Are we there yet? – The coming of the Kingdom

December 14th, 2014

“Are we there yet?”

On any journey involving children (and some adults, like me!) it’s likely that these words will be heard at any point after 15 minutes in to the journey. And then will be heard every 15 minutes until arrival…

“Has he been yet?”

Words that parents of younger children will be expecting to hear in 10 days time, from approximately 30 minutes after they tykes have gone to bed until 5-30am when everyone gives up and gets up. ‘He’, of course, being that great bringer of gifts….Father Christmas.

Questions of anticipation. Advent is a time of GREAT anticipation for us. Here in St Mary’s we’ve had the Advent Carol service, the Advent candles are being lit, Christingles are being prepared. We’re anticipating Christmas, the birth of Christ, His coming in to the world.

Tonight’s reading is also a reading of anticipation – indeed, in my Bible it is headed “The year of the LORD’s favour” – something to look forward to indeed. I’m going to focus my preaching on the first two verses of tonight’s reading.
The prophet Isaiah has been occasionally described as ‘the fifth evangelist’. He almost talks as much about Jesus, the coming Messiah, and his works as do Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And the first time we get details of Jesus reading in the synagogue in Luke’s Gospel – he reads from Isaiah.

Isaiah was speaking and writing at a time about 500 years before the birth of Christ, at a time when the Jewish people were having a very hard time. They had returned to their own land from exile in Babylon, but it was a hard task of restoration they had ahead of them. Their holy places and cities were in ruins, their crops and land untended. And they knew that this was because they had broken their covenant with God; they had repeatedly sinned and the Lord had brought this ruin upon His people.

But…they were not forgotten by God. He had brought them home again, and He was still speaking through His prophet, Isaiah. Tonight’s reading is a radical presentation of a manifesto for justice and righteousness, combined with a hope for justice and rebirth. All delivered at a time when the people of Israel were figuratively speaking ‘on their knees’.
Tonight’s reading starts with Isaiah reminding us that he speaks as anointed by God – he’s been blessed with the Holy Spirit, and the Lord is speaking through him:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God”

Powerful, radical stuff; but just WHO is speaking here? Some scholars and the Jewish people themselves would have heard this as Isaiah outlining his ministry, as has been given him by God.
There is an alternative viewpoint to take – that Isiah is actually prophesying the ministry of Jesus. Things happen fast in Luke’s Gospel; by Chapter 4, Jesus has been baptised by John the Baptist, tempted in the Wilderness and has been carrying out ministry for about a year. Consider this reading from Luke’s gospel – the first time we see Him reading in the synagogue described.
Luke, Chapter 4 Verses 16-20:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus stops before ‘and the day of the vengeance of the Lord’ – and then, rather than doing what might be expected after a reading – return the scroll, sit down, shut up – he adds on the end ‘this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ In which he effectively says that he is the anointed one of God. You can imagine that this might have caused some consternation that day.
Jesus is saying that His ministry will be to do the things mentioned in our reading. By omitting the final part of the scripture, Jesus is making a statement that the day of vengeance is not yet due.

We therefore have the question – is Isaiah speaking of his own ministry, or that of the Messiah to come? My answer is – ‘Does it matter?’ Whether Isaiah’s own ministry, or a prophecy of the Ministry of Jesus, God’s words are clear, and eternally relevant.

Isaiah’s words outline exactly what Jesus would set out to do in His ministry 500 years later. Isaiah’s words were a radical manifesto when he spoke them, radical when Jesus read them, and radical when we see them in our Bible’s today.
For Isaiah’s immediate audience, his words would resonate with the people who heard them as they attempted to rebuild a devastated Israel.

Carried through, Isaiah’s words are ones of hope and optimism – a program of social change in the here and now that will eventually lead to the rebuilding of Israel as a peaceful, righteous, powerful and God-filled nation.

Isaiah tells us that he has come to proclaim the good news to the poor. In Isaiah’s time the poor were those people ‘at the sharp end’ trying to rebuild a country, their communities, and their lives from the bottom up, with next to no resources. The poor have always been God’s and Jesus’ priority, and the ‘manifesto for change’ spoken of by Isaiah puts this as the first priority.

The poor does not simply mean being without money or wealth; it refers to the condition that many people find themselves in – weak, needy, oppressed – basically in a bad place where they are powerless to change their situation. The people in Isaiah’s time must have definitely felt powerless – rebuilding a nation, a culture, that has been broken apart by your own wilful disobedience of God? Big job.

But Isaiah is to proclaim good news EXACTLY to these people? What is this ‘good news’? For Christians, we hear this phrase and we think ‘the Gospel’ – the good news of Jesus’s defeat of death, our sins being forgiven and our being bestowed with God’s grace if we have faith and give our lives to Christ. What would it have been to the people of Isaiah’s day?

The latter part of the reading tells us that God is again going to be acting for them, and with them, to help them build their lives again. Their relationship with God will be restored. Israel will be rebuilt, in time. But this isn’t going to be a miraculous, over-night, fix.

Two and a half thousand years later we still have the poor and oppressed in society.

It is an indictment on our society today that we still have people who Isaiah would himself recognise as poor; people without a roof over the heads; people with insufficient food, who go hungry to feed their children. With insufficient fuel to stay warm. With inadequate means to bury their dead. Some of these people are in the war-zones of the world, places such Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Gaza strip. Others live where human greed has damaged their homelands – the Amazon basin, areas of Africa polluted by mining and oil exploration, areas of the world damaged by our need for energy.

