Garland Instead of Ashes

(Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11)

So, I was in hell yesterday . . . I mean Walmart. You know what I’m talking about, right? Where do all these people come from, and why do they need the complete discography of The Kingston Trio . . . at exactly the same time? Why is there such a sense of urgency to be the first person on your block to own a Gummy Bear the size of a small Great Dane?

Pro tip: If you want to look at something at Kroger—like read the ingredients on every can of garbanzo beans, or let junior pick his favorite cereal from among the 43,000 boxes, or whatever—first, look both ways to see how traffic is stacked up, then move your cart to the most inconspicuous spot in the aisle, and garbanzo your heart out. I’ll put in a good word with Santa. Promise.

I have a confession to make. I know some of you out there aren’t going to like it, but I’m going to tell you anyway. I’m ambivalent about Christmas this year.

All right. There. I said it. It’s out. Susan said I was acting kind of grinchy this year. But right now I just can’t bring myself to get excited about taking the Shelbyville Road exit off the Watterson. Heck, I don’t even want to jinks it by saying “Shelbyville Road.”

You know what I’m talking about: the fighting with the shoppers who think they’re Mad Max and the Target is Thunderdome, untangling the Christmas lights, trying to get the dogs not to eat the tinsel, making sure aunt Jackie gets her slipper socks. All in search of the perfect Christmas.

All the busyness. All the anxiety. Who needs it?

I heard Patrick Stewart’s rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge on the radio not long ago. It was the part where Scrooge was telling his nephew, Bob Cratchett, that he had no business wishing anyone a Merry Christmas. And this is how far gone I am: a lot of what Scrooge had to say made sense to me.

Now, I’ll admit that part of it has to do with the fact that I have so many things going on at the moment that I’m a bit distracted. I’ve only bought two presents so far. So there you go.

I’m also willing to admit that part of this is my fault. My “old-fashioned Christmas” chromosomes are goofed up right now.

But there’s more to it than that. There’s an edge to it all this year that’s lurking beneath the shiny wrapping paper and the bright bows. We’ve just come through one of the wildest years anybody’s seen since people said groovy, and talked earnestly about moving to San Francisco finding a commune to settle down in. We’ve been witnesses to things in public life that none of us ever imagined we’d see. The horrifying scope of sexism and abuse of women by men in positions of power. Immigration officers following a sick little girl hundreds of miles to the hospital with the hopes of deporting her family. White supremecists claiming to be victims. A tax bill that will cost 13 million people their healthcare and most of the benefits to corporations and the wealthiest 10%.

It’s difficult to find the appropriate level of yuletide cheer.

When everything feels so unstable, when there’s hatred and fear in the air, when this time of year brings only dread and a heightening of grief because someone you loved won’t be celebrating it with you, the holiday season can taste like ashes in your mouth. Christmas can be very oppressive, indeed.

But, come on. There's real oppression out there, right? It'd be nice to think that there's nothing more pressing in our world than whether or not we're going to finally get that iPad, but the world is much more complicated than that, isn't it?

I mean, we live in a world where tension over immigration and race continue to challenge our ability find justice, in a world where adults abuse little children, in a world where people are trying to figure out if the retirement funds will be there when they need them, if the job, the health insurance, the house will still be there for them this time next year.

And if there are jobs to be had, will they demand soul-killing labor that asks of us to surrender whatever dignity we've been able to hang onto . . . in exchange for a paycheck?

We live in a world where African Americans fear the approach of police cars and Hispanics fear the unexpected knock on the door, in a world where the the poor, the homeless, the jobless are told that they ought to blame themselves if they're not rich, that their children should have been raised and socialized not to be lazy, in a world in which young people are under intense pressure to take on a mountain of debt to educate themselves for careers they may never find, in a world where phrases like evidence- and science-based or transgender are prohibited from official discourse.

In a world where a staggering amount of people who call themselves Christian can stumble into a voting booth and pull the lever for a guy who also very loudly and publicly calls himself a Christian—a guy who stands credibly accused of sexual abuse against a minor.

It's tough out there.

We live in a world where nations sit tensely, waiting for another drone to drop something deadly from the sky, waiting for one nuclear power or another will get the apocalypse ball rolling in a fit of pique, or waiting to learn whether countries most folks couldn’t find on a map are building weapons of mass destruction, waiting to see if announcing Jerusalem as a the capital of Israel will prompt even more terrorist attacks.

