Good News

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How comfortable would you be to welcome this person in your church?

The words in Isaiah 61:1-11 were written after the return from Babylonian exile. The community returned to a land that had been occupied by others. They returned to homes in which other families were now living. The land they returned to was no longer theirs.

But Isaiah speaks into the heartbreak of returning in this situation and reminds the people that God continues to send messengers of good news—in this case, the prophet. The prophet begins by identifying who needs to hear the good news: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn. The good news is not for those of us who are comfortable and content—it is for those who are discontented.

We need to remember that in our churches. Many of us are comfortable here. We have our friends and our routines. We have supported the church faithfully with time, with money and energy but in many ways, as a place of good news, the church is not for us and the message it offers is not for us. The message is for those who feel like their lives are falling apart. It is a message for those who feel least comfortable here and in the community. It is a message for the most vulnerable in our communities. It is a message for those living with physical and mental illnesses. It is a message for our brothers in White Spruce Training  Centre. It is a message for the people who come to use our food shelf. It is a message for those living with intense grief.

The message that the prophet has to offer these groups of people is one of good news. Prisoners will be released. The brokenhearted will be healed. Those who mourn will be comforted. That’s the good news.

In recent years we’ve seen movements like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, Occupy which are movements of the disenfranchised trying to find their place and seeking justice. This passage continues the idea that that those who are most vulnerable will be able to take control of their own lives and be supported in finding their place within society.

This passage suggests that there will be reason for the returning prisoners to celebrate. They will rebuild cities and devastation that has lasted many generations will be healed. Not only will these groups become valued members of their society, they will become leaders with the ability to change the society.

The transition might be more difficult for the people who are already living in the land. This return will bring upheaval into their lives. They will find themselves displaced as everyone wiggles a bit to make room for new and different people. In our church, it might mean sitting beside someone you don’t know or maybe even having to change pews because someone is sitting in your spot. It might mean that meeting times change to accommodate people who work. When we say that everyone is welcome, we need to consider that welcoming people who seem different from ourselves will be disruptive to our community life. It might be inconvenient. It might even be uncomfortable.  But just as we read in the prophet Jeremiah a few weeks ago about the burning of the scroll in order to silence the message, this message cannot be silenced either.

Jesus renewed this message of good news as the writer of Luke chooses these words to shape Jesus’ ministry.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As followers of Jesus, we are also called to bring good news to the poor, release the captives, offer healing and opportunities for renewing of life. The good news for those of us who are comfortable is that God works through us. The good news is that in the moments of our lives where we are most vulnerable, God does not abandon us.

In Advent we wait for Jesus, the bringer of this good news. We wait for the world to be turned upside down. We wait for love and peace. We wait for hope and joy. Are we really prepared for what that means? Part of preparing ourselves for Jesus’ coming is preparing ourselves for the upheaval that his presence brings. Just as those who were waiting for the captives return from Babylon had to make space and opportunity for the returnees, we also have to make room for the poor, the oppressed, the captives, people who live with intense grief, with mental illness or physical challenges. When we make space, Jesus has come.

The Spirit Poured Out

For a quick review of the book of Joel see the Bible Project:

The reading focuses on two very short passages from Joel 2. You might have read these scriptures and wondered what they have to do with Advent or Christmas. You might wonder what any of this has to do with Jesus. There are actually several connections.

But first I want to give you some context. We know almost nothing about the prophet Joel and there is no certainty about when the book was written. It is a short book—only 4 chapters. The book bounces between judgement and hope. It begins with Joel describing a locust plague (like the one found in the Exodus story) which leads to a famine that destroys the countryside. That plague of locusts morphs into an image of an encroaching army which behaves like locusts and eventually destroys the community. It is a very dark and disturbing image. Interspersed with these images are the verses like the ones we just heard.

In ancient times, it was believed that bad things—like locusts and armies—were sent as punishment from God. The prophet picks up on this belief and reminds the people that they need to be faithful. They need to look after the most vulnerable in their society—widows, orphans, foreigners. They need to turn their attention back to God. The need to feel remorse for their neglect of vulnerable people. It isn’t enough just to say “sorry” and move on. They need to show their remorse and changed hearts through their actions. The prophet Joel tells the people that if they return to following in God’s path, God’s punishment will be lifted.

The Inclusive Bible translates these verses this way:

“Return to me with all your heart,
With fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Tear open your heart,
Not your clothes!”
Return to YHWH you God,
Who is gracious and deeply loving as a mother,
Quick to forgive, abundantly tender-hearted—
And relents from inflicting disaster.

