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Advent 3, Common Lectionary year B

Reversal of Fortune
(Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8)

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

We have two themes competing for our attention today.
The first is the theme often attached to the Third Sunday of Advent, the theme of Joy.
We lit a pink candle, one that refuses to wear the sombre shade of royalty,
with all its responsibilities and seriousness, and wears instead the happy colour of childhood, of rosy cheeks and frivolous ice cream.

Joy, the daughter of Zion (!!) sang in our choir anthem,
and is guaranteed to get our feet tapping in our closing hymn.
Almost despite ourselves, and how unready we may feel
with 14 more days to go until Christmas Morning,
the effect of the season, with its lights breaking the winter darkness,
and the gradual crescendo of hope chorused in glorious Messiah concerts,
and in Christmas parties in and outside the church, Joy is invading, even when we’re not ready for her, even if her impact is only for a few moments, and, truth be told, we are glad of her presence!

We even have Scriptural warrant for Joy in Paul’s letter of encouragement to the baby church of Thessalonika, “Be joyful at all times! Be thankful for everything, and despite everything, Let me say it again, Rejoice!”

But, that second theme, competing for attention, comes to us courtesy of that Advent prophet
who’s been with us each week so far, Isaiah Of Jerusalem, along with his two other Isaiahs
who sing covers of his original songs, adding their own riffs and instrumentation, and the syncopations relevant to their own time.

This time it’s Isaiah the Third who comes
dancing on to the stage, toe-tapping to the Songs of Joy,
and at first joining in the refrain “Rejoice,” so we find ourselves,
recognizing his voice, nodding our heads, and settling in to enjoy,
find joy in his upbeat proclamation song.
“Rejoice!” He sings,
Because you’re going to see
prisoners released,
oppression of the poor ended,
the healing of broken hearts,
the rags of the destitute replaced with
the fine linens and silks of royalty,
the ruined homes of returning exiles rebuilt,
and garlanded with evergreen
and tinsel and strings of lights,
as the year of Jubilation is declared!”

Into the dark nights of a northern winter, or into the glaring sun of a Middle Eastern summer,
two and a half millennia ago, Isaiah the songster sings this ballad of reversal of fortune,
and even if we think “He’s a dreamer – he’s not the only one” 1… and we dare to Imagine….
and hum along with him, and even wish we could sing a Handel-esque “Amen!” to it.

But that’s probably because we’ve heard this Song before,
every third Advent, for starters, plus every time we remember that
Jesus sang the exact same tune in a Nazareth synagogue, at the beginning of his ministry. 2

The tune may be familiar, cosy even, because we’ve been lulled by centuries of ‘spiritualizing’ this Song of Isaiah and Jesus, changing the strident chords of an activist anthem into a lullaby of spiritual comfort.

But these are not pink frilly joy words.
They are proclamations of a God Dream,
a fierce God-Dream, where God is determined,
despite the mess we creatures have made of it,
to recreate a world reconciled to itself and to its maker.
This is not a lullaby,
nor even an Ode to Joy,
but a rousing anthem of hope for the oppressed.
A song promising a reversal of fortune
so radical, that if we listen long enough,
we may find ourselves silenced by its implications.

Songs like this have been banned, by governments, and I’m afraid to say, even by churches,
because the promises they contain threaten to level playing fields, and reverse the fortunes of the ‘haves’ to a degree they dare not countenance nor condone.3

Imagine how incendiary these words were on the lips of an exiled, enslaved, rag-tag remnant,
pawns in an ancient Middle Eastern powerplay between Babylon and Persia, as they caught a glimpse of God’s Dream of reversal and return.

Incendiary too, when five hundred years later, they were sung by the Nazarene rabbi whose Advent we await, into the context of a brutally efficient, cynically named “Pax Romana.” A song for which he paid the ultimate price.

Incendiary, revolutionary because they speak of the work of a “Lord and God” prepared to come into the midst of a status quo to create a covenant community where there is safety for the vulnerable, and where the riches of the planet are shared equitably, and where our kinship as children of God trumps self-interest at every turn.
Subversive, because this Dream implicates us in the age old choice of humanity, do we serve the gods that create systems to protect the wealthy, (or the white, or the straight, or the able bodied, or the solvent) or do we choose to dream-weave with Isaiah’s, Jesus’ God?

If you think Joy may have slipped out quietly by the back door by now, you may be as surprised as I am to see her sitting on the edge of her seat in the choir loft.
It’s taken the juxtaposition of this Advent Sunday of Joy with this Isaiah Song of Reversal of Fortune for me to notice its resilient major key, and its catchy tune, and yes, its irrepressible joy.

I’ve always feared this text,
because as a white, educated, and employed citizen of the First World,
I could only see myself in the ‘haves’ of this text; I thought my only plight would be one of guilt-ridden diminishment.

But today, I see that there is a place for me, and those of you like me,
who are blessed with earth’s bounty,
within this Dream of God.
There is a place for all of us in this community,
this family, this kinship of God.
We too will be recipients of whatever reversals of fortune are necessary to enable our shackled hearts to rejoice, (and some of those reversals may look to the world’s eyes
like failure, or loss). But we have been given this song as an invitation to weave Dreams with the Almighty maker of Heaven and Earth, whenever and wherever we can.

Perhaps our place in this dream is
to have our wounded hearts healed,
or our mourning comforted,
but it’s also our place in God’s Dream
to be proclaimers, and heralds,
agents and enactors of an equitable sharing of God’s blessing.
If that means we pay more for our coffee,
or our Christmas gifts,
or that we choose to eat less meat,
or buy products grown close by,
or volunteer our talents as a lawyer or a businessperson,
or an accountant to serve the needs of those who cannot afford access to that wisdom.
If that means we hear our names uttered by Joy
in the roll call of those God calls to travel near and far in the pursuit of justice,
the healing of the sick, the feeding of the hungry, the comfort of the dying and the grieving,
or if we help our children or grandchildren to experience the joy of giving this Christmas,
discovering it to be a deeper joy than that of “getting,”….
well, there we find ourselves in the lyrics of this Song.

And if we listen, we can hear Joy,
the joy of heaven and earth,
of God and humanity,
as God’s Dream comes closer to us.

As God’s Dream takes on flesh and blood,
in a Bethlehem manger,
and in our own, changed, lives.
 

© Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones. December 2011


1 Reference to Lennon’s Imagine


2 Luke 4


3 The Magnificant (Luke1:55…) was banned by the government of Guatemala in the 1980s, because of its subversive content.

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