like bad news, it propels us into a frame of existence we never could have imagine.

We know all of this because the Good News started when Jesus was born into that tiny manger, and all of creation was changed forever. In that one divine moment the Lord caused righteousness and praise to spring up in new ways and in new places. Such that even today, people like you and me, are hearing the Good News, and it’s changing us forever. Amen.

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