“The Time of the Lord’s Favor”
Text: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
Prayer: O Lord, we come to this season with joy today. Joy in knowing you. Joy in know that you love us unconditionally. Joy that we experience when we love others unconditionally as well. Fill our hearts with the joy of this season and the joy from understanding and living out this text. Amen.
It is always interesting to read what children write. Sometimes they are completely candid. This candor shows in a list someone has made of children’s letters to Santa:
“Could you come early this year? I’ve been really super good, but I don’t know if I can last much longer. Please hurry. Love, Jordan.” Now there’s an honest young man.
“Mommy says that you only bring presents for good little boys. That isn’t fair. (Signed) Brian.” Sounds like Brian has already failed the test for being good.
But the one I like is from Jenny:
“Please give me a doll this year. I would like her to eat, walk, do my homework, and help me clean my room. Thank you. (Signed) Jenny.”
I understand Jenny’s Mom has asked Santa for that identical doll.
Our Advent announcement for this Sunday comes from lips of the Master himself. Jesus was in Galilee where he was already gaining quite a following. Luke tells us he was teaching in the synagogues, and “everyone praised him.”
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found today’s passage from the Old Testament for the third Sunday of Advent, the 18th verse. He read these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then, says Luke, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. Then the Master said something breath‑taking. He said these shocking words to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This was a message that his listeners did not want to hear.
Luke tells us that “all the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff” (28‑29).
Jesus proclaimed that these words of scripture were fulfilled in him and he sat down, which was a sign of authority. People stood in those days for worship, only the leader sat down. We’ve kind of reversed that haven’t we?
But that’s quite a powerful reaction to just a few words. Jesus escaped, but his words generated some powerful emotions. Why? The same reason they still stir powerful emotions today. Because so many want Jesus to stick to religion, not talk about the needs of the poor or people in prison or people with handicapping conditions. If he talked about prayer or reading the Bible, nobody would have cared. But here he was meddling with issues that hit too close to home, and that made people angry. It still does. And he claimed to have God’s authority when he said these things.
These words of our Lord taken from our lesson for the day from Isaiah come as close to anything in the Gospels to being Christ’s mission statement. It consists of a series of announcements, for we could substitute the word announce for proclaim. The announcements declare what he is all about.
Christ has been anointed by God’s Spirit to announce good news to the poor, to announce freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to announce the year of the Lord’s favor. Let’s begin with the first of these announcements: to announce good news to the poor.
Wouldn’t you agree that the poor need some good news whether they live in Afghanistan, in Africa, or even in the United States of America? It’s awful to be poor, particularly at Christmas. If you think the church has too much to say about the plight of the poor, it is because Christ cared so much for them. Besides, if the church doesn’t speak up for the poor, who will?
At this season of the year, the plight of the poor ought to be particularly on our mind. Christ calls us to be people of compassion.
In his marvelous book, The Kingdom of God is a Party, Tony Campolo tells a story that illustrates how I believe the church must begin to live out our witness in the new millennium. Campolo was attending a Christian conference in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Since there was a six‑hour time differential between Honolulu and his hometown in Pennsylvania, on his first night there Campolo experienced some confusion in his sleep pattern. He woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. So he got up, got dressed, and left the hotel where he was staying, searching for a place to get something to eat. Eventually he found a tiny coffee shop that was open. Here is his description of what happened there:
“The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me what I wanted.
I told him I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut. As I sat there munching my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door suddenly opened, swung wide, and to my discomfort in marched 8 or 9 provocatively dressed and rather boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was garrulous, loud, and crude. I felt completely out of place.
I was just about to make my getaway when I heard the woman next to me say, `You know, tomorrow is my birthday. I’m going to be 39.’ Her friend responded in a rather nasty tone, `So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?’ `Come on,’ the woman sitting next to me said, `why do you have to be so mean? I’m just telling you that it’s my birthday. Why do you have to put me down? I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?’
Campolo says, “When I heard that, I made a decision.
I sat and waited until the women left, and then I called over to the fat guy behind the counter and asked him, `Do they come in here every night?’ He answered, `Yeah.’ `The one who was sitting right next to me, does she come in every night?’ `Yeah,’ he said, `that’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in every night. Why do you want to know?’ `Because,’ I replied, `I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you say we do something special for her? What do you think about throwing a birthday party for her right here in the coffee shop?’ A cute kind of smile crept over that fat man’s chubby cheeks. `That’s a great idea,’ he said. `I like it. That’s great. Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind. I don’t think anybody has ever done anything nice and kind for her.’
`Well, look,’ I told him, `if it’s okay with you, I’ll be back here tomorrow morning at 2:30. I’ll decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake for her,’ `No way!’ he replied. `The birthday cake, that’s my thing. I’ll bake the birthday cake myself.’
“At two thirty the next morning,” Campolo says, “I was back at that coffee shop.
I picked up some balloons and crepe paper, and made a sign of big pieces of cardboard that said `Happy Birthday, Agnes!’ I decorated that diner from one end to the other. I had it really looking great.
The word must have gotten out on the street, because by 3:15 that morning every prostitute in Honolulu was in that place. There was wall‑to‑wall prostitutes C and me. At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready. When they came in we all jumped up and screamed, `Happy Birthday, Agnes!”