In a broken world, its easy to act as though our biggest fears are about whether we’ll have enough money to buy one more George Forman Quesadilla Maker or one more Electric Shoe Polisher (you know, for the busy executive in your life)—when, in reality, we (all of us) have bigger fish to fry. There really is oppression and brokenness and dread and anxiety in our world that extends beyond whether two-day shipping really means two days, or whether we'll get the guest bedroom cleaned in time for Aunt Doris.

The people to whom Isaiah speaks understand oppression. They’ve spent a fair amount of time in exile in Babylon. In our text for today, they’ve recently returned home to find that home is just a big pile of rocks. Jerusalem lays in ruins. Their fields and orchards, untended for all these years are overgrown with brambles.

While they were in Babylon, all they could think of was getting home. They saw in their minds the homes about which their parents and grandparents used to reminisce.

Over in Babylon they sat around telling stories about the good old days back in Judah. They painted lovely pictures about the old home place.

And the kids sat around their Babylonian digs, dreaming about that day when they might finally get to go back and reclaim their heritage. They had such big plans about what they’d finally do once they made it home.

But now they’re home, standing knee-deep in the rubble. They’ve finally gotten to the place they’ve dreamed of for so long, and they can’t get the taste of ashes out of their mouths. It’s possible, you know, to be oppressed by your desires, a prisoner of your own expectations.

Conditions are less than optimal. People are hungry. They've returned to find the homes that had kept their hopes alive over in Babylon are in ruins. People died along the way. They've been oppressed, exiled, imprisoned, beat down. Now this?

You can hear, if you stop for a moment, the sounds of people choking back tears, covering their faces, shaking their heads. Dejected.

But Isaiah comes to them in the midst of their despair with a word from the Lord: “God 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; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to 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. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

Good stuff. Lot of great infinitives in there—to bring good news, to bind up, to release, to proclaim, to comfort, to provide for, to give.

That's good news, isn't it? How do you argue with those kinds of verbs?

The problem is not the verbs, though; it's the objects of the verbs that go down so hard. We live in a modern sophisticated society. So, we know all about those kinds of verbs—bind up, release, comfort, provide for.

The problem that confronts our society, however, is that too many people want the objects of those verbs to be deserving. Helping people is fine . . . as long as they’re the right people.

If Isaiah had just left it at rhetorically satisfying verb phrases, just left it abstract, it wouldn't be hard to get everybody on board. Nice phrases applied to the faceless deserving.

But Isaiah's not content to let things stay on a conceptual level, not satisfied to speak theoretically. No, he throws in objects—gets all practical, puts a face on these lofty sounding verbs—bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to comfort and provide for all those who mourn, to give this whole sorry lot a garland instead of ashes.

The good news Isaiah announces comes, in other words, not to those who've just had temporary setbacks, to those inconvenienced by ripples in the stock market. This good news is announced to those who've been on the bottom so long, it's hard for them to remember there's a top. This good news is delivered to those folks on the edge of despair, just short of giving up.

Fine. But why . . . you know . . . those people?

Because, God says, "I love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing." Those who've been at the mercy of the tyrants of this world, sorely used and oppressed, now find themselves under the protection of a ruler who loves justice, who hates the abuse heaped on the poor and the powerless.

And how do we know this good news isn't just more high-flown grandiloquence?

You'd be forgiven for not catching it right off; it's tucked away in verse 2: "The Lord has anointed me . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

What does that mean? Why is that such a big deal?

The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus. Every fifty years, according to Jewish law, all debts were to be canceled, all prisoners and slaves set free. Everyone was to return to their home place. It was the ultimate in wealth redistribution.

The Year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor was a reminder to everyone in Israel that they all had been held in bondage in Egypt until God delivered them—which is to say, everyone is equal in God's sight. Consequently, the poor could never get so low that they wouldn't have hope, and rich could never get so rich that they weren't accountable to the whole community. It was meant to be a way of limiting disparity between the children of God.

Concrete. Real life. Practical. This God of justice is no dreamy idealist, but a God with dirty hands and a broken heart.

And we who claim to love and serve this God had better be too.

Because, guess what? The good news of Advent isn't just something we sit around waiting for, twiddling our thumbs with stars in our eyes. The good news of Advent . . . at least in part, is supposed to be us.

That’s right, we who’ve received the good gifts of God’s grace and blessing are now intended to be the good gifts of God’s grace and blessing to a world dying to see mercy, justice, and peace . . . a world struggling just to keep its head above water.

Disappointment. Devastation. Ruin. Enslavement. Oppression. It’s still out there.

And in the middle of it all, you have a chance to be the good news somebody's waiting to hear.