Text: Isaiah 61
That’s how Isaiah begins last Sunday’s text from the Narrative Lectionary. In many ways it’s appropriate. I mean, we’d all like some good news at Christmas, right? Especially given that this year has had a lot of bad news. This is the time of year that we like to focus on the angels singing “good news of great joy” and “peace and earth and good will toward men” and all that, even though we struggle to see how it’s possible given all that’s happening in our world.
But I think that’s why this text is so important for us to look at today on this third Sunday of Advent. It’s a reminder that Advent anticipates the good news that is to come in the coming of Christ. But what exactly is that good news? That’s the question I want us to focus on today. Sometimes the good news gets forgotten, sometimes it’s hard to articulate. Sometimes it even turns into bad news. I want to take a moment before the Christmas crowds gather to talk about this good news and remind us what it’s all about.
The word “gospel” is a form of the Greek word euangellion which means good news, like an announcement from a herald; but the truth is that the word “gospel” itself has come to mean a range of things to different people. Two specific forms of “gospel” come to mind. In the first, the “good news” is personal and spiritual—that Jesus came to die in our sinful place so that we can go to heaven when we die. We might broadly call that the “evangelical” paradigm of good news. The other form is what we might call the “social” gospel or the “progressive” paradigm of good news: that Jesus came as an example to show us how to be better people and, if we become so, the world will get better and better through our efforts.
Now, admittedly, those are caricatures of those paradigms which I don’t have time to explore in detail (we will in the spring during our Lenten study on Jesus’ crucifixion and what it means). But I would also argue that these forms of the “gospel” are, in themselves, caricatures of the real good news that is revealed in the whole story of Scripture. Oh, there are elements of truth to both of them—the gospel does have something to do with us personally and spiritually, and it does have something to do with changing the world. The problem is that both these forms of the gospel are incomplete in and of themselves. As the great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones once put it: “The personal gospel without the social gospel is a soul without a body; and the social gospel without the personal gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost, the other a corpse.”
The Bible, however, offers us good news that is both personal and social, spiritual and temporal, for the present and for the future. It’s good news that is not couched in systematic theologies or social agendas, but told within a story—the whole story of the Bible that we began telling at the beginning of the fall. If we want to understand why Christmas is good news, we have to start at the beginning and work our way forward.
Remember how the story begins: the Creator God, out of the personal and communal love of God’s very nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, brings forth a creation that is, in every way, designed to be his dwelling place, his temple. Out of love and the desire for relationship, God creates humans in his image to act as priests in his creation temple. They are to reflect God’s glory to the creation and reflect the praise of creation back to the creator. They are to do so through their care for the creation but also through their worship of the one who created them. This is their vocation—human beings, worshipping their creator, were intended to be the key to the proper flourishing of the creation. They are the people of God, living and working in the place of God, dwelling in the presence of God.
But it doesn’t take long before the human beings begin to focus more on themselves than on God. They eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because, at a basic level, they want to become gods themselves. They exchanged the worship of the Creator for the worship of the creature, as Paul puts it in Romans 1, and exchanged the truth of God for a lie. We talk about this in terms of “sin,” but we have to remember that the root of all sin is idolatry—giving power to non-divine forces a power and authority those forces were never supposed to have. And once power is given to those forces, the humans become slaves to them—slaves to the sin that results from misplaced worship and slaves to the death that is the inevitable result.
Because these humans were archetypes for all us, representative priests, we are born into that slavery. Humans throughout history have given power to non-divine forces and have become enslaved to them. Money, sex, and power are just a few of the more obvious ones. We sacrifice to these powers and obey their every command. We don’t have to go far to see it. “Sins” are the result of our slavery to these powers, and in our failure to worship the one true God we become less than the humans we were created to be. As a result of our sin and failure of vocation, God’s creation becomes less than it was intended to be.
But God did not leave his creation in this state. He launches a rescue plan for his creation—a plan that begins with setting his people right. He begins with another archetypical couple—Abraham and Sarah. God promises Abraham a great family, a great nation—a representative people through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Abraham is faithful to this covenant promise, and a family begins that grows into a nation. At the end of Genesis, we read about Joseph and the story of how this nation is preserved in Egypt, but by the beginning of Exodus, that nation is enslaved by a foreign power—a microcosm of the human condition. God demonstrates his power to deliver, however, by bringing the people out of Egypt through the sea. The Passover was the continuing sign that this liberation had taken place through overthrowing the dark powers that enslave God’s people; leading them to freedom.
In the desert, God sets a covenant with this people which is a continuation of the covenant with Abraham. But notice how the covenant begins with the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” God identifies the root problem as idolatry. All sin springs from it. And like idolatry and sin led to Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden, God warns the people that idolatry and sin will lead them into exile as well. But like Adam and Eve, it doesn’t take long for Israel, God’s chosen representative people, to misplace their worship. Before Moses even comes down the mountain with the commandments, the people are dancing around a golden calf. They had been set free, but continued to choose slavery. They continued to want to go back to Egypt.
