Third Sunday of Advent – December 13, 2020 – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; John 1:6-8, 19-28 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom
Today’s portion of Isaiah 61 might sound familiar to you. If it does, it may not necessarily be because you’ve heard it directly from Isaiah.
You might also recognize it as the text for Jesus’ “first sermon” as it appears in Luke’s Gospel account. Remember that story of Jesus, just as he is beginning his ministry? At the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth he unrolls the scroll and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This text puts us in mind of something else you may have heard of, the “Year of Jubilee.” According to the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 25: 8-13, to be exact), every fiftieth year, debts were to be forgiven, slaves freed, and property reverted to its original owner. This was a practice meant to manifest the benevolent mercy of God, a way to act out (at least as best anybody on Earth can) the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Today’s tech gurus might call it a “hard reset.” It was a chance to wipe the slate clean, to start once again from a place of purity, unfettered by money owed and shackles bound.
The important, some might even say miraculous, thing about the concept of Jubilee is that it was prescribed for everyone—no exceptions. It was meant to squelch that dreadful “me-first” notion that seems to have plagued each one of us since birth. We could think of it as a societal depiction of what we all learn—or are supposed to learn—in kindergarten: that sharing is caring, forgiveness is important, and selfishness does not lead to true success.
It’s no wonder Jesus chose this text for his first sermon. Not only is it a very real way to begin to enact God’s heavenly vision on earth, but it sets the stage for Jesus’ entire ministry by unveiling an extremely counter-cultural message, one that asks its hearers to confront some fairly uncomfortable scenarios. Having your debts forgiven may be one thing, but can you imagine forgiving the debts owed to you? The very notion upsets our concept of fairness. Jesus is going to be doing a lot more of that! Just think of the parables we’ve heard in the past several weeks about the talents or the laborers in the vineyard.
Today, in the middle of this season of preparation, it is especially important to remember that Jesus didn’t just make up all the counter-cultural stuff he preaches. His words are firmly rooted in God’s ancient law, and they were even echoed by others before him.
Jesus may be the “reason for the season,” but he isn’t the first person in the Gospel to give voice to this Jubilee prophesy. He wasn’t even the first person in his family to do so. That honor goes to his mother, Mary, whose song we sang this morning.
“My soul proclaims he greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” We often call this important passage by its Latin name, the Magnificat. Perhaps the most famous translation of the first line goes like this: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”
Magnify. During Tuesday’s Bible study, Amy brought to our attention the powerful images this word might generate for us. I found myself shot suddenly into a past where I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen, in front of the drawer where she kept her calendar, playing with the magnifying glass laying at its side.
What does it mean for one’s soul to magnify the Lord? Surely it’s more than holding an old magnifying glass up to your heart, enlarging the logo above your shirt pocket. I think it more likely has something to do with living your life in a way that draws attention to God’s vision for the world.
Mary magnifies this vision by reveling in the joy of a God who magnified her. “For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed.”
God’s selection of Mary, a pitiable young girl by many standards, becomes for her—and for us—a kind of Advent Jubilee, a sign that something new is indeed coming to pass. The slate will be wiped clean, not only in the coming of Jesus our redeemer, but in the manner in which he comes—by a poor virgin’s womb.
God’s selection of Mary is a reminder for us that God often works in the ways we least expect, ways that tend to scandalize the so-called “natural order of things.” Perhaps God’s surprising methods are themselves something that we should by now have come to expect, for God has employed them over and over again.
God’s unconventional methods stretch all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham, back to ninety-year-old Sarah’s pregnancy. (Joyful news to be sure, but no laughing matter.) And they stretch back to that Levitical prescription for the Year of Jubilee, and back to Isaiah’s proclamation of good news for the oppressed. Yes, this news that Mary’s son will soon share is news that God has been sharing for a long, long time, and it is news that takes center stage in her own familiar song.
A virgin, pregnant. The proud, scattered. The mighty cast down with the mountains. The lowly, like the valleys lifted up. The hungry, filled. The rich, sent to bed without dinner for a change.
And then there is, of course, a person I haven’t mentioned yet—John. The Baptizer, like Isaiah and Mary, knows what’s on the way. He knows that Jesus is coming to tell us God’s Good News like we’ve never heard it before. And so he joins the chorus of those crying out God’s favor, telling us that rough places will soon be made like a plain.
Yes, in their own way, I’d say that all of these folks pretty much sum up God’s vision for the world. A dear friend of mine puts it this way: the way things always have been need not be the way they always will be.
This is a vision that you and I know, too. It’s a vision of God’s mercy, a vision revealed at Christmas and confirmed on Easter—Death doesn’t get the last word! Your sins are forgiven! Salvation is at hand! It’s a vision that truly magnifies God’s presence among us. And it’s a vision that we must share—especially right now.
There’s no use repeating the laundry list of despairs that many of us have felt this year. I’m certainly not suggesting that we deny them. It’s just that it’s so often our habit to focus on them instead of God’s vision for us.
I know we’re still about two weeks from Christmas, but things are certainly ramping up. So I’d say it’s high time we took some time away from despair and started with a clean slate. I’d say we ought to magnify the Lord. Yes, I’d say we might as well revel like Mary in the joy of the One who comes, at least a little bit, until we hear the angels sing.