Then we sang to her. And you know, I’ve never seen a person so flabbergasted, so stunned, so shaken. Her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, her friend had to offer her arm to steady her, and I noticed she had started to cry. When the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that’s when she lost it. She started sobbing. Harry, the fat guy behind the counter, gruffly mumbled, `Blow out the candles, Agnes, blow out the candles.’
Then he handed her a knife and said, `Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake.’
Agnes looked down at that cake, and without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, `Look, Harry, is it okay with you if I, I mean, if I don’t, what I want to ask, is it okay if I keep the cake for a little while? Is it okay if we don’t eat it right away?’ Harry shrugged and answered, `Well, sure, Agnes, that’s fine. You want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.’ `Oh, could I?’ she asked. Looking at me, she said, `I just live down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, okay? I’ll be right back, honest.’ She got off her stool, she picked up that cake, and she carried it out of the diner like it was the Holy Grail.
She walked slowly toward the door, and we all just stood there, speechless. When the door closed behind her, there was stunned silence in the place.
Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, `What do you say we pray together?’
Looking back on it now, it seems more than a little strange that a sociologist from eastern PA would be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But I prayed. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation.
I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her. And when I finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, `Hey, you never told me you were a preacher! What kind of preacher are you anyway? What church do you belong to?’
In one of those moments when just the right words come, I answered him quietly, `I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.’
Harry thought for a minute, and then almost sneered as he answered, `No you don’t! There is no church like that. In fact,’ he concluded, `if there was, I’d join it.'”
Maybe Harry was right. Maybe there is no church that is open enough to the leading of the Holy Spirit to be that kind of church. But if the church is to continue to provide a witness to the world about the unconditional love of God in the next century and beyond, that’s the kind of church we’re going to have to become.
This season of the year is a reminder that we are to be kind, particularly to those who are do not have the advantages that we do. The message of Christmas is directly aimed at people who are disadvantaged. The announcement Jesus made about his mission is, first of all, good news to the poor.
It is also freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. Jesus’ aim was to set the oppressed free. The words “prisoners” and “the blind” are much broader than simply those who are behind bars and those whose eyes are damaged. Prisoners can be captive to a host of oppressors. People who are addicted to drugs are certainly prisoners. You can be imprisoned by self‑hatred or guilt or fear or prejudice.
People can be spiritually blind just as easily as they can be physically blind, blind to the needs of those around us, blind to the ministry God has purposed for our life. Sometimes we are blind to our connection to all the rest of God’s children.
Some people are imprisoned by their disabilities. But other people are imprisoned by their inability to put themselves in the shoes of someone who is just as valuable to God, but has obstacles to overcome. Jesus came to announce good news to the poor, to announce freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. And one thing more.
Christ came to announce the year of the Lord’s favor. What does that mean, “the year of the Lord’s favor”? A complete answer to that question would take more than a mere sermon.
Obviously it is related to the Old Testament idea of the “Year of Jubilee” mentioned in Leviticus 25 when slaves would be freed, debts cancelled, land rested, and compassionate help would be given to those in need.
To paraphrase biblical scholar N.T. Wright, Jubilee was a time when God would hit the reset button to release and rescue from everything that has crippled human life.
The year of the Lord’s favor also had to do, quite obviously, with the Kingdom of God that Christ was introducing, a time when God would reign in every heart. But it also suggested the concept of grace that Christ made available to humankind. Humanity’s whole relationship was moving from an atmosphere of fear to an atmosphere of love.
As we noted, Christ’s words came from our lesson for the day from Isaiah 61. But, it’s interesting, he didn’t complete Isaiah’s thought. Listen as I read from Isaiah and see if you hear something that Jesus didn’t say, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God . . .”
Did you catch that? Jesus left off the part about “the day of vengeance of our God . . .” Do you suppose that was an accident or could this be part of his mission to correct how humanity sees God? Could this have anything to do with the fact that Jesus taught us to call God “Daddy”? Unless you had a very warped father which does sometimes happen it’s very difficult to reconcile “Daddy” and “the vengeance of God.”
Could it be that Christ’s coming was partially for the purpose of resetting our understanding of who God is? I heard about two children who were talking about the Bible. One of them was quite upset about some of the atrocities that are found in the Old Testament. The other of them, a little girl, thought for a moment and then said, “Those things must have happened before God became a Christian.”
Well, in a sense, that’s true. How can you fear the vengeance of God who wraps Himself up in a babe in a manger? Our lesson for this third Sunday of Advent is from Isaiah, but our understanding of this passage is from Christ himself.
We are living in the time of the Lord’s favor. We are living in the light of the star of Bethlehem. The message of Advent and Christmas is and will always be Good News for the poor, for the disadvantaged, for the marginalized, for the oppressed, for the captive in short for all humankind. A new thing came into the world with Jesus. Welcome, my friends, to the time of the Lord’s favor.
Prayer: O Lord, help us proclaim your favor! May we shout it from the mountain tops, or show it in small acts of kindness in our everyday interactions with people. Thank you that Jesus showed us definitively what kind of God you are — a God of love not vengeance. Amen.