Third Sunday of Advent—A sermon on joy

Isaiah 61

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; 6but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. 7Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. 8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

You won’t find it in a giggle. You won’t get it in a happy meal. Or, if you’re emotionally healthy, from getting a great deal on cyber Tuesday. It’s more than satisfaction, or happiness. It runs deeper than that. Joy comes from the often surprising realization that deep down, under it all, things are as they should be. Pure life. It’s more than an inner feeling or disposition. Joy is in your body, you can feel it in your bones. There’s a jailbreak of endorphines. In fact, joy is ecstatic. It moves through your body and it fills an entire room. Is there anything better than sharing in the joy of another person? It’s shareable and communal, it doesn’t happen just within us, it happens between us. You simply can’t keep joy to yourself.

And here’s a thing about joy, it often comes in relation to that other deep bodily experience–despair, the sense that things will never be ok. Pure death. Joy is often the outcome when your fortunes have been reversed, when in the language of our prophet, you receive “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” when fortunes are reversed deep to deep. When exile no longer frames your waking and dreaming, but instead the devastation of many generations has been replaced with a new vision of restored cities, of coming home. Our prophet says that it is precisely the people who have experienced double the shame and dishonor who will find everlasting joy to be theirs. So, when the prodigal has returned, when the cancer is in remission, when you’re surprised by finding a pearl of great price, when you hold that granddaughter in your arms, when you know finally that you have found a place to belong. Joy everlasting.

And for those with faith, there is nothing left to do “but greatly rejoice in the Lord, exult in my God with my whole being,” to praise like no one’s watching. Joy.

Our prophet says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me… to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

Here’s what caught my ear when I read this. And maybe I’m parsing things too finely, splitting hairs for the sake of a sermon point. But the prophet says, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me. I don’t talk that way, do you talk that way? I don’t talk about the Spirit of the Lord much at all, and my friends who do talk about the Spirit of the Lord don’t say “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” They are more likely to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is within me. I felt the Spirit move within me, prompt me to give you a word.” Well, maybe. I listen, I believe that that can happen. But I can’t tell what’s really inside you. I can’t distinguish between your feelings and your desires, the voice of God, from the voice in your own head. That’s the problem with having a Spirit that is only within you.

But here, the Spirit’s work is upon the prophet. It’s like the source is external to the prophet, something more public and observable than it is private and hidden. It’s shareable because its between us and all around us. It’s upon us. And It’s like the prophet knows that he has an anointing from God because of what is being done and proclaimed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because I’ve got good news for the oppressed, I’m binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberation for the exiles and release to the prisoners, proclaiming the day of the Lord’s favor. Want tangible evidence that the Spirit of the Lord is upon me? Testing the Spirits? Here you go. Want to see my prophetic resume? Here you go. This is what it sounds and looks like when the Spirit of the Lord is upon you.

Which is what Luke wants us to know about Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him. The Spirit’s presence is public and observable, tangible and demonstrable. It’s not so much within him, but on him, and between others and himself. Luke is the only gospel that tells us that after his temptation, Jesus went up into Galilee in the power of the Spirit. He doesn’t come in his own power, but in the power of the Spirit. And then Luke moves up a story that comes later in Mark, the story of preaching in Nazareth, so that the first words we hear from Jesus’ mouth, words that define his ministry, are words from Isaiah 61 (with a few words from Is 58 thrown in):

“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.”

Do you want to see Jesus’ resume? Do you want to know if he’s the long awaited bearer of the Spirit of God? Here’s the plan, the messianic platform, our Messiah bingo scorecard for those playing at home. Because Jesus is bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release for exiles, recovery of sight for the blind, letting the oppressed go free, he has the Spirit of God. Because. Because these are the priorities in his ministry, we recognize him as the one bringing at long last the end to Israel’s exile, to demonstrate the year of the Lord’s favor. We recognize him as one upon whom the Spirit has fallen.

But Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 aren’t quite the same, are they? Did you notice the difference?

I recently found, we’ll call him Bill, on facebook. I wasn’t looking for him. Facebook thought maybe we should be friends given the friends we share in common. But I would never “friend” Bill, who was my nemesis in jr. high, the antagonist in the nightmares that haunt my life to this day. He made my life miserable. He and his toadies bullied me and opened to me a level of hell I didn’t know existed.

But, I clicked on his profile to see what his life was like. I had imagined over the 47 years subsequent to jr high, even hoped, that his life turned out miserably, that I would ultimately triumph over him with the demonstration of a better life. It might be why I have two doctorates, just to show him. And I needed to imagine that his life had turned out miserably, that life had bullied him. Karma, baby. Imagine my disappointment when I saw that his life was good. He hadn’t lost limbs or had some terrible disfiguring injury or ended up a Lions fan. He owned a successful business and had a beautiful family.

And I felt badly that I wished harm for him.

Look, I understand the impulse to seek consolation in the humiliation of your enemy. I understand why Israel imagined the day of the Lord as a day of vengeance for those who had oppressed them. There it is plainly in Is 61,”to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of the vengeance of our God.” I get why it would feel right to imagine foreigners being your slaves, dressing your vines, when you had once been theirs. I understand why you would indulge the thought that their wealth will one day be yours, that fortunes will be reversed, the way Is 61 imagines. This feels like justice to us, and we need to believe that God is just. I get it.

But in Luke 4, Jesus leaves out the part about vengeance. “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” full stop. And then, in case we miss the point, he proceeds to tell two stories about God showing favoritism to Gentiles in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. And the crowd is so injured by the thought of it that they tried to throw him off a cliff, shouting “no vengeance, no comfort.”

Here’s the thing about vengeance that I think Jesus knew. It doesn’t produce joy. It might create a thin sense of satisfaction, but ultimately it doesn’t comfort, it doesn’t turn ashes into a garland, or mourning into the oil of gladness. It doesn’t make our hearts bigger. It makes them smaller, and it makes the world meaner. Because vengeance can’t set the world to right, it diminishes the possibility for joy.

And if there’s one thing I know about the Spirit of God, it produces joy from the deep wellspring of life. Luke is the gospel of the Holy Spirit, and it’s striking how often joy or rejoicing is mentioned together with mentions of the Spirit. My favorite is the scene in Luke 10. The 70 that Jesus sent out return with joy, reporting that in his name, even the demons submit to them. And then Luke adds, “in that very hour, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life. The work of the Spirit is always moving toward joy, toward life, toward the way things will be in the future of God. Wherever there is true joy, the Spirit of life is present. And so, it is necessarily evidence of the Spirit when prophets identify themselves with the poor, with the brokenhearted, with the exile and the prisoner. These are the preconditions for the greatest kind of joy, for turning ashes to garlands, for turning mourning into the oil of gladness, for turning despair into joy, death into life.

It would be hard to imagine 2020 as the year of the Lord’s favor. The losses have been great. We have been exiled in our own homes. And I know there’s still a lot we don’t know about the vaccines, and I know some people can’t take them and some people won’t. But I was deeply moved this week when I watched the first vaccine injections and saw the experience of great joy it produced in the hospital staff. The Spirit of the Lord was upon us. And I was reminded this week that the Spirit was poured out on all flesh at Pentecost, making available the spirit of prophecy to us all, young and old, male and female, even slave and free, infecting us all as carriers of joy. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, ya’al. There will be experiences of great joy, of life even in the midst of despair, even in the midst of a pandemic. You might even find yourself praising like no one’s watching.


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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