A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
(Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.12-28; John 1.6-8, 19-28)
Today we light the ‘Joy’ candle. We wait for God, as we have seen, in ‘hope’ and ‘peace’. We also wait in ‘joy’. Even in waiting the overflow of a genuinely energising and happy expectation is possible.
One of our more recent, and joyful, family traditions has been to head out on a special February mission: we annually collect acorns. With our small treasures we return to our home and put them into pots.
From there we simply keep them wet throughout autumn and winter. Of course, being slightly impatient, I always get to the end of winter and seriously ask myself what on earth I think I’m doing!
The acorn project tests my ability to wait. Perhaps I should re-name it ‘The Advent Project’!
But each spring as the earth warms up, I am filled with ‘joy’ as young trees burst through the soil with the promise of new life. I am annually struck by how small and fragile they are. A small bird could easily mistake one for a blade of grass.
Within each of these seedlings resides the potential for continual growth for the next 250 years. Each one could still be growing a quarter of a millennium from now! They humble me.
Each time I water or re-pot these seedlings I feel entrusted with something beyond myself. They are tiny, vulnerable, and precious. With care these tender shoots could quite easily become a landscape-dominating forrest.
A forrest that teaches the value of ‘waiting’ and of the things that make for true ‘joy’. Advent oaks!
Our family project is precisely the image that Isaiah uses in our reading today. The prophet envisions those called from sorrow to joy as a field of oaks:
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his righteousness.
(Isaiah 61:3, NRSV).
Our God is slowly, steadily, planting a forrest.
Isaiah’s poem is, essentially, a call for the people to joyfully expect the coming of the ‘Year of Jubilee’. It is laden with terminology associated with this ancient concept: ‘good news’; a ‘proclamation of liberty; ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’.
When the newly obtained ‘promised land’ was divided among Israel’s tribes it was then distributed to each family as they had need. To each was given enough.
At the same time God also gave the ‘year of jubilee’ for the simple reason that God knows our hearts. Even a cursory look at the world around us reveals our deep-seeded desire for more than enough.
Jubilee said that every fifty years all land was to be returned to its original owners. The land could never be sold permanently but only until the next jubilee.
It was the same for people who found themselves in need. Those who sold themselves into slavery were also, in the Jubilee year, set free. As we saw earlier this year in the ten commandments, God is once again teaching a long enslaved people how to live and maintain their freedom. They were never to sell themselves permanently again!
God’s plan was that each fifty years the system that created a rich-and-poor gap – and indeed a free-and-imprisoned gap – would be overturned and life would begin again from God’s equal and just distribution.
Perhaps predictably, this practice, as far as we know, was never enacted. I suspect there simply was not enough incentive for those who benefited from the misfortune of others to allow a Jubilee to actually occur. It is a sad commentary indeed.
Luke chapter four (4), however, famously puts Isaiah 61 on the lips of Jesus. They function there as an introduction to Jesus’ teaching and an indicator of the type of ministry the reader is to expect. Jesus’ coming into the world was to create the expectation of the famous – and untried – ‘year of jubilee’.
God among us to restore and to forgive.
This is the foundation of our hope and joy: God, in the person of Jesus – born as one of us, living, dying, rising, ascending, and indeed coming again – is untangling the web of sin and destruction that our world finds itself utterly caught in.
For many in Jesus’ time this must have sounded too good to be true. If Jesus’ followers are an indicator, this was especially true of those named by Isaiah – the ‘oppressed’, the ‘brokenhearted’, the ‘captive’, and the ‘prisoner’. Jesus, like the church, seemed to collect people like this.
For others, however, it was far from desirable. Perhaps things have not changed so much.
Jesus made both friend and enemy by his proclamation of the coming forgiveness, restoration, and reign of the Kingdom of God. His stories, his teaching, and his action envisioned the same dream that Isaiah had: a time of true joy when the mantle of praise and gladness would replace ashes, mourning, and a faint spirit.
And as followers of Jesus it is also our vision. God is putting all things – including us – right – and we are asked to participate.
Our task, it would seem, in this grand plan is to grow into God’s plantation.
A church, however, just like an oak forrest, is always more than a series of individual trees that happen to grow close together. Older trees provide shade and protection to the young. They break up devastating winds that threaten the vulnerable and small. Even in the severest storms they gently direct water to the ground beneath. Falling leaves mulch and protect new plants. Mature trees produce acorns that fall to the ground filled with a new generation’s potential. It is their ‘fruit’. Below the ground is an unseen web of intertwined roots that bind trees together giving each a strength infinitely beyond their own.
Where do you fit into this picture? What is your role? What is your future?
A forrest, like a church, is an interdependent system – far bigger than any individual. In the course of our family project we have discovered that as we imitate the processes of a forrest our acorns do better. Mulch, shelter, gentle water, an annual sowing, and an allowing for roots to grow deep and strong – all these make a difference.
In the hands of our loving and grace-filled God we are named ‘oaks of righteousness’. Our passage climaxes with a comparison between us – God’s work – and a mature and fruitful garden:
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown to grow up,
So the LORD GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11, NRSV)
Our God is planting a forrest. God is an oak planter. You and I, and indeed all those willing to be nurtured are the seedlings that God is growing.
Our Thessalonians reading points all these thoughts and images in a delightfully practical direction: peace, encouragement, patience, grace, goodness, joy, prayer,and thankfulness. These combine as the stated ‘will of God for you in Christ Jesus’. God’s purpose is that we bring all these things into our relationship with both God and others.
Paul ends with a reminder of the character of the God who began this good work among us – and in you: ‘The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this’.
God’s forrest will one day dominate. It is my prayer that you will know the joy found in being a part of it.