Proclaiming the Lord’s Favor

3rd Sunday in Advent 

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

A decade ago, when I was taking those annual study trips over to England, one of the delightful experiences was to see buildings that are old…really old…a thousand years old…and to imagine all the generations of activity that had inhabited those structures.

But even more fascinating was to walk around the ruins of the ancient buildings…often churches. There were the abbey ruins on Lindisfarne, near Durham where I studied. Up in Edinburgh, Scotland, there are some magnificent ruins next to Holy Rood Palace. And traveling by train over there, whizzing along the tracks it is not hard at all to spot a crumbling wall, the remnant of a tower, or a lone archway standing forlornly against the sky.

But it is in walking among those ruins that things get quiet, and you can begin to sense what it must have been at one time, when these ruins were a place of prayer and hymns, of flickering candlelight and perhaps the aroma of incense wafting through the sacred space.

But at the same time you find yourself wrapped in a profound sadness…because everything you see among those ruins is now a shadow of what once was. A place once filled with living faith is now a skeleton…fascinating…and sad…

And it’s not too hard to envision Christmas that way, as though these weeks of December only make us walk among the ruins of what once was; as we talk in hushed voices more and more about the memories of Christmases past than with hope about Christmases yet to be…

A story. I haven’t read a story for a while. This is a good one. I read it once a long time ago…it’s called A Night the Stars Danced for Joy, written by Bob Hartman.

[Read the story]

 When Jesus preached His first sermon recorded in the Gospels, preached in His hometown synagogue at Nazareth, our Lord used this text of Isaiah 61 for that inaugural sermon:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to bring Good News to the poor; He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, [Me] to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; [Me] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”

Then He rolled up the scroll, handed it to the deacon, sat down and began to preach. But the Gospels record nothing of that sermon except one line: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” But before “today” came to an end, His hometown audience will have tried to kill Him.

Can the ruins of Christmas live? Many would say, “Who knows? Who cares? Pass the eggnog and let me have some peace.” What Isaiah first proclaimed…what angels sang to shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch o’er their flocks by night…what Messiah first preached to His own and His own received it not…oh, to proclaim the Lord’s favor is never an easy thing.

Judgment, oh yes, that’s easy. Wrath, indeed, great is the zeal that chases fear and wrath! But the prophet who proclaims peace, who announces the year of the Lord’s favor…well, it is a very different prophet’s road, for it always travels by way of the cross.

And yet where there are broken-hearted, wherever human lives live captive to many masters, where the poor hear lots of news but none of it good…where the ruins testify only to what is past…there…there the Lord’s favor is to be heard from prophets and preachers through the ages.

And there, in the place where the Word of the Lord’s favor is heard…there faith will sprout anew to grow into one of Isaiah’s mighty oaks of righteousness. There, where the favor of the Lord goes forth from the lips of the preacher to the ears of the hearers…there, no matter what the ruins of that place, they shall be raised up again…they shall be raised up.

Good News to the poor, binding up the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, the year of the Lord’s favor. And now you have heard it, like those shepherds on the hillside. Not as spectacular as they, but no less true. Today…the Lord’s favor is being fulfilled in your hearing.