Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
The only time I’d ever heard the threat of Christmas being cancelled was from my mom when I’d been a pain and likely to find myself on the naughty list. Yet, we find ourselves in a world where we’re having to think about whether Christmas might be cancelled, or at the very least whether it will resemble any Christmas we’ve experienced before. This tough, horrid situation is shaking our very foundations.
Shaking foundations doesn’t have to be entirely negative. We recognise the darkness of the situation but there are glimmers of light. In a year where people can’t fall back on a ‘normal’ Christmas, there are conversations about what is it that makes Christmas so important. I was delighted to see Martin Lewis on his money show passionately highlight that spending isn’t necessary. And what is it that people are really longing for at Christmas – not gifts and things – but people, the ones they love. We groan at the commercialisation of Christmas, but when it comes to it, when we shake the foundations, people actually care about being with each other. Doesn’t that say something about the image of God in us all?
We find ourselves in this strange sense of exile from what is ‘normal’. Pushed out of the places and away from the people that we’re so attached to, that make our lives what they are. The people of Judah lived for a period in exile. They’d been forced from their home, from the city of Jerusalem and found their sense of ‘normal’ shaken. They felt hopeless. Our reading from Isaiah is part of the turning point in history where they’d begun to return, but everything had changed – the temple was destroyed. From that context comes the message:
The Lord Yahweh’s Spirit is on me,
because Yahweh has anointed me to preach good news to the humble.
He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to those who are bound,
to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favour
(Isaiah 61:1b-2a, WEB)
There was a future for the people of Judah. But it wasn’t a resume life as it was before. There was a sense of justice about the new future. The ‘captives’ referred to were debt slaves. People who had lost all they had, including their land, and had to commit their lives to afford to pay and live. Part of the law in Deuteronomy required the release of slaves every seven years and the return of all land to the rightful families every 50 years – the jubilee year or the ‘year of the Yahweh’s favour.’ This was about justice and equity – a rebalance of society, a chance for everyone to build a life regardless of what the family traditionally owned.
Jesus, in setting out his own mission, would echo these words in Luke 4:18. God, in stepping into this world, would once again proclaim redemption with justice. This wasn’t just spiritual, it was material too. They echo too into our mission as church.
I find the concept of peace deeply troubling – not because I don’t want peace. I want nothing more than for the world to be a peaceful place. But I don’t want a peace that trumps justice. I don’t want this world, as it is, to just be peaceful: peace while so many go without, when hunger is rife, when shelter is lacking. The kind of peace where aid budgets are cut to protect our own peace, while others with so little have even less. This is not true peace – it is a romanticised ungodly peace: a protection of our safety at the expense of others.
In thinking about this I am reminded of the words of Alan Gaunt in his hymn about peace:
We pray for peace,
but not the easy peace
built on complacency
and not the truth of God.
We pray for real peace,
the peace God’s love alone can seal.
‘Rejoice always’ and ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ says Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians. ‘But Paul, you didn’t live through this pandemic,’ might be our words in response. However, Paul didn’t mean the sort of rejoicing and thanksgiving that’s built on our individual feelings and temporal reality. He’s talking about us as the community of God’s people, remembering all that God has done – and finding quiet hope as we give thanks and recognise our reason for rejoicing: that God gave Jesus Christ in love to the world and gifted us with the Holy Spirit to sustain us through every kind of trouble.
We might not recognise the world at the moment, we might feel deep in despair at the shaking of the foundations. Yet, God is with us. When the world is shaken and ‘normal’ is challenged, God’s prophets come and speak justice as a way to peace. Our response is to join in with this way to peace, for ‘he who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:24, WEB)