Thursday, April 02, 2009

God Comes to Set Things Right[1]

Isa 61:1-11

The theme of our celebration of Advent this year is the promise that God is coming. In our text for this week, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God comes to bring righteousness and justice. At first glance, we might not see that as good news. We tend to miss the Bible’s very robust message about righteousness and justice. For us righteousness is something abstract—something that has to do with God’s holiness or with human “saintly” character. We think of justice in terms of judgment, which means punishment and condemnation.

But the Bible has a very different idea of righteousness and justice. Righteousness is what makes it possible for all people to thrive. Justice is what creates the conditions for righteousness.[2] In the Bible, God’s “righteousness” is what “sets right” everything and everyone.[3] God’s justice is the compassion and kindness that creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, especially the most vulnerable.[4] In essence, when the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the good news that God was coming to bring righteousness and justice, what he was looking forward to was God’s coming to set right everything that has gone wrong.

To some extent, God’s coming to bring righteousness and justice involves an element of “judgment.” But it is not what we normally understand as “judgment”; it is not punishment or condemnation. Rather, the judgment involved in God’s coming to establish righteousness and justice is more like a kind of cleansing. We might envision judgment as “preparing the way for the Lord,” as making straight what is crooked in order that it may be redeemed, as purging everything that stands in the way of God’s righteousness and justice.[5]

But God’s justice has always been and always will be a justice of compassion and mercy, and so it also always involves restoration.[6] The prophets looked forward to God’s coming to bring restoration to God’s people, especially the faithful remnant.[7] But that was not something intended just for them; ultimately it was to bring restoration to all humankind.[8]

I think our misunderstanding of this fundamental aspect of the Bible’s message is the reason why we cannot understand why anyone would rejoice over God’s coming to “judge” the earth, as the Psalms for this time of year put it.[9] “Joy to the World” because God is coming to judge us all just doesn’t quite work for us. But God’s coming to judge has nothing to do with punishment or condemnation; it means that God is coming to establish true justice, God’s compassionate justice that restores the helpless and the hopeless and the hurting.[10]

I think this is also why we cannot fathom what Jesus was talking about when he defined the good news in terms of “the kingdom of God is at hand”! Here again, we have problems with the concept of a “kingdom.” God’s kingdom has nothing to do with what we normally associate with a “king”— the abuse of power and the denial of basic human rights.[11] God’s “kingdom” refers to the idea that when God comes, the whole world will follow God’s compassionate justice so that everyone may enjoy life the way it was intended to be.[12] And so another way of praying “Thy kingdom Come,” is to say “The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world.”[13] God’s kingdom is a “commonwealth of peace and freedom.”

What does God’s kingdom look like? It looks like righteousness—the “rightness that makes for life and shalom[14]—springing up from the ground as naturally as wildflowers on the side of the road. What does God’s righteousness look like? It looks like compassionate justice setting everything right. What does God’s justice look like? According to Isaiah it looks like good news to the oppressed, healing for the afflicted, freedom for the captive, comfort for those who mourn.[15]

That’s why Jesus could proclaim “the kingdom of God is at hand” as good news. But the kingdom of God is also something that remains to be seen. And that’s also good news. When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, it means peace and righteousness, the conditions that make life thrive for all people and all creation.[16] It means the end of violence and death and disease and suffering and sickness and oppression and injustice.[17] It means life that is full and everlasting;[18] it means unimaginable joy for all people and all creation.[19]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/14/08 at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]James L. Mays, Psalms, 311, “Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness,” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.”

[3] Cf. Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 4:25; 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[4] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 192; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 243-44, 255.

[6] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84: “According to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, the love and grace and mercy of God, …, are the demonstration and exercise of the righteousness of God” (384); cf. also Moltmann, Coming, 250

[7] Cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 367, where he points out that “vengeance” in Isa. 61:2 refers to restoration; cf. The Inclusive Translation, “day of vindication.” See also Isaiah 10:20–27; see also Jeremiah 30:1–9; Micah 5:7–15; Zechariah 8:1–8; 12:1–13:6; 14:1–21.

[8] Isaiah 2:2-4; 25:6–10; 45:20-25; 52:7–10; 66:18, 23; see also Micah 4:1-3; Jeremiah 3:17; 16:19.

[9] Cf. Ps. 96:11-13; 98:4-9.

[10] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 139: “God cares about justice because the God of the Bible cares about suffering.”

[11] According to Jürgen Moltmann, Christ as “king” it represents “the most radical reversal of the ideal of rule that can be conceived. Cf. The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 102.

[12] Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at

[13] From a version of the Lord’s Prayer in "Night Prayer" section of the New Zealand Prayer Book.

[14] Mays, Psalms, 311.

[15] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 224 describes the centrality of Isa. 61 to the biblical message by saying that it “summarizes the heart of the Yahwistic vision of redemption.” Cf. also R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet , 104: “Jesus addressed the poor, the hungry, the discouraged, and the persecuted with the message that God is on their side, supporting them in their struggle, and that God’s just will focuses on their relief.”

[16] Ps 85:10; Isa. 9:7; 52:7; Lk. 2:14; Rom. 14:17; Eph. 2:15.

[17] Isa. 2:1-4; 25:8; Rev. 7:17; 21:4.

[18] Rom. 5:17, 21; 1 Cor. 15:22; Rev. 21:6.

[19] Isa. 55:17; Rom. 14:17; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, “The Disarming Child,” in The Power of the Powerless, 34.

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