Reflection for Sunday – December 17, 2023

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2a,10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28 
Preacher: Deirdre McKiernan Hetzler

What incredible joy Isaiah’s announcements must have brought to the ancient Israelites! After decades in captivity in Babylon. First, as we heard last week, God says “Comfort, oh comfort my people! Tell them their bondage is at an end!” And now, he brings news that one is coming to save them! “The Lord God has anointed me…” to bring good news to the poor…to set captives free…to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor. The Lord’s favor —meaning Shalom—that everyone would have all that is needed to thrive.

In our psalm response, Mary proclaims God’s greatness. What God has done for her—and will do for the poor who have turned to God for help. When the Spirit of God comes upon someone, like Isaiah and Mary, they cannot keep the good news of God’s goodness to themselves.

In Luke’s gospel (4:16-24), Jesus claims Isaiah’s proclamation as his mission. Those words have always touched my heart! I understand them to be our mission, too. As followers of Jesus, the Christ. As Jesus says in John’s gospel (5:16f), “I have chosen you and appointed you to go and bear fruit. Fruit that will last.”

What might that look like for you and me? To bring good news to the poor? To proclaim liberty to captives? Healing the brokenhearted? A year of favor from the Lord? Do these seem almost impossible tasks for us? Yet St Paul assures us that the One who calls us is faithful. And will do this.

About fifteen years ago, in a budget crunch, Christians lobbied against cuts to social safety programs. Citing Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. The administration said it was impossible. Congress would never agree. But Christians persisted, relying on God’s faithfulness. And they prevailed!

Pulitzer Prize author Matthew Desmond, in his new book, Poverty, declares that eliminating poverty in our country is possible. But it’s a political choice society makes. Today, we face another Matthew 25 moment in upcoming budget talks. Will you and I meet the moment?

The seemingly impossible tasks that Jesus asks of us require listening hearts—prayerful, listening hearts. This is not easy in our noisy world. Folks who trust our faithful God for guidance and help. We know some of them: Counselors who work to free addicts from their captivity. Faith-based organizations working to exonerate the falsely imprisoned. Climate activists trying to save our common home. Those standing up for victims of anti-semitism and islamophobia.Others wrestling with the complexity of balancing border security with Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger. Can you think of other examples?

In today’s letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul suggests how all this is possible. Pray without ceasing, he says. Give thanks in all circumstances. Rejoice! That’s challenging, in these troubled times.

I’m reminded of Corrie ten Boom’s story. Active in the Dutch underground resistance to the Nazis in WW II, she and her sister were credited with saving the lives of over 800 Jews. Arrested and sent to a concentration camp, they managed to smuggle in a Bible. Even leading other prisoners in prayer. One day in the midst of a lice infestation, her sister reminded her of St. Paul’s admonition to give thanks for everything. “I can’t!” Corrie said, “I just can’t give thanks for the lice!” Whereupon, her sister said, “But the lice have kept the guards from bothering us!”

After the war, Corrie spoke often about God’s call to forgive. On one such occasion, she tells of recognizing two former Nazi guards coming towards her in a line of greeters. Feeling unable to forgive their cruelty, she prayed. “Lord, you know how I feel. I cannot forgive them myself. But You can forgive them, in me.” And so it happened, by the time they reached her.

The Spirit of our faithful God has been poured out on us. Perhaps, emboldened by our prayerful listening, we can exclaim with Isaiah, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord…For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” God is faithful and will do this.

Deirdre McKiernan Hetzler
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