Here we find our first connection to Advent and Christmas. A footnote in the Inclusive Bible gives detail to these verses.”“Deeply loving” translates from the Hebrew word for “womb”—God is showing a mother’s love. This is echoed by the word tender-hearted usually translated as merciful. It is also the word for “stork”, for the tender care she shows her young. “Relent” can mean “to be deeply moved,” and has the same root as the word for womb.” Advent is all about expectant waiting…like waiting through a pregnancy—and knowing that whatever the outcome of birth, life will change. And the passage reflects that. It reflects an image of a God who waits for the people to re-turn to find their way back to God. As the change occurs in the people, a change also occurs in the God who waits.

The second part of the passage describes what will happen in the future. After God has waited, after the people have returned, God’s spirit will be poured out. The story of Pentecost in Acts, where the Holy Spirit touches the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection, quotes these verses:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

The writer of Acts had a sense the events of Jesus’ life, his work, his mission tied back to the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. What the prophet Joel, other prophets and Jesus all knew was that in the darkest moments of life, in the moments where it seems everything is falling apart, we need hope.

We need hope that the world we live in can be re-created. The world as we know it is not the only possibility. When we look around and see terrible things happening it is easy to despair and become hopeless. The prophets fought against hopelessness and the apathy that can creep in so easily. We might wonder when the spirit will come and change the world but the world is always being recreated.

In recent years, there have been several movements that we might identify with these verses. We can identify groups of marginalized people who have come together speaking for and working for change. These movements include: Idle no More, Black Lives Matter and the Occupy campaign. If Jesus were around today, his ministry might be focused with these groups and others who continue to neglected by their communities.

The hope that the prophet offers and that these movements offer is that the world can be changed. We don’t have to live with violence, hatred and injustice but when the Holy Spirit is truly at work these things will be no more and there will be a return to God…A return to love, to compassion, to inclusion…Hope for the future.

Trying to Destroy the Message?

For background to the Book of Jeremiah check out the Bible Project .

The book of Jeremiah is a book filled with judgement and hope. There is great injustice and the leaders have lost sight of what’s really important but they are very comfortable. Jeremiah has a word from God that challenges the leaders to turn back to God.

In Jeremiah 36:1-28 we read the story of the scroll being read in the royal court. Jeremiah cannot read it because he has been banned so he dictates to his scribe Baruch who delivers the scroll to the court. As the scroll is being read, the king has it burned. The king doesn’t want to hear the words of the scroll. It is winter (maybe not as cold as our winter but damp and cold for that part of the world). Imagine most people with minimal housing and heat and here is the king lounging in his winter apartment with a blazing fire. He is enjoying his luxury. The scroll that Jeremiah dictated is one of judgement. The king enjoys luxury while others starve and freeze. The most vulnerable in the land are being ignored. This goes against the commands handed down from Moses and previous prophets. The king doesn’t want to hear this and so he burns the scroll—hoping that the words will disappear.

Many of have privilege by virtue of who we are. I enjoy privilege because I am a white Canadian and my family has been here several generations. I am well-educated and literate. In my lifetime, my family has never been what I would call poor and I have full-time work. All of these things give me privilege within our society. It would be fairly easy and much more comfortable to avoid people who are different from myself or who are more vulnerable. It is easy to turn a blind eye when we meet someone asking for change on a street corner.

The king wanted to ignore Jeremiah’s message of compassion for the most vulnerable and the implication that he had something to do with their poverty and hardship. The king’s abuse of privilege is at the expense of others and because of his lack of concern for the most vulnerable he will not be able to continue as king and the entire country will be destroyed.

Sometimes it is tempting to destroy the evidence that convicts us of not being compassionate enough or of viewing the world too narrowly. This passage describes one of the first “book burnings” as a way of eliminating the message. We’ve seen other times in history where books and writings have been burned or banned as a way of keeping people from hearing a message. In the long-term, the message still finds a way through. The king burned the message and the message was re-written so that it was not lost.

The message was re-written on a scroll. But the Jeremiah 31:31-34 tells us that this message is not just going to be written on paper but on our hearts. Paper can be destroyed but once love and compassion and a commitment to God’s justice is in our hearts, it cannot be erased or destroyed. It is a permanent reminder of who we are called to be in the world. It is a permanent reminder that injustice cannot win out. In scripture the king was destroyed. The country and the temple were destroyed. Even Babylon, the evil empire was destroyed but God’s commitment and promise to the people was not destroyed.

God’s message to care for the most vulnerable cannot be destroyed because it is always written within us as part of our hope and our vision for a world reborn and love made real.