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Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

It is during the Advent Season that we are most likely to remember the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, and others who are in deep need. This third Sunday of Advent hits us with the sermon text that, centuries later, Jesus would use to preach his first hometown sermon. The text addresses the idea of a “Year of Jubilee” instituted in the Book of Leviticus, which declared that every fiftieth year. This celebration marks the freedom of captive peoples, the forgiveness of debt, and the returning of property to its original owners. There seems to be no hard evidence that the people of Israel ever truly celebrated this call to radical compassion and grace. The prophetic proclamation seeks to normalize the valuing of the poor and outcast not just during one season of year, but at all times for all believers.  

The prophet connects the anointing of God to proclaim or “prophesy” with a Jubilee-like approach. The fulness of the proclaimed message of God through those who preach it encompasses encouragement and restoration that starts with those who are “poor”, “brokenhearted”, “captives”, and “prisoners.” The “vengeance of our God” that is part of this message is specifically intended to take up the cause of all who mourn (61:2-3). The immense reach of good news of God’s grace extends to the depths of the human condition: to those who have the most need for peace, freedom, deliverance, and joy.

The message is far-reaching, and the results of the restoration are equally far-reaching. In Isaiah’s words, there is a rebuilding of “ancient ruins” and a restoration of “places long devastated,” among many other things (see 61:4). Furthermore, the hope for the poor and outcast includes moving them (back) into the community God has established. Hence, “Strangers shall stand and feed your flock; foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines…” (61:5). Perhaps this is not a vision of “takeover” by a foreign power in some militaristic way. Rather, it seems to be a vision of a welcoming of those once considered “foreign” into a place of restoration, equality, and trust.

God’s desire is for those who have been cast aside to be restored: God loves justice and hates “robbery and wrongdoing” (61:8). So, it is those who have been overlooked and cast aside who receive the “everlasting covenant.” For Christians, this should sound very familiar in regard to the ministry of Jesus, including key passages surround the birth narrative in the Gospels like the proclamation to the “lowly” shepherds and Mary’s Song (the Magnificat) in Luke’s Gospel. Furthermore, the many references Jesus makes of those who are outcasts and “latecomers” to the Kingdom who receive a prized place of honor (cf. Matthew 20, the parable of the workers in the vineyard). The specific proclamations and accompanying actions toward those who are prisoners, outcast, enslaved, and poor become the seeds sown in the “garden” that allows God’s righteousness and praise “to spring up before all the nations” (61:11). 


Too often, the church’s complicity with political powers have become bad news to the poor (inequitable economic policies), the prisoner (discriminatory prison practices), the outcast (racism and discrimination), and others who are not among the established groups of power. It is little wonder that attempts to be “prophetic” and even fruitful in the long-term building of the Kingdom of God have fallen short. The basic content of a truly God-centered prophetic message is targeted toward those who need it most. This does two things. First, it reminds those of us with some power and wealth that we are stewards of God’s blessings so that we may be part of God’s priority to bless and speak up for those in need. Secondly, it gives hope and salvation to those whose life situations have not been conducive to traditional notions of privilege or blessing. Both the rich and poor benefit from this good news to the outcast, since, as Paul would later remind early Christians, we were “once far away from God, but now you have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).

In a time when political factions practice the art of fearmongering by creating an “us vs. them” mindset, the proclamation of a faith-based blanket of love, forgiveness, and acceptance is both necessary and, according to God, transformative for all of society. To simply restrict the concept of jubilee or even “revival” to the realm of self-actualization or the performance of isolated miracles falls far short of the bigger vision of both individual AND societal transformation that God envisions through the prophet Isaiah in this passage. Anything less than this full-fledged proclamation that all – including the “least of these” – are part of God’s radically redemptive plan falls short of the will of God and will result in something less than God envisions for God’s creation.

Finally, God through the prophet seems to anticipate the radical upheaval that Christ’s birth and ministry will begin to bring about. Jesus’s life and ministry – as anticipated by his first sermon, which is taken from this very passage – is about a societal transformation in which the poor, the outcasts, the prisoner, and those captured in war become integrated as equals who work alongside all others. This is not just a vision of “heaven.” Instead, it is a vision of what God has already started, what God continues through the work of Jesus, and what God seeks to carry out in the ministry of the Church.