But others are within this city; those scrimping on food to pay the electricity meter; those without a roof over their heads living rough, those families threatened with eviction.

We need to bring the good news to the poor of OUR time.

Isaiah then says he is to bind up the broken hearted.

His people would indeed be heartbroken at how their relationship with God had fallen apart, resulting in their exile, and now, they return, and see the consequences of that exile. Broken hearted indeed. And anyone who witnesses the poor in society would also be broken hearted; and then we have the personal heart break and emotional pain of day to day life. Powerlessness is not just a product of poverty; it can come to us all when we see a mother mourning the death of her young child; seriously ill people striving to stay positive for those around them.

Our hearts break when we see the deliberate harm we inflict on each other and the rest of God’s creation – and this softening of our hearts of stone is what we need to experience to allow God to work within us.

It takes time to heal a broken heart – time and attention.

God is telling us here that he is committed to binding up our emotional wounds. The great paradox of how it hurts us to love so much is resolved by God healing our hearts.

We need to bind the broken hearts of OUR time.

Isaiah then proclaims that he is:

to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

We’re not just talking about people behind bars or in the chains of slavery here, although they would be included. When Isaiah was speaking, some of the Jewish people would still be in exile, so this might refer literally to those still captive.
This phrase also refers to the tradition of the release of slaves every 50 years in ‘The Year of Jubilee’ as mentioned in the book of Leviticus.
However, it’s worth taking a look at a couple of other translations of this phrase. King James has:

to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;

And yet another suggests:

to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the eyes to those who are bound;

This gives us the hint that it’s not just about freeing literal captives; and in the version read by Jesus in Luke, it’s made more obvious, although there is some thought that the explicit reference to the blind may be a result of a translating error between Hebrew and Greek!

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,

We can see that this proclamation is about being a captive to the world, and being blind to the harm it does us. It’s about being held captive by aspects of our character. We are talking about being held captive to sin, and then being freed from the dominion of sin in our lives.

We need to open our eyes to sin and its effect on our lives and the lives of those around us, to how we become slaves to the world, the flesh and the devil without really realising it. Many of you probably saw the scenes of shoppers fighting each other on ‘Black Friday’ to get a cheap 50” TV set, many of which were then placed on ebay…where they failed to sell. A lust for material goods, anger when they can’t get what they want and a greedy desire for more money- sins that we’re ALL prone to, and which can imprison us and restrain our lives. Anyone here who has been in debt will know that a life in debt can imprison you as effectively as a jail cell. As can hate, bigotry, cruelty, the desire to exploit others for gain. Isaiah’s ministry is not just to bring the people of Israel who are still captive’s home or to free the physically enslaved and imprisoned; it’s to free those enslaved by addictions, sins, greed, hatred and cruelty. Free us ALL from the darkness of our own desires and sins and release us in to the light of a strong relationship with God and Jesus Christ in which our burdens are lifted, our spiritual chains broken and we are truly free.

We need to see how we can free the captives of OUR time – ourselves included.

And then Isaiah delivers the last lines of Verse 2:

to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God”

The Year of the Lord’s favour was a recognised way of referring to the Year of Jubilee – a term that would be familiar to the Jews of Isaiah’s time. Every 50 years, the idea was that slaves would be freed, and debts written off; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour would indeed be something to hope for!

If you think about it, it’s an almost audacious thing to look forward to given the current state of Israel! But what a thing to hope for – that the people CAN get things back to a stage where a Year of Jubilee would be meaningful! But it also looks forward to the way in which the debt of sins that we all owe to God is written off by Jesus’s ministry.

But there’s also the ‘day of the vengeance of the Lord’. That doesn’t sound so good, does it? It’s worth bearing I mind that those listening to Isaiah wouldn’t load the word ‘vengeance’ with the meaning that we have given it today. This is no human revenge being threatened; the vengeance of the Lord is a positive affirmation of God’s justice, and the rest of the reading this evening shows how that will be manifest.

Whilst this is described in the reading as ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’, we can also regard it as ‘the Kingdom of God’. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom over 60 times in the Gospels without giving us a definite definition; He gives us hints with the Parables; he says ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ in the Lord’s prayer. Jesus’s ministry is all about bringing the Kingdom in to being – helping the poor and powerless, healing the sick and sick at heart, freeing prisoners. It is not a place; it is the reign of God, and Isaiah’s ministry as given in the first two verses of tonight’s reading is all about bringing it about. And if we do it, then we are creating the Kingdom here and now.

Remember the two questions I raised at the start of this sermon?

Are we there yet? Yes, the Kingdom of God – God’s rule in action, righteousness and holiness – is with us, within us, around us. The Kingdom of God is frequently described as “now, and not yet”. It is not a place, but a way of being, and as Christians we are expected – no – INSTRUCTED – to go around as little pieces of the Kingdom.

Has he been yet? Yes, Jesus has been, is still with us, and his gifts to those who have faith in Him of the defeat of death, the forgiveness of our sins and his ongoing love are indeed ‘gifts that keep giving’ that we can use to bring about the Year of the Lord’s favour – or the Kingdom of God – here and now.

What will our gifts be to the poor, the heart-broken, the prisoners, those sick at heart or emotionally and spiritually damaged, those who have been rendered powerless in OUR society?
How will we go out this week and over Christmas to enlarge the Kingdom?
The challenge for us all is to be like Jesus – to take Isaiah’s radical message, make it your own, and live it today, and bring about the Kingdom.