We’re just a few weeks away.
In just a couple of weeks, we will tell the story of the time when God came into the world as one of us, in an occupied land among a dispossessed people, amid the animals and shepherd, to a family who was far from home and who couldn’t find a room for the night. We will tell the story of the time when God came into the world as one of us… to redeem and restore the world.
And then, a few weeks after that, we will tell the story of the time when Jesus stood up in the synagogue, and the rabbi handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he unrolled the scroll and found this spot, and he read:
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.
And we’ll tell the story of how, when he was done reading, he sat down, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And I’m sure I’ll talk about how this is Christ’s mission statement. Why, O God, did you come into the world? Why, O Christ, are you here among us? To bring good news, to proclaim release, to announce freedom… to the poor, to the captives, to the blind, and to the oppressed. To proclaim a time of God’s favor.
And I’m sure I’ll talk about how we are a people who follow Christ. We are Christians. It’s right there in the name. Why, O First Congregational United Church of Christ, are we here?
But that… is a few weeks away.
There’s more to that scripture, of course. The people in that synagogue knew that; they had heard it many times before. And you know that; you just heard the bit that comes after it. But even that isn’t the full context of that scripture. Because it is part of a bigger story; a story that we’ve been hearing all year.
The people—the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—had been slaves in the land of Egypt. And the Lord came to them. And the Lord brought them up out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, to the land that the Lord had promised to their ancestor Abraham. And the Lord and the people made a covenant. The Lord gave the people a law and a land.
And the people made a nation. They made war and they conquered land. They appointed kings and built a temple to the Lord their God. And then…
They quarreled among themselves and they split their nation in two. They turned away from the Lord and worshipped other gods. They powerful among them grew fat and sleek. And the least among them—the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor—were left to fend for themselves. They forgot the covenant they had made, them and the Lord.
And the armies came with swords and spears and slings and arrows. And they slaughtered the people… and they took the land… and they destroyed the temple that the people had built for the Lord their God… and they took the people into captivity… dispossessed and far from home.
And then a prophet rose and said,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor… and a day of God’s vengeance.
For the Lord hates robbery and the Lord hates wrongdoing. So those who were robbed and those who were wronged will be given a double portion of everlasting joy. All of the nations will know that they are the ones who the Lord has blessed. They will enjoy the wealth of the nations and glory in the riches of the nations. And they—the ones who robbed, the ones who wronged, the ones who took into captivity—they will till the fields and dress the vines and feed the flocks.
The word of God for the people of God. The vengeance of God for the people who God favors.
And I know how easy it is to put ourselves right in there… right in the spot where we want to be: There is good news for the oppressed… and ain’t I oppressed? The Lord will bring liberty to the captives… and ain’t I a captive? The Lord will avenge the wronged… and ain’t I been wronged?
I know how easy it is to hope for vengeance. I know how easy it is to believe that justice is a turning of the tables. I know how easy it is to take joy in the idea that those people will get exactly what they’ve got coming to them.
But I also know the truth…
I know that in just a couple of weeks, we will tell the story of the time when God came into the world as one of us, to redeem and restore the world. And I know that, as part of that, Jesus will read this passage. And I know that later, Jesus will say,
Do not judge. Do not condemn. Forgive. For the measure you give will be the measure you receive. So get the log out of your own eye. Then, maybe, you can worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye. (Luke 6:36-42)
And I know that this is not an exhaustive list, but I am a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle-class man between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine who lives in the United States of America.
I know where I stand. If the widow and orphan and alien and poor are on one side of the line… and the rich and fat and sleek are on the other… I know where I stand. If the little kingdom of Judah is on one side of the line… and the Empire is on the other… I know where I stand. If the powerless are on one side of the line… and the powerful are on the other… I know where I stand.
I have been wronged by ounces… and I have benefitted from systems that have wronged others by tons.
And I’m not saying that I can’t be angry. And I’m not saying that I can’t be upset. I’m just saying: There is good news for the oppressed… and ain’t I been part of the oppression? The Lord will bring liberty to the captives… and ain’t taken some captives? The Lord will avenge the wronged… and ain’t I wronged some folks?
So my hope had better be in something greater than vengeance. My justice had better be something holier than a turning of the tables. My joy had better be in something more glorious than those people getting exactly what’s coming to them.
Look. I’m not going to pretend to know what the people of Judah had been through. I don’t know what it’s like to live through an invasion and a slaughter. I don’t know what it’s like to see my land taken and my sacred sites razed to the ground. I don’t know what it’s like to be marched on a long trail to a foreign land. I don’t know what it’s like to be dispossessed and far from home.
I don’t know what it’s like to dream of coming home; and I don’t know what it’s like to come home.
So it’s not like I can judge the people who have been through that and who hope for vengeance.
But I do think that if the most that we can hope for is vengeance, then we can’t hope for very much at all. For the measure that we give will be the measure that we get. And a measure of vengeance followed by a measure of vengeance followed by a measure of vengeance is just a long violent history that hasn’t happened yet.
This is the third Sunday of Advent. This is the Sunday when we light a candle for joy. And my joy is not in vengeance. My joy is not in a turning of the tables. My joy is not in those people—whoever they are, even if they’re me—getting exactly what’s coming to them.
No. My joy is in the fact that God came into the world as one of us to redeem and restore the world. God looked at a world in need and had compassion. God looked at the line that separated the creator and the creation… and stepped over it.
And again and again, God asks me to do the same: to step over that line that separates me from the widow and the orphan and the alien and the poor… the line that separates me from the captive and the oppressed… the line that separates me from the powerless. Again and again, God invites me—even me—to stand with Christ among the pleading faces and outstretched hands of the world.
My joy is in the fact that God frees me from the burden of getting exactly what’s coming to be… and frees me to the work of bringing good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim an eternity of God’s favor.
Thanks be to God!