God delivers on his promises, however, and brings the people into the land he promised them. There they establish a kingdom, a monarchy. God makes a covenant with David that one of his descendants will sit on the throne forever, but it only takes a few generations before the kings of Israel lead the people into idolatrous practices. The result, as God had warned, was exile. The people are taken away from the land, enslaved by a foreign power, and in need of rescue.
We read some of the stories of exile. We read Jeremiah’s promise that even though God’s people were in exile, God would write a new covenant on their hearts. We read about Daniel and his faithfulness in a foreign land when pressured to worship foreign gods. There were signs of hope, but that hoped seemed distant. A new exodus would be needed, a new Passover. To return from exile, Israel realized that first her sins needed to be forgiven—the sins and idolatry that had enslaved them in the first place.
But for what purpose are their sins to be forgiven and their chains of slavery broken? So that they can escape this world and simply go to heaven when they die? So that they can simply try to be better people and make the world a better place on their own?
No, we learn from the story that God has a much bigger purpose in mind. In fact, God is not abandoning his creation, nor is he merely wanting people to shape up and be more morally and environmentally responsible. What God is doing is nothing less than setting his creation right. To do that, God will begin with setting his people right, breaking their slavery and forgiving their sins. And once they have been set right, God will then set those people back to their original vocation as his priests, reflecting God’s glory to creation and creation’s worship back to God.
This is the “good news” that Isaiah proclaims in chapter 61. To a people who have suffered in exile, God is sending a servant, an anointed one, a “Messiah” to bring good news to those who have been exiled, oppressed, and enslaved to the non-divine powers—those who are poor in body and in spirit, those who brokenhearted by sin and grief, those captivated and imprisoned and who are in need of freedom from slavery to a host of powers. The servant will proclaim the “year of the Lord’s favor”—the Jubilee year when debts and slaves are released and the earth will be full of the justice of God, who will defeat the powers.
The people who were once enslaved by sin and death will become “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory” (v. 3). What was wrecked in God’s creation will be restored (v. 4). And then notice verse 6: “You shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God”—a restoration of vocation!
The Lord will bring his justice and make an everlasting covenant with his people (v. 8). Once again, they will be a representative people for the whole world (v. 9), and they will be clothed in wedding garments that represent the intimate relationship they will have with their God (v. 10).
And then look at verse 11—a garden image: “As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before the nations.” God will restore right worship among his people! The idolatry that led to sin and death will be defeated, and the people of God will once again be in the place of God dwelling in the presence of God, as they were meant to be from the beginning.
This is the good news—not an escape from the world or merely settling with it, but its transformation—a transformation that begins when we ourselves are transformed. To put the good news simply: God is putting the world right, so God puts people right, so that they might be his right-putting people!
But who is this servant who brings good news? It’s no coincidence that Jesus chooses this text to announce his own ministry in Luke’s Gospel. He is the Messiah, the anointed one, and all that the prophet promised was fulfilled in his coming. As we move through the Gospel of Luke, beginning next Sunday, we will see that all that Isaiah promised, all that the story of the Old Testament had outlined, comes to its fulfillment in him.
He is born a royal descendant of David, the fulfillment of God’s promise. He is israel’s true Messiah and King. He will bring good news to the poor in body and spirit, announcing the great reversal to come in God’s kingdom where the first shall be last and the last first. He will bring recovery of sight to those blinded by sin. He will set people from from slavery to evil by casting out demons and releasing others from slavery to powers like money, sex, and even power itself. He will announce a new Exodus that, like that of his ancestors, will require the blood of a new Passover as its sign—except this will be his own blood. He will die the death of a slave and a sinner, even though he is innocent and has never bended his knee to an idol. And he will rise again from the dead, breaking the enslaving powers of sin and death once and for all and leading people to freedom. And then, with his Spirit, he will empower those who follow him to take on the vocation they were meant for—to be his witnesses, to be God’s messengers, caretakers, and priests for the new creation that will break in as a result of his death and resurrection.
They will, in other words, be bringers of good news themselves—the good news that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and David, the God of Israel had done for his people what they could not do for themselves. He has not abandoned his creation, his temple, but is remaking it and remaking his people in his image. The good news is that we can be fully human in his image; all that God created us to be. And when we are remade, we can then take on our God-given purpose of working with him in the renewal of his creation.
This is the good news, the story we need to be telling at Christmas. This is the story of which Mary sings, the angels trumpet, and the prophets foretold. It is good news for all the people—all people who are enslaved in a myriad of ways. It is personal and social, good news for heaven and for earth. It is good news that is not only meant to be believed, but lived out every day in acts of worship, devotion, compassion, and service. It is good news that makes us part of this great story.
In a world of bad news, where idolatry, sin and death seem to reign, we gather as the people to God to be reminded that the way things are is not the way they were intended to be, and because of Jesus they will not remain this way. The enslaving powers have already been defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—it is now up to us, in the power of his Spirit, to announce that the victory has been won and to joyfully live out that victory until his second Advent, when the story comes to its final fulfillment.
This is the gospel, my friends! Good news! May we learn and live it as we await the coming of the anointed one. Amen.