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;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
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.
8 For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
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.
(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV)
My Jewish friend, Ira, shared a story with me that goes like this: A disciple ran in to wake up his rabbi, calling out, “Rabbi, the Messiah has arrived!” The rabbi opened one tired eye and said, “Wake me when we have peace on earth.”
Does it seem that way to you? That peace on earth is what we sing, but don’t get? That peace on earth isn’t here, yet? That God is letting God’s people down?
Perhaps you’d like to do as the rabbi did: go back to sleep.
These words from the prophet Isaiah are Jesus’ mission statement. He spoke these words in the synagogue in his hometown Nazareth. The first couple of verses are absolutely loaded: “bring good news to the oppressed; bind up the despairing; proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; comfort all who mourn; provide for those who mourn; give a garland instead of ashes.”
That’s a tall order for one man to take on. So tall, that Jesus had disciples and followers who took on his mission as their own. That mission has been passed down to you and me today.
And it’s still a tall order. We’re the wealthiest nation in the world and can’t figure out how to ease poverty, find a solution to gun violence, or even get along with those with whom we disagree. It’s easy to identify the oppressed and despairing, the captive and imprisoned. What to do about it is the hard part.
Flannery O’Connor wrote that, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”(1)
In this season of the year when we sing “peace on earth,” we see too much of the captives and oppressed. We drop our coins in the Salvation Army buckets. We send checks off to those charities that we believe do the most with our money. We listen to the news faithfully, trying to understand what’s happening. We’re a world on edge; a people on edge. The TV commercial asks, “What’s in your wallet?” This week we ask, “What’s outside of me?”
We seek peace on earth and peace doesn’t come.
We are also the oppressed and despairing, the captive and imprisoned. We yearn for peace. We listen to the news with heavy hearts. We see pain and suffering and we grieve. We even feel guilty for having it so good. Where’s the peace in all that? Our hearts are breaking and the Beatitudes speak to us more than ever:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:3-6 NRSV)
Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with blessings for the poor in spirit, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Doesn’t that include you and me? We’re yearning for peace and comfort and seeing no peace and very little comfort.
Peace is found in prayer with God. Peace settles upon us in the form of grace: sitting quietly and feeling rested and peaceful for a few minutes; looking upon a newborn baby and seeing one of God’s multitudinous miracles; gazing at a sunset; having lunch with a friend. Isaiah suggests the power of a seed that falls to the ground and dies in order to become a growing and thriving plant. Peace arrives when we least expect it.
What if we took Flannery OConnor’s words seriously? What would that look like? Perhaps we’re sitting on the sidelines, waiting for Jesus to do something. Anything. What if we got in there with him?
Where to begin? I suggest we begin where our hearts are breaking. Write it down, draw a picture (yes, even a stick-figure image.) Write about it, dream about it, pray over it. Ask for insight, to see it from different angles. Pray for those who make the situation worse and those who are trying to make it better. Pray for yourself. What can you do? Where can God use you? Why does this issue hurt so much or make you so angry? Keep asking why until you hit the core of it.
Isaiah spoke to the captives in Babylon that God was at work and that Isaiah was the messenger of this good news. God would bind up, bring liberty, comfort and provision. They could trade in their ashes of mourning for a garland of joy. How will you trade in your ashes? How will you walk into the difficult issues that cause you to run away in order to feel the peace of God?
Is it impossible that God can make a difference in the world? Is peace on earth possible? The Psalmist wrote about “sowing in tears and reaping with shouts of joy.” That “those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Ps 126:5-6)
Will you resist grace? Or will you allow it to change and transform you? Will it be any more difficult to pray your way through this than it is to run from it?
God’s peace is waiting for you. Name your issue. Pray. Research it. Pray. Seek out information. Pray. God is waiting for you where it hurts the most. God will use your tears to transform you and your corner of the world.
Grace and peace are ready to change your life.
Do you have the courage to move into it?
All glory and honor be to God.
(1) (Flannery O’Connor, “Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being” [New Yoir; Vintage Books, 1980], 307 As cited in Feasting on the Word, Year B. Volume 1 [Lousiville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008] page 54)