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.