God Returning: Advent Reflections on Isaiah 61


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

The hallmark words for Advent have long been hope and expectation. However, the most common English synonyms for the word "advent" are "appearance," "arrival," "dawn," and "return." Our hopeful expectation then at Advent is not based on vague portraits of cute babies, smiling and tender, on worshipful farm animals, clucking, cooing, and hissing (those camels, remember!), or on humble shepherds, struck mute by bright stars and magic men from afar. On this third Sunday of the season, we are told by Isaiah quite precisely what we are in for as we await this returning appearance, this dawn of something that is old and new at the same time.

There is little use speculating just when Isaiah 61 was written. The usual guess is sometime after Isaiah 40-55, which is plainly from the very end of the exile of Israel in Babylon (the fourth decade of the 6th century B.C.E.) and sometime after the return of some of those exiles to what was left of Jerusalem, perhaps late in that same century.

Haggai 2:3 describes the keen disappointment felt by those returnees after their attempts to rebuild the city and the temple in 515 B.C.E. had resulted in a paltry imitation of their memories of the grandeur of the place. "Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?" It is likely that none of those who returned had ever seen the first temple of Solomon, since Israel had been in Babylon for at least fifty years. However, those who had seen it had certainly filled the ears of their children with its wonders and had instilled in them the surging desire to return to the holy place and rebuild what Nebuchadnezzar and his troops had destroyed. Reality had not begun to match their fervent desires.

But this third prophet Isaiah had his own way of kindling the fires of hope despite the fiasco of the pathetic new temple. He speaks again, like his fellow prophet before him, that "the spirit of YHWH God is upon me, because YHWH has anointed me . . . (Is. 61:1). In Isaiah 42:1 the second Isaiah had said that this same spirit had been placed upon the "servant" whom YHWH had chosen and upheld in order to "bring forth justice to the nations." And now, several generations later, another prophet announces the same promise.

There is of course nothing at all new about this promise. The very first prophet we know anything about is Nathan, who in 2 Samuel 12 shows up unbidden and calls the king of Israel, the mighty David, to account for his wanton behavior with Bathsheba and for his murder of her husband, Uriah. The prophets of Israel have always, from the very beginning, proclaimed that there is a higher authority than kings, and that that authority is most especially concerned with justice that is at the base fairness, impartiality, equity, fair play. No one in Israel, from king to slave, is free from the demands of justice.

Despite a ramshackle temple, despite a struggling economy, despite the lack of a stable infrastructure, the call of justice rings out from the 10th century to the 5th and beyond. Whoever this "me" is in Isaiah 61:1, whether the prophet himself or some other unnamed coming one, the call of this person is the same: justice for all. Hence, the famous following lines describing just what this spirit-filled one is about to do. "God has sent me to announce news to the oppressed."

The verb used here, "to announce news," (basar) had originally a neutral meaning. In 1 Samuel 4:17 the verb is used to announce very bad news to the high priest Eli that his sons have been killed in battle and that the sacred Ark of the Covenant has been captured by the Philistines. Yet, surely in Isaiah 61, the verb can only mean the announcement of very good news, especially for the oppressed, the captives, the broken-hearted, the prisoners, and all those who mourn. Little wonder that Luke 4 makes this very passage the text on which Jesus preaches his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. And little wonder that when his fellow Nazarenes hear the sermon they threaten Jesus with death. All prophets who come proclaiming justice are forever risking life and limb. Little wonder that later in his ministry Jesus will lament that Jerusalem is "forever stoning the prophets and killing those" who would speak the truth.

So again we can see in this famous passage just what and whom we await this Advent. We are not waiting for something and someone we do not know, something or someone we do not anticipate. The one to come is in every sense of the word returning to us. And that one comes with justice, for God always sends persons who announce justice. The question always is for us: will we hear this time?