Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
In this the third week of Advent, John the Baptist is taking the spotlight again. Last week’s gospel expounded on John’s mission, but then this week, we hear the story once again. John was the prophet who was preparing the way for the arrival of the Promised One. John was calling the people to repentance (a turning or rejection of the old ways), and he baptized with water as an outward sign of that inward change. This week, the drama heightens a bit, and John is clarifying his mission and ensuring that all understand that he is NOT the Messiah. John is pointing clearly to Jesus, as the Promised One of God and Jesus’ mission will be the salvation of all.
The crafters of the lectionary included the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, which is the one Jesus read in the synagogue to inaugurate his earthly ministry, to clarify his purpose. “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; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.”
In the synagogue, Jesus read this scroll and declared to all who were present, that its reading was being fulfilled in their very presence. In other words, God’s promises of salvation were being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Now, we all know that there are clear examples of that fulfillment throughout Jesus’ ministry. Whether it was a blind man, a woman with a blood condition, a leper, or a wealthy person struggling for meaning, Jesus was and is in the business of releasing people from the bondage of a common human problem; our identity crisis.
God is saving us; but from what
Wikipedia describes an identity crisis as, “a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role.” I believe as Christians, part of this journey of sanctification, we struggle to clearly understand “who we are and whose we are.” It is almost like we want to follow Jesus Christ, but we cling to our old ways of living. We live in the hope of God’s deliverance, but do we really understand from what it is that God is saving us?
We share a common journey in this life, a life fraught with joy and celebration and sometimes with doubt, fear, and pain and our salvation journey begins when we become a new people. When the old life is transformed in the new, when the former us emerges as the potential new, we are restored, reconciled, and made whole. When through the Spirit leading, guiding, and changing us, we begin to know who we really are,and whose we really are.
The oppressed, brokenhearted, captive and prisoners that Jesus mentions in the scroll from Isaiah are the ones who find themselves captive to anything that keeps them from communion with God and with each other. We are the ones Jesus is reading about in Isaiah. We are often the captive and blind if we struggle with our identity as Children of God and sisters and brothers in Christ, saved by grace. However, we do not struggle alone and we can to know that we are set free, by grace.
Jesus sets us free
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he was about the work of setting captives free. Jesus once met a rich man who came seeking the kingdom of God. He followed all the laws and yet, Jesus said there was one thing missing. Jesus said, “sell what you have, give it to the poor and then follow Him.” The challenge for the man had nothing to do with any notion that money or wealth is in itself, something evil and must be shunned. What kept this man captive and unable to know “who he was and whose he was” lay in the fact that his wealth was thestumbling block to his salvation. The one thing that became the god of his life was his wealth and it (not God) defined who he was, it influenced all his choices, and it prevented him from fully loving his neighbor. The rich man needed to be set free.
There are other prisons in which we can be held captive. Whether it is an addiction, an excessive luxury, a career, debt, or even an unhealthy relationship, we all can find ourselves in bondage to something. We all have something in our lives that competes for our affection, that wrestles for our time, that wars against our service to God and each other; we all have idols. Sometimes that which holds us in bondage, is the least obvious to us.
There was a young teenager who played guitar in large church’s praise band. He practiced with the group every week and rehearsed at home all the time. It was as if the band took over his every thought and purpose. His obsession with this ministry was a bit overwhelming for his friends and family too. When the older kids graduated from high school, the group had to disband. Soon our teenage friend stopped going to church, he fell out of touch with his fellow musicians, and his spiritual life suffered. The guitar and his role in the band held him captive from clearly knowing “who he was and whose he was.” We may know folks like this, and we may even be like him in some ways. Maybe what we all need to ask ourselves prayerfully is, “are there things in our life that can become an idol, despite the fact it is for good?”
Even the church can have idols, which are distractions from the ministry we are called to do. Whether it is our history, our buildings, or our “we’ve always done it that way heritage,” these things can have power over us and hold us in a prison of an estrangement from God and others. The distancing from God, from each other, and the mission we are called to do is the one that John the Baptist was proclaiming would come to an end when we found our identity in Jesus Christ. Through John’sbaptism of repentance would lead to the fulfillment of the rescue found in the One (Jesus Christ) who would baptize with the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that calls us to turn to God and turn away from those things that which between us and God and between us and each other in Christ. When Christ is at the Center, we are freed from bondage, and set free for the new life God promises us.
Christ in the Center
We can begin to recognize the idols in our lives that define us, the ones wo which define us, and the ones to which we pay homage, we are on the path to Christ’s freedom becoming a reality. Remember, we are baptized in Christ and through that baptism and we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are marked, stamped, certified, and signified as a disciple of Our Lord, and not merely as loose band of individuals.
Our individuality is broadened into a community beyond local village, county, or even state. Our identity is beyondcountry, political party, social class, gender, individual need or any other social label. We are Christ’s own and our worship, homage, focus, and our very lives are now free. We are no longer captive to the old “me,” but immersed into a new “we” in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
By letting go and allowing the Spirit to work in us, to transform us, to do a new thing in us, we take our place in the Kingdom in which we are made new, in which we have a new name, into which we grow in a deeper love and commitment to Jesus Christ. We, the oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners have good news on which to rely. We are now being bound together in Christ, we are receiving liberty from our idols, and we are being released from our prisons of estrangement. In Jesus Christ, we are free and in Jesus Christ, we are recipients of the Lord’s favor and not just for us but for all of creation. We are being made new.