Friday, December 09, 2011

Advent 3

I wonder if you have ever worked in an organisation with a mission statement?  These were all the go in the 80s and 90s, it was very fashionable to have a mission statement, and I remember in a couple of places where I worked, Government Departments, having mission statements that more or less stated the bleeding obvious.  Stuff like, “we aim to provide clients with services to which they are entitled ...”.  Churches also got into the mood – the Diocese of Perth has a mission statement which is more or less a copy of the World Council of Churches version.  Our own parish has a mission statement too, which we print on the pew sheet every week, and like all mission statements maybe says more about us than we realise.  If our mission statement sums up whatever we think is most important about what we do as a church, it always begs the question as to whether God agrees with us.  Actually I think the best mission statement for the Church is just the Gospel – that we proclaim it, and that we are doing our best to live it – but basically a mission statement is also about being succinct and memorable.  A bit like one of those popular competitions where you win an overseas holiday if you can cram into 25 pithy words or less why you want it.  Anyway, today we have the mission statement of the second – or perhaps the third – prophetic voice in the Book of Isaiah.

We read a lot of Isaiah during Advent.  Of all the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah is most unambiguously a prophet of good news – some commentators even refer to the Gospel of Isaiah.  And the Christian church has never hesitated, right from the beginning, to pick up the bold announcements in the book of Isaiah and say, that’s about Jesus!  That prophecy comes true in Jesus, that’s what Isaiah is really talking about.  And even though the prophecies of Isaiah are written hundreds of years before Jesus comes on the scene, even though we know Isaiah’s confronting words of challenge and comfort are written for the people of the prophets’ own times, I think that as Christians we are right to claim them.  Because that’s what Jesus himself does. 

Because it’s Jesus himself who adopts these words from Isaiah’s Gospel as his own personal mission statement.  In Luke’s Gospel when Jesus bursts onto the synagogue scene at the beginning of his ministry he takes his place at the lectern as all observant Jewish males were expected to do, and he opens the scroll at this very place in the Book of Isaiah, and he reads these words and says: ‘Today, right in front of you, these words have come true!’  Jesus himself is claiming that this passage from Isaiah sums up his mission and his agenda.  That Isaiah’s words are about him and for him.

What a claim – and what a passage!  It’s nothing short of an announcement by the prophet that he has been called by God, that the words he speaks are not his words but God’s words, and that God is going to do great things through him.  The prophet claims that he is anointed by God – the Hebrew word for this is moshiach and that’s a huge claim because it’s only kings who are anointed – it is the claim that God’s message and God’s purposes have come true in the prophet’s own words and in his own person – it’s a huge claim because this is also the word - moshiach – that we know as Messiah.  It’s the most confronting claim imaginable, and it’s a claim that carries with it good news - not of the airy-fairy kind, but good news of the kind that alters history.

So, this is the good news that Jesus packs into the mission statement that he adopted from Isaiah:-

First, it’s good news to the poor – in Luke’s gospel, the word literally means those who are bent over, the lowly.  That’s the first priority, and it’s echoed in the announcement by the angels not to important folk but to dirt-poor shepherds freezing out in the hills near Bethlehem.  God taking on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth is good news for those who are literally at the bottom of the heap.  We go seriously astray whenever we forget this.  Because the good news for those of us who are not dirt poor - is that we are challenged to adjust our priorities and their practices. 

Second, the prophet says the good news is comfort to those who are broken-hearted –hope for people whose lives are dominated by anxiety, humiliation or fear.  This claim is getting bigger and bigger!  God has got a special priority for those who are left out, for those who have got used to living without hope.  But again, if it’s good news for people living on the edge, then it must also be good news for those of us who are doing OK.  Why?  Because it carries with it the invitation to see things from God’s point of view, to be the agents of God’s good news.

