The beginning of Isaiah 61 probably sounds familiar, as we hear it read by Jesus in the synagogue at the start of his ministry in Luke’s Gospel – a reading we’ll get to hear in Lectionary Year 3 next year. It’s what some have called Jesus’ manifesto.
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… giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
These are powerful words that carried a powerful message of deliverance for those who first heard them, as they prepared to experience release from their decades-long captivity in Babylon. And they are powerful words still today for those of us who carry burdens, who feel captive to broken hearts, and imprisoned by mourning and loss.
As I studied these texts with my colleagues this past Tuesday, I was reminded of the lyrics of a couple of songs.
The first is a song called To Make a Miracle, written by Marc Harris and Michael McDonald. The chorus of the song says:
A world in need, a heart in chains, that’s all God needs to make a miracle
A soul ashamed, a life of pain, that’s all God needs to make a miracle
I think when things go kind of sideways in life, when we face those proverbial times of “bad things happening to good people”, lots of otherwise pretty faithful people can struggle with trusting God. And what I really like about this particular song lyric is that it reframes the whole question, it provides a completely different lens through which to consider God’s saving activity in the world. Bad things are no longer simply considered bad if they’re understood as the fodder for God’s miraculous intervention. It’s kind of like what Jesus says in John’s Gospel before healing the man born blind: No one sinned to cause this blindness, rather it’s so that God’s glory can be manifested.
Of course, that can be a hard thing to hear and to not be cynical about when you’re the one stuck in some difficult situation, especially if that situation is chronic, or long term, or incurable. And therein lies the struggle, right? It’s like the old sarcastic saying: Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?
We tend to trust that what we see, what we hear, what we touch, what we experience with our senses as trustworthy, because we know it to be true by experience. But the word of faith comes and declares itself – declares himself – to be an even deeper truth, a deeper reality than what we experience with our senses, even if we haven’t experienced whatever it is that’s being promised in faith.
What we might be experiencing is a needy world, and hearts bound up by shame and physical, emotional and psychological pain, and the word of faith comes and says: That’s all God needs to make a miracle.
The other song lyric I haven’t been able to get out of my head this week is a song written by the great American composer, Jimmy Webb, called “If These Walls Could Speak”. That lyric says:
If these old walls could speak of things that they remember well,
Stories and faces dearly held,
A couple in love livin’ week to week,
Rooms full of laughter, if these walls could speak.
If these old halls, if hallowed halls could talk,
These would have a tale to tell of sun goin’ down and dinner bell,
And children playing at hide and seek from floor to rafter,
If these halls could speak.
They would tell you that I’m sorry for bein’ cold and blind and weak.
They would tell you that it’s only that I have a stubborn streak,
If these walls could speak.
If these old fashioned window panes were eyes,
I guess they would have seen it all – Each little tear, and sigh, and footfall,
And every dream that we came to seek or follow after,
If these walls could speak.
They would tell you that I owe you more than I could ever pay.
Here’s someone who really loves you; don’t ever go away.
That’s what these walls would say.
I love this lyric because it gets at another very important truth, one I think we also see at work in Isaiah 61.
In verses 8 and 9 of Isaiah 61 we are no longer hearing the prophet’s voice. In these verses we hear God speaking directly to the people, saying: I love justice and hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give to everyone exactly what they deserve, and I’ll make an everlasting covenant with them. And then God promises a blessed future for God’s people. And starting in verse 10, the people respond with praise, and rejoicing, and thanksgiving to God for clothing them with salvation and righteousness. And underlying this whole text, whether it’s the prophet speaking, or God, or God’s people, there’s the reality that these people are still captives in Babylon. Release is coming, but they’re still captive at this moment.
I think this text evokes that Jimmy Webb song in me because, in that song lyric, Webb tells the whole story. Here’s what I mean. The lyric starts off sounding a bit precious, a bit Pollyannaish, a bit too Norman Rockwell, but it takes an important turn as it considers what these walls might speak if they could. Family dinners, and a loving couple, and rooms filled with laughter and children’s games give way to admissions of stubborn streaks, and tears, and sighs, and footfalls, and the fear of broken relationships and abandonment. In other words, it’s simply honest. It dares to tell the whole story, and trusts us to be able to hold the whole story.
The laughter doesn’t diminish the tears when they come, just as the tears do not erase the joy that caused the laughter in the first place. The whole thing holds together, because it’s honest enough to speak the whole truth, and for me, that’s worth the whole Advent enterprise.
The waiting has its value.
The promise made, and yet unfulfilled, has its value.
The eventual realization of the promise has its value.
The repentance has its value.
The darkness has its value.
The increasing light in the midst of all our various darknesses has its value.
The preparation for God’s coming anew among us has its value.
The reality that God is already here in our midst has its value.
All of these various words and realities have their value as they all work together to tell the whole story.
Perhaps this is why Paul writes to the Thessalonians saying: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
And a few verses later he reminds us that God is faithful to do all that God has promised.
This 3rd Sunday in Advent is often marked by the lighting of a rose-colored candle symbolizing joy. This Sunday is often called Jubilate, or something similar, and I can think of no greater cause for jubilant, joyous celebration than the faithfulness of God.
God is faithful to do all that God has promised! And so we rejoice!