Saturday, December 20, 2014

Finding Joy

Finding Joy
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11[1]
I think one of the worst feelings in the world may be the feeling of being powerless. At least for those of us who are used to thinking that we have the freedom to choose how we live our lives. But, the longer we live, I think the more we realize that those notions are, to some extent, illusions. Life seems to bring to us what it chooses, and we can either fight against it or we can learn to accept it. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are some things in life that we should never accept. But I think the more experience we gain, the more we learn the wisdom of letting go our ideas about how much we control our own lives. In many areas of our lives--the choices others make that affect us, the doors that open and those that close, and even in some cases the ability to provide for ourselves and our families--we seem to be more powerless than we’d like to admit. It’s hard to find joy in life when it seems like we are powerless against the forces that control our lives.[2]
The people addressed by the beautiful and inspiring words of the prophet today were very much like that. They were powerless over their lives in many ways. After mourning in exile, they had returned to a home that was devastated, and their mourning continued. Whatever hopes they had of a new life when they returned from Babylon were quickly dashed. The fact that the prophet can say he was chosen by God to bring “good news to the oppressed,” or better “to the poor” (Isa. 61:1) echoes indications elsewhere in biblical statements from this time period that after they returned home to Judea they struggled just to survive. That included having the safety of shelter and the ability to raise crops to feed themselves. As is the case with many in our world today, they were shackled to poverty in circumstances that prevented them from ever escaping. Like their hearts, for many of them their faith was broken. They felt hopeless and powerless over their poverty, and saw no way out.
Part of the “good news” this prophet delivered to the people might seem strange to us, even offensive. The idea that “the year of the Lord’s favor” would involve setting the captives free and releasing the prisoners might seem more like a nightmare scenario. And yet, we must understand that prison isn’t always a place where justice is carried out. In fact, in the ancient Near Eastern world, prison was primarily a means of control.[3] When a new king ascended to the throne, one way to make sure his former rivals wouldn’t cause any trouble was to put them in prison. Captives from military campaigns became prisoners of war and their lives were reduced to little better than that of slaves. And prison was also the preferred method of forcing those who had incurred too much debt to pay up. True criminals were typically executed swiftly, so it’s more likely than not that the majority of those who were kept in prison hadn’t committed anything we would consider a crime.[4] And the vast majority of prisoners didn’t have much in the way of life expectancy. The food was intended to keep them alive—barely. They endured such unsanitary conditions that we might not even consider it “living.” And the fact that there were no laws to force the authorities to bring cases to a speedy trial meant they had no idea when or if they would be released. They might very well die there. It was the ultimate hopeless situation; it was the ultimate experience of powerlessness.
And yet, the prophet had the courage and the vision to declare boldly to all who found themselves hopeless and powerless that God was going to relieve their suffering, comfort them in their sorrow, and see to it that the justice and righteousness of God’s kingdom prevailed instead of the injustice and oppression that define so many human “kingdoms.”[5] It is quite clear in Scripture that God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, those unjustly deprived of their freedom, and in fact, all who suffer due to the heartless ways the powerful treat their fellow human beings.[6] In fact, the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord here and says, “For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing” (Isa. 61:8). And that means that God will not always stand by while his beloved children suffer and mourn in sorrow. God promises to set things right for them and for all who suffer; he promises to “cause righteousness ... to spring up” (61:11). The purpose of this is so that we can find the joy in living that God intended for us all to have--so that we can rejoice with the “oil of gladness” instead of fainting under the burden of continual mourning.
  Though we might not want to hear it, there are many ways in which our world lacks the justice and “rightness” that makes it possible for many to find the joy of living for which God created us. Whenever that is the case, whenever the "powers that be" wield their power to perpetrate “robbery and wrongdoing,” no matter how they “spin” it, God’s promise is to relieve the suffering of those who are unjustly oppressed. God’s justice cuts through all the heartless ways we have of rationalizing injustice. And the good news is that one day, God will finally set all things right so that no one has to suffer. One day God will make it possible for all people to escape the shackles that oppress them and to find joy in living, the joy that God wants for us all to find.[7]

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/14/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] There is a kind of “powerlessness” that is healthy: it is the attitude expressed in the “Serenity Prayer” authored by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Cf. Fred R. Shapiro, "Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?", The Chronicle Review (April 28, 2014);  accessed at .
[3] On the role of prisons and their conditions in the ancient world, see B. M. Rapske, “Prison, Prisoner,” Dictionary of New Testament Background, 828-29; Karel Van Der Toorn, “Prison,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary V:468-69; and M. Greenburg, “Prison,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible III:891-92.
[4] Cf. Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, “Good News” The Christian Century (Dec 1, 1993): 1203, where she says, “Prisoners, in the Bible, are not criminals or convicts, since incarceration was not the penalty for civilian criminal acts. Rather, they are prisoners of war, captives, hostages—victims of militarism or government oppression.”
[5] Although many translate the text of Isaiah 61:2 “to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” which seems to promise deliverance and vengeance, Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 367, points out that “vengeance” in Isa. 61:2 refers to restoration. Cf. The Inclusive Translation, which renders it as the “day of vindication.” See also Isaiah 10:20–27; Jeremiah 30:1–9; Micah 5:7–15; Zechariah 8:1–8; 12:1–13:6; 14:1–21
[6] Cf. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Prophets and Social Justice: A Conservative Agenda,” in Word & World 28 (Spring 2008): 163, “God's concern about matters of social justice was believed to be so strong and so pervasive that it was built into the very heart of the covenantal promises. And God was and will be faithful to such promises.”
[7] Cf. Donald E. Gowan, “Isaiah 61:1-3, 8-11,” Interpretation 35 (Oct 1981):407, where he interprets the promises of this text both in light of the Year of Jubilee and the Day of Yahweh in the prophets, and says that the message is that “God is about to transform sorrow into rejoicing.”  In a similar vein, Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 113, points to the combination of hope for the Year of Jubilee and it’s fulfillment in the messianic reign, saying, “The coming kingdom of God is hence understood as the time of liberation and as the opportunity for true human fellowship.” Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 290; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 53.

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