Sunday, December 14, 2014

Liberty: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sunday, December 14, 2014 | Advent
Third Sunday of Advent
Year B

If our Gospel passage this morning gives you a bit of déjà vu, don’t fret. You are not alone. This sounds quite a lot like our passage from Mark last week. Just like Mark, John the Gospel writer takes some time to emphasize the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry of paving the way for the ministry of Jesus. John adds a little to this part of the story, explaining how people wondered and asked just who this Baptizer was. It’s also said here that John the Baptist came to testify to the Great Light – Jesus. He came to share the Good News.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve been talking about what it means to prepare our hearts for the ministry of Jesus, and this morning, our Old Testament scripture takes us past the important reflective preparation we’ve been talking about and begins to flesh out what exactly this preparation leads up to. We’re moving on to look at what “mission and ministry” means.
At the heart of ministry, says Isaiah, the very foundation of mission, is proclamation of Good News. Not just any news, but News of God! This News comes from our Sovereign God! Which is exciting! And intimidating! That’s an incredibly important task. It is a daunting task, and Isaiah does not make light of its weight.
There are many people who need Good News, says Isaiah. This is a world in desperate need of a Messiah. We are surrounded by: The poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, those who mourn, people in despair, people who live in places of devastation, those who have been robbed and wronged. Certainly, for Isaiah, there are many who need to hear some good news. Not just any good news – this needs to be more than just a fluff piece from the daily paper or the evening TV news. This world needs real, life changing Good News of the Messiah – they need Gospel.
            More and more these days, we are seeing attention given to the plight of the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, those in mourning and those who are faint. We have tons of information about the whole world at our fingertips at a moment’s notice and while there are downsides to technology and instant information and communication, one major positive of technology today is that it can help us to learn about people and places and world events that we might never have been aware of otherwise.
            Unfortunately, this can cause an information overload. When there is so much in the world that should be fixed – so many people who need a hand up – so much oppression and poverty and distress – it can be hard to figure out just where to start. Is getting the word out that there are people suffering enough to make a difference?
            I know many armchair activists and maybe you do too: people who are constantly quoting articles and statistics or posting online about the plight of other people, but aren’t really doing anything else about it.  Now. . . at least they are saying something. We have to start somewhere and sometimes, there seems like very little we can do for people who are hurting on the other side of the world and that’s overwhelming.
            Where do we start when it comes to embarking on the ministry that we are preparing our hearts for? How do we know what our Christian ministry is? Once we have prepared our hearts and are ready to start out in living the Christian call to proclamation of the Good News of the Light of the World. . . what next?
The Gospel writers very purposefully point back to Isaiah when they talk about John the Baptist and paving the way for Jesus and when they write about Jesus’ ministry. So what is it that Isaiah has to say about proclaiming Good News?
            What is mission? What is ministry? What does salvation look like and why does it matter if we tell others about it? There are the very important eternal considerations when we think about salvation and sharing the Good News with the people around us. But this passage from Isaiah doesn’t start there.
Isaiah first tells us who this Good News is for. He says that “the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” This Good News is not just for those of privilege. In fact, Jesus will later tell his followers that those of privilege will have a far harder time hearing and accepting this Good News than the poor will.
The prophet Isaiah says “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,” There is healing for people who have been bruised and banged up by the journey. Those who have been betrayed and left behind and even left for dead are the very ones Isaiah is proclaiming this Good News to and they are the very ones that the Gospel writers later tell us rejoice in the Good News.
While Isaiah is certainly using these words metaphorically as well as literally, he is talking about those who are literally poor. Isaiah does not say that we don’t all need the Messiah. Isaiah does not say that the Good News isn’t more than just social action. But here. . . here Isaiah gives us a starting point for ministry. He is asking us to look around for those who are poor, hurting, abandoned and betrayed, for the widows and orphans, the refugees, the sick -  all the people that our society allows to fall through the cracks – and proclaim to them the Good News! Not just Good News for the afterlife –some abstract tomorrow – but Good News for today. Good News that their sins are forgiven and they are loved. Now. Here. Today. Jesus did not just come to fix our past. Jesus did not just come to fix our future. Jesus came for today too.
