A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (61:1-4, 8-11)
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; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 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. 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. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 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. 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. 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.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
A Reading from the First Letter of Peter to the Thessalonians (5:16-24)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (1:6-8, 19-28)
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“Are you saved?” It’s a familiar question from some Christians of a conservative, evangelical background. “Are you saved?”
My regular response is “Yes. I was saved almost 2000 years ago – along with the rest of the world.” Those people asking the question don’t usually like that answer, at least if they pick up on its implications. They prefer to see salvation as something that belongs to “us” and not to “them”: to a limited number of people who happen to believe and think in that same way that they do, and not to the rest of the human family as well.
“Are you saved?” Among other things, it’s a question that necessarily implies that we have some common definition of what “being saved” means, of what salvation is all about.
For those accustomed to posing that particular question, “salvation” tends to be about something that remains in the so-called spiritual realm. Specifically, it means that they, as individuals, will go to heaven when they die. It is an individual thing, and it concerns the next world, not this one.
But the anonymous prophet who has given us today’s first reading, one taken from the third part of the book of Isaiah, looks at salvation very differently. It was something that concerned, the entire community, the entire people, not just the individual. And it was something that was concerned with this life, with this world, not with some other. The prophet’s focus was clearly on the very real and very difficult circumstances in which the Jews in Palestine were then living their lives.
And in those challenging times, the prophet spoke of God’s commission to do something to alleviate the suffering of the people and to give them hope. Here is how the prophet puts it: “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; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Third Isaiah, as the prophet is sometimes called, worked within the great tradition of the prophets of Israel, addressing the very real needs of God’s people in that particular time and place.
His or her words continue to be critically important for us as 21st-century Christians as we seek to live as God’s people in our own time and circumstances. But why? It is not just because it is a biblical quote. It is easy to find a biblical quote to support or supposedly “prove” just about anything. Why should this description of what God calls us to do stand out? Why should this particular passage be given a special place of honor in our lives as Christians?
Actually, there is a very good reason for us to do just that. These verses were chosen by a later prophet of Israel as a self-description, as his own mission statement, as a summary of what his life and ministry would be about. And that prophet was none other than Jesus of Nazareth.
According to the fourth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, the first recorded act of Jesus’ ministry was to return to his hometown of Nazareth and enter the synagogue there on the Sabbath. He was invited to choose a reading from the prophets and to comment on that reading; and the one that he selected was the passage from Third Isaiah that opened our first reading today: “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; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And, Luke records, after he had read these verses and had sat down, he announced to those around him, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
That mission that God once entrusted to Jesus God has now entrusted to us, as we seek to live as Christ’s Body in the world, as we, empowered by God’s Spirit, seek to continue and help bring to completion the work that Jesus once began.
Scripture scholar Paul Hanson, in commenting on this passage from Isaiah, has reflected that “ever since the Exodus from Egypt, Israel’s God had demonstrated a deep concern for all dimensions of human life.” God’s servant, Jesus, clearly recognized God’s deep concern; and, in his ministry, he too would exhibit a deep concern for all dimensions of human life. Jesus did not limit himself to being concerned only for the spiritual side of those whose lives he touched. Instead, Jesus recognized that, for his life in God to be genuine, his concern must be with people as an entirety, just as they were created: in the image and likeness of God. And so Jesus worked to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, and bring comfort and hope and love to those who had been crushed down by the world around them.
This is the Jesus whose birth we are about to celebrate once again: a Jesus who, like the one whom he called “Father,” is concerned with all our needs. And, in order that we might share more and more fully in the very life of God who cares deeply for all people, Jesus invites us to follow God’s example in caring for all the various needs of God’s children.
Over the coming two weeks, as we prepare once again for the wonderful celebration of Jesus’ birth, these final days of Advent provide us with a good opportunity to reflect on what the salvation was that Jesus came to bring. And they provide us also with a time to begin asking ourselves once again what role God has given us in bringing that same kind of salvation to the world today. For we, too, share in the ministry once entrusted to Third Isaiah, the ministry entrusted to Jesus. We, too, are sent by God to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, to announce to all God’s people, that is to all the world, the wonder of God’s love.