A sermon on Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 & Luke 1: 47-55 by Nathan Nettleton
“The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit and sent me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the broken hearted and to announce release to the captives. He has sent me to bring comfort to those who mourn, to replace grief and sorrow with joy and gladness. They will rebuild the cities that have long been in ruins.”
Bold words from Isaiah; a spirited exuberant vision, which finds its echo in the song of Mary: “My soul praises the Lord. God has pulled down the mighty and raised up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. My soul praises the Lord.”
These are the words of people who hunger for more, the words of people who are restless and unsatisfied with the way things are. These are words coming from deep down, from a place inside of deep deep longing, of yearning, of craving for a new day, for a new heaven and a new earth. They give voice to hopes and desires that could even be branded as seditious, rebellious, treasonous because they so undermine our acceptance of the way things are. More often they are just dismissed as utopian and idealistic mush, badly adjusted to reality.
There is a famous experiment done with mice to research the concept of hope. Apparently if you take a large jar, half fill it with water and drop a mouse in it, the mouse will struggle to survive, swimming and swimming and trying to climb the sides of the jar until it is completely drained of energy. But if you drop a mouse in the jar and put a lid over the top, the mouse gives up almost straight away, resigned to its fate and just allows itself to drown. It is a perfect illustration of the ancient Hebrew proverb that says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
The proverb survived because it says something lastingly true of the human spirit, and maybe those mice are not so different from us. Maybe Isaiah and Mary shouted out their words in a desperate attempt to get people like us to stop just resigning ourselves to our fate and drowning in the jar. How often have we let our dreams give up and drown amidst the discouraging voices around us that kept up the monotonous chorus of “It’ll never be like that. You can’t change. Just accept it. Welcome to the real world. Get used to it.”? The mind numbing chorus overwhelms the voices of dissent, the Isaiahs and the Marys and something dies. Just gives up swimming and drowns.
But inside we know that there could be more. Even if there is barely a spark of hope that it could ever be realised, we have a sense of what we wish for. There is a longing inside us, a yearning that we often feel we can’t afford to even listen too. A deep deep yearning for total transformation, of ourselves, of our relationships, of our circumstances, of our communities, of our world. A yearning that stirs when we hear words like these. When we get past the familiarity that deafens us to these words, and allow them to whisper into our souls, they stir up long submerged hopes. The ancient dreamtime of our souls responds, begin to shake out of its slumber.
Perhaps! Maybe! What if?! My broken heart healed. My captive spirit released. The ruins all around rebuilt. Grieving giving way to gladness and joy. The hungry filled with good things. The mouse climbing out of the jar!
Those yearnings take many shapes in each of us. They express themselves in both personal and social terms. Personally there is something deep within each of us that longs for the gospel to be true, to really be good news. Something that really desperately wants to be able to live out of the spirit of the sermon on the mount. Not just to be able to grit our teeth and force ourselves to do it against our natural inclinations, but to be able to have our natural inclinations so transfigured that we find that it becomes the most natural thing in the world for us to love our enemies, to return blessings for curses, to trust God rather than worrying all the time about where our next pay cheque will come from, to be humble without putting ourselves down, to be peace makers without succumbing to hatred of the hostile.
Even with all our competitiveness, and our drive to be winners, to climb to the top, to be successful and affluent and comfortable: even with all of that, there is still a part of us longs to be freed from the pressures and the rat race, that longs to be able to walk away from it all, to find our little cottage in the bush by a pure running stream, with rainbow lorikeets playing in the trees, and just live a simple lifestyle. Enjoy the simple pleasures, the flowers, the animals, the clean air, the contemplation of beauty and integrity and balance. You’ve heard people say things like that haven’t you? Maybe you’ve even said it yourself, or heard it whispering beneath the chaos of your life?
It would be just as easy to describe the social dimensions of those inner longings: the yearning for freedom, for justice, for enough food for everybody, for an end to war and crime and insufficient housing, for communities of hospitality and acceptance and understanding.