            And Isaiah isn’t just talking about bringing the words of Good News, he’s talking about bringing a Good News that walks the walk it’s talking. When Isaiah talks about justice and freedom, he references the Year of Jubilee when all debts were canceled, slaves set free, and lands returned to their historical owners. All the people were looked out for and given a fresh start.
We are to go and “To proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Freedom! Not just earthly freedom, but the kind of freedom that lasts – eternal freedom. We don’t have to stay under the thumb of sin and pain. We don’t have to let that rule our lives. This is the part of salvation – this is the part of the Messiah’s mission – this is the ministry that Isaiah is talking about. It is a ministry that is hallmarked by healing, justice, and victory over the evil in the world.
            In the Bible, names are significant. There are many places where it says that someone was given their name because it meant something significant. I always find it fascinating to look at the meanings of names and how God names us both with our actually earthly names and in other, more mysterious was as well.
I know that Liberty Presbyterian is called that because it’s in Liberty Borough, but no matter where you put a church, “Liberty Church” is a great name for it! The good news is that there is freedom! The Gospel is that we are given freedom from slavery: slavery to sin, to idolatry, to guilt, to darkness!
That train of thought led me to wonder where Liberty Borough got its name. I have done a lot of reading about the history of this borough and this church since I came here, but somehow that bit of information hadn’t stuck in my head, so this week, I pulled out my little history book. Did you know that Liberty Borough was named because when it originally formed, the citizens were fighting for their liberty from Port Vue. They were in a disagreement about water lines and how they should be financed and distributed. All the people were being taxed for new water lines, but not all the people were going to be serviced by those water lines. So the people who were still going to have to use wells, in spite of having paid for the new water lines, seceded from Port Vue and called their new borough “Liberty.” This community was founded on the principles of justice.
If mission and ministry is about proclaiming freedom to the people in our community, I can’t think of a better thing to call ourselves than “Liberty!” Our very name as a congregation is a proclamation of the Good News of the Gospel! Every time someone asks you what church you’re from, remember as you proudly tell them you’re from Liberty Presbyterian– because I know how very much you all love this church and with what love and joy you proclaim where you’re from – remember that Liberty isn’t just the name of the town we’re in. Liberty IS the Gospel! The Gospel is a word of freedom for the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, those who mourn, people in despair, people who live in places of devastation, those who have been robbed and wronged. The message of Jesus Christ is a message of freedom and it is a message for everyone around us. It’s too important of a message for us to allow anyone at all to slip through the cracks.
There is a lot going on this Advent season to help bring some joy and hope to those who are hurting and this congregation is good at finding those opportunities and jumping in. Things like the angel tree giving gifts to families who are struggling financially. Preparing cakes for men who are struggling to find a meal at all, let alone a luxury like dessert that is easy for many of us to take for granted. Sometimes being spoiled a little is just what a person needs. Food baskets to make sure families have holiday meals. Helping to support a hurting family with a very sick son.
These are all non-verbal ways to bring the Light of Jesus to the community around us. Even when these things get tiring or they feel never ending or like they might never fix the real problems – they are bringing hope. They bring the hope of freedom from pain, mourning, hunger, sin. These are the ways that we proclaim Gospel. And in proclaiming the Gospel of liberty for the captives in tangible ways, we give the church the street cred, so to speak – to proclaim eternal life – union with God – ultimate and everlasting healing for the brokenhearted, freedom for the captives, release for the prisoners, canceling of debts, comfort for grief, praise rather than despair, and cities rebuilt.

The Christian ministry that we as the Church – the Body of Christ – prepare ourselves for during Advent is that of proclaiming Liberty to the people around us who are hurting both physically, emotionally, and literally and those who are captive in a different sense. It is one of bringing the Hope of Jesus to those who are captive, mourning, and in pain. Following in the footsteps of John the Baptist who  came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe,” we testify to the Light of Christ in a dark and weary world.

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