Expectations for the Child? Advent Reflections on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Lectionary Reflections
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Third Sunday of Advent
December 14, 2014

As Advent moves into its third week, we draw ever closer to the great day of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Our parishioners' demand for Christmas carols grows louder, since the mall and the dentist office have been blaring them since three days before Thanksgiving. The choir will present this very night, for the 43rd straight year, Handel's Messiah, at least part of the Christmas portion, along with the "Hallelujah Chorus," naturally. Oh, to be a trumpeter at Christmas — work is to be had in every sanctuary in the city!

Yet, our lectionary takes an odd turn this year. Rather than offer us the usual Isaiah 9 with "unto us a child is born," or Isaiah 11 with "a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse," we instead hear the words that an adult Jesus uses for his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, Isaiah 61, as recorded for us in Luke 4. This is an interesting and potentially important move for preachers, because it has the chance to dilute the romanticized portrait of Jesus as baby, who according to one well-known carol never cried as an infant, the first and last baby in the world's history so to act. Jesus may have been unique in many ways, but if he never cried as a baby, he was not just unique but completely unknown as a member of the human family. Despite the carol, it can be assumed that the baby Jesus not only cried, but on occasion had to have a change of whatever was used for diapers in the first century, too.

Reckoning with adult preacher Jesus is an altogether different thing. No longer do we bring our gifts to him; no longer do we admire the precious babe in the manger. Now we hear the man who has come to change the world in ways many of us find distinctly uncomfortable.

He starts the sermon, according to Luke, well enough, unrolling the scroll of Isaiah and reading the following from chapter 61: "The spirit of YHWH is upon me, because YHWH has anointed (this is the Hebrew word from which the noun "messiah" comes) me; God has sent me to bring good news to the poor…" (Is. 61:1a). It is of course not the slightest bit clear just whom Isaiah has in mind in his oracle to post-exilic Israel. Is it that suffering servant mentioned in four earlier pieces in II-Isaiah? Is it an unknown figure who will come to perform these deeds under the instigation of YHWH? This lack of certainty made it all the easier for Luke to quote the words some five hundred years later and put them in the mouth of the preacher Jesus. And we know that the messianic meaning of this passage was already to be found at Qumran where in cave 11 a scroll focused on the mysterious Melchizedek connected Isaiah 61 with talk of the Jubilee years of Leviticus 25:10 and Deuteronomy 15:2. This Melchizedek is to proclaim the year of release that Isaiah mentions in the next clause of his poem. In Luke's Gospel Jesus takes upon himself the mantle of the unnamed prophet of Isaiah and announces his own coming to the startled congregation of his home town.

The word "poor" is Hebrew, ';anawim, an important word in sociological and theological senses. This group was the large contingent of Israelites who made up the economic outcasts of the land. They were the landed peasants, scratching out a harsh existence from the often unyielding soil of Israel. The NRSV's translation of the word as "oppressed" is not completely off the mark, since the Hebrew prophets all saw this group as victims of the rich and powerful of the land. They often noted that the privileged in the land saw the "poor" merely as servants or slaves for their use at best and blights on their pleasant vistas at worst. The very first task of the unnamed preacher of Isaiah is to "bring good news to the ';anawim," a sort of news they were very unlikely ever to hear. And, for Luke, it is Jesus' very first task, too.

Isaiah then says that the prophet will "bind up (heal) the shattered hearted," a phrase Luke does not include in Jesus' sermon. The phrase "shattered hearted" ("broken hearted" in the NRSV) is perhaps a difficult one to grasp. One who is "broken-hearted" in our day is a person who has suffered a personal loss of some sort, a death or a broken relationship. But the Hebrew description is somewhat more comprehensive and less personal. The "heart" in Hebrew anthropology is the seat of will and intelligence. The Hebrews had no notion that the brain, that globular mass that was found between the ears, had anything to do with will or intelligence. Hence, a "shattered heart" was nothing less than a person devoid of will and hope, one whose world had been literally destroyed, such as those who had suffered exile at the hands of the Babylonians. The first task of the prophet was to offer healing for those whose shattering was thorough.

Luke, in not employing that phrase in Jesus' sermon, perhaps wished to stay very practical and very specific in describing what Jesus the prophet of God had come to do. Isaiah says that the prophet will "preach liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners" (Is. 61:1b). Luke's Jesus appears to telescope these two clauses into one. He speaks of "release to the captives," with a specific reference to those imprisoned, perhaps due to debt or sedition toward the empire of Rome.