Then the prophet says the good news means freedom for prisoners – because freedom is the condition God created us for – the good news of God is good news for people whose lives are not free, for those who are literally locked up whether or not they deserve to be.  For real prisoners, of whom in our supposedly progressive country we have more and more.  For asylum seekers in immigration detention – for the young men who last week were moved into our newest immigration prison in one of the most inhospitable places in the Northern Territory.  Good news for them.  And for all whose lives are limited by their circumstances – the uneducated, the unemployed – refugees, those who are locked away in prisons of mental illness, the sick and housebound.  People locked away in prisons of loneliness and shyness and disability.  Jesus claims that the good news he embodies is powerful enough to open the gates of the most powerful prisons human society can invent.

And the biggest claim of all? – the prophet claims that this year is the year of Jubilee – the year of God’s favour.  This claim is even bigger than the Get Out of Jail Free card, this one says your mortgage has been paid off by an anonymous donor, your credit card bill has been settled for you – in the most ancient law of the people of Israel the Year of Jubilee that came once every 50 years was when everyone’s debts were cancelled, all slaves set free, all aliens living in the land were given permanent residency visas.  A fresh start.  By quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is claiming all that.

Has Jesus maybe overstated his case a bit?  Did he bite off a bit more than he could chew?  Has he really delivered?

In the movie, ‘Superman returns’, there’s a wonderful line from Superman’s dad.  Now Superman comes from the planet Krypton – I must admit I’d always thought he got to earth more or less by accident but apparently it had all been planned: "Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them...’ – this is what Superman’s long-dead dad tells him via a sort of hologram DVD message - "They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.  They only lack the light to show them the way.  For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." 

Well, apart for the obvious and kind of goofy religious overtones – don’t we sometimes wish that Jesus was a bit more like Superman?  – though when I think about it, it does seem that Superman’s presence in Metropolis has made the human beings there even more passive and dependent.  So maybe it’s a good thing that God – the real God, that is - chooses a different way to work.  Over and over again, in the story of God’s people, God chooses those who are weak, those who don’t have super-powers, people who are ambivalent and indecisive like Jacob, and Jonah, and Peter; people who are old and barren like Sarah and Hannah; people who are crotchety and unattractive, like John the Baptist, people who are young and scared and poor, like Mary.  The big claims that Jesus makes are claims about how God works in the world – that we are not alone because God is with us, in Jesus himself, born to love and laugh and suffer with the rest of us, God shares the circumstances of our lives - but Jesus’ big claims are also, I think, the claim that God works through human hands and hearts in all their weakness.

There’s a story about a travelling rabbi who finds himself in the court of the king of Egypt.  He is treated like royalty and the king shows him around the palace.  In one room, the rabbi is shown the paintings of an illustrious master who died prematurely, hundreds of years ago.  These are paintings that take the breath away, every one a masterpiece, like jewels that open onto another world – but one wall of the room is bare.  ‘Why’s that?’, the rabbi asks?  The king tells him that the master had died young, that the wall is left bare to remind them of what else he could have painted. ‘But nobody else can do it’, says the king.  ‘Give me a few days’, says the rabbi, ‘and a few chemicals – powered silver, antimony, a few things like that’.  And the king does – a few days later he comes back to find the fourth wall covered with a great mirror that reflected all the beauty of the paintings, which seemed to have come alive and moving, shimmering and radiant. [1]

The Advent journey this year is getting closer to its end.  We find ourselves looking ahead to a pregnancy, to an insignificant birth in a forgotten outpost of the Roman Empire that tells us we are not alone, that God has come into our world.  The message of Advent is that God works through human hands.  And Jesus’ big claims, his extravagant mission statement, tells us what our part of that is – to reflect the light, to rejoice at the presence of the light, wherever we find it, to be the mirrors that bring the light into the dark places that still exist in our world.  To be good news in a world that desperately needs some.  God, strangely enough, chooses weak and imperfect people to do that, people like you and me.


[1] Megan McKenna (1999), Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: stories and reflections on the Sunday readings, (Orbis, Mayknoll NY), p.72.