But it makes no difference whether it is the social dimensions of that deep down longing, or the personal, just-getting-my-own-life-together, dimensions, you know what happens if you start taking them seriously, don’t you? All sorts of things start rising up in opposition to beat you back down again, to put you back in your place. I read an article a few months ago about a bloke who was a top level, high flying executive who actually did it. He just quit, walked away, got a little place in the bush, started growing some food, and meditating a lot. Turned his back on the rat race for good. And the remarkable thing he experienced, which he reckoned he hadn’t really anticipated, was the level of hostility from those he left behind.
It was as though he had committed some awful betrayal of them. You’d think all those trying to climb the ladder would be thankful that he’d vacated a spot at the top so they could all move up a rung, but no. They were bitter and angry. Angry that having got to where they wanted to get to, he could declare it all worthless and turn his back on it. He had blasphemed their god. He had exposed the emperors lack of clothes. When you’ve dedicated the whole of your life to single-mindedly climbing the ladder, you don’t take kindly to being told there is nothing at the top of it. And you can’t just dismiss it as envy when it comes from someone who actually got there.
Maybe you’re not a corporate high flyer, but it makes little difference. Whatever world you come from, if you try to take seriously the deep yearnings within for a life that is different, for a world that is transformed you will be vehemently opposed by voices within and without. And they will try every trick in the book.
Sometimes they’ll seem to go along with you. You want to change your life? Want inner peace and tranquillity? We have this six step program. We have this stress management seminar. We have this weekend retreat on harnessing the energy of your inner child. We have this technique you can master that will give you a greater sense of wholeness while simultaneously helping you to make more money! Fullness of life is reduced to formulas and techniques, a bit of tampering round the edges of your life without upsetting the status quo too much.
Sometimes the opposition will be far more vicious. You’ll be accused of being selfish, of being irresponsible. You’ll be told you’re not providing adequately for your family, unfairly depriving your children of opportunity. You’ll be told that you’re badly adjusted, that you’ve got your head in the clouds, that you’re a misfit, that you think you’re better than everybody else, that you don’t know your place.
Usually the opposition will just come as a nagging insistent whisper from within or without, “Adjust, adapt. Just go along with things. It’s not really so bad. You’re doing all right. It’s not worth the hassle. Just make the most of what you’ve got. Just accept that you can’t really change anything much and learn to live with it.”
When you name the voices like that it is amazing how totally sucked in we get by it, but nearly all of us do. I know I do. We polish up the bars of our cages and make them feel a bit more homely. Maybe wrap Christmas tinsel round the bars so they don’t even look like bars anymore and the cage doesn’t seem so bad. We dampen down the dreams of freedom in case they make us feel uncomfortable about ourselves. We fill our caged lives up with racket and busyness and things to anaesthetise ourselves to it all. We substitute success for serenity, possessions for peace, image for integrity.
We can’t afford to take seriously the words of Isaiah or the song of Mary. And much of the time the church actually supports us in our charade. We get sermons full of slogans and platitudes and comfortable cliches. Many a Sunday the devil could sit quite comfortably in our church knowing that nothing that happens is likely to provoke anyone to try to grab any territory back from him and live any differently. Much of the time churches just hand out the Christmas decorations to make our prisons feel better.
But sometimes, just sometimes, we dare to stand on tiptoes with Isaiah and Mary and peek over the horizon, and capture a glimpse of another world, a world that could burst forth from the ashes of this one. And someone goes home restless and discontent with the normal mediocrity that they have substituted for life. Someone’s anaesthetic wears off and they begin to feel the pain of the hostility and drivenness of their workplace. Someone feels with new urgency the insistent hunger for intimacy, for meaning, for community.
We dare to wish more for ourselves. More for those around us. More for others. More for our world. And Isaiah laughs, and Mary smiles. And the Christ child, who holds the key to the fulfilment of all our dreaming, of our deepest yearning, begins to be born in us. Come, Lord Jesus, Come.