Reflection for Third Sunday of Advent

Reflection 25 – Lectionary Passage – Isaiah 61 vv 1 – 4 & 8 – 11, also Luke 4 vv 16 – 21

Good News – for whom?

When I left school, I joined the Civil Service and was appointed to one of the Inland Revenue Offices in Wolverhampton.  For five years I was a tax man!  It was a time of more-or-less full employment. Very occasionally we would come across an apparently destitute person who, in official phraseology, had ‘no visible means of support’.  We had no alternative but to remit any Income Tax due.

Amid all the news media focus this past week on the beginning of the vaccination programme and on the lack of progress of Brexit negotiations, it may be that two important reports have slipped by almost unnoticed.  One was about HMRC using commercial companies (what is that all about?) to pursue and threaten people who are apparently on their beam ends and completely unable to pay their outstanding tax bill.  The other was the report about the number of people in this country who, through a variety of adverse circumstances, including the pandemic, are described as destitute.  The number is shocking – 2.4 million people including over half a million children.  What a terrible word is that word destitute!  What a terrible situation to be in.

This is Britain.  This is the twenty-first century.  What ARE we as a Country and as a Society?  I am full of admiration for the great army of people who spend not inconsiderable amounts of time and energy in raising huge amounts of money each November – and again this year in spite of the virus – for the Children in Need appeal.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg when we total all the money that is raised for a multiplicity of charities each year.  But how can we even talk about children in need without it jarring? How can the words ‘children’ and ‘need’ live together in the same sentence let alone in the reality of Britain – one of the world’s largest economies, today?

In our Lectionary reading for this Sunday, we come to this passage from Isaiah Chapter 61.  This is from the third section of the Book of Isaiah. Somewhere after 536 BC, when the new world power, the Persians under their King – Cyrus – defeated the Babylonian Empire and, as part of an enlightened policy, allowed captive peoples to return home, another Isaiah was at work back in Jerusalem.  It wasn’t all sweetness and light, and the returnees were finding the difficulties of rebuilding their lives as well as the all-important national symbols including the Jerusalem Temple.  Some of the downside of his society is reflected in Isaiah’s writing and preaching – Isaiah chapters 56 through to 66.   However, as with the other two Isaiahs, this prophet sparkles with God’s inspirational Spirit. Chapter 61 (and particularly verses 1, 2 and 8) is one such passage.

In God’s name, Isaiah announces good news for the poor, healing for the broken hearted, release for the captives, freedom for those in prison and the year of God’s favour.

Surprise, surprise!  Luke records that Jesus went back home to Nazareth where he resumed his normal routine of Sabbath Worship (‘he went as usual to the Synagogue’ Luke 4 v 16).  When He wanted a Biblical quote to describe his purpose and the direction of His ministry, he turned to this passage from Isaiah 61.  Was it their ‘Lectionary’ that Sabbath –‘he was handed the book of the Prophet Isaiah’ -v17, or did Jesus himself request that scroll? The passage fitted His purpose exactly.  It is His self-declared manifesto.  It became the pattern of His ministry.

He spent His time, His energy and Himself with the poor, the broken hearted through bereavement, those held captive by convention or by society or by sin and, in His last moments, a fellow prisoner.

Isaiah spoke about being anointed by God’s Spirit by which he spoke those words.  The word Messiah means the Anointed One.  Jesus as the anointed one also speaks about the year of God’s favour, but not as a future event.  Jesus declares ‘Today this has come true.’  Not yesterday, Not tomorrow. Today!

At first, the people in that synagogue congregation were full of wonder and admiration.  Very quickly however, perhaps threatened by the uncomfortable immediacy of that word ‘Today’, they turned, and it appears that Jesus very narrowly escaped death as the crowd dragged him out and wanted to throw him over the edge of the cliff.  Preachers beware when congregations are stirred!

Just as a couple of weeks ago in that difficult passage from Mark 13 where we came to the imperative ‘Watch’, so now another single word with its urgency -Today.  And its questions for us as the Church.  What does ‘Today’ mean? What is Good News for the poor, the broken hearted, those held captive, those who are the prisoners of forces beyond their control?   How do we respond?

After Lusaka, the second city of Zambia is Kitwe.  It is a copper mining town.  Some of the townships that ring the city are provided by the mining companies for their workers. Some established townships are owned by the city council.  Beyond the ring of formal townships lies an outer ring of informal aka ‘squatter’ townships.  Temporary shelters, without any services such as water, electricity or sewerage, provided homes for destitute people who have no visible means of support.  The Church is at work there.  Apparently, out of nowhere, up to 300 children appear each morning to be cared for. The Church providing activities while parents search for food and work and literally putting food into their children’s mouths.

The Trussell Trust began in Salisbury at the inspiration of a Christian couple.  Trusted by the Government it does sterling work in providing food for people in need.   Sandy and I live in a part of the Borough of Eastleigh.  Eastleigh has a food bank and this year over 700 people or families with real need have been provided with food – and this week also with surprise parcels of ‘goodies’ for Christmas, delivered by, among others, members of local churches in response to an appeal.    I have to ask -Is that all? Is that enough?   While poverty, destitution even, is a problem in other parts of the world, never be hoodwinked into believing that it isn’t on our own doorsteps too.

Just two up to date examples of one aspect of Isaiah’s words and Jesus’ ministry.  You will yourselves know of those who today are broken hearted, those held captive by forces beyond their control, those imprisoned by circumstance – perhaps of their own making, those who are the victims of today’s situation.

I am sure that the Jesus who wept over the city of Jerusalem and her people, weeps again now.  But, like Isaiah, He still says, ‘the time has come when the Lord will save His people’ and he still says ‘Today’.

What are we doing to make it happen -Today?

Bryan Coates

December 2020