Reach-Renew-Rejoice! Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Advent 3B

The first sermon Jesus preached, according to Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:16-30), was in his hometown of Nazareth. It was one of those “hometown kid makes good” stories. You know the kind. Promising young man heads off to college and comes back a multi-millionaire because he invented something called Facebook while he was in school. Or, kid goes off to study engineering and a routine homework assignment becomes a cottage industry to employ homeless people in the manufacture of pop up shelters. That cute girl with the dimples and long hair who played second violin in your high school string quartet becomes chair of the FDIC. It’s that sort of thing.

So here’s Jesus, who has built a modest reputation so far as a healer and worker of miracles, come home to visit the family. And, as was his custom on the Sabbath day, he goes to the synagogue to worship. The local religious leaders approach him the minute he comes through the door. Would he be willing to read from a book of the Prophets, and perhaps share some insight into those words with the people?

Sure, he shrugs. And they bring him a large scroll, which he carefully places on the reading desk. As he starts to unroll the scroll, all eyes are on him. Mary is trying hard not to show any emotion, but this is her boy up there in front of everyone. It’s a long scroll, and it takes a while for Jesus to find the passage he has in mind, near the very end.

Ah, here it is. As he reads to those who have gathered, he only needs to give them the first few verses. They know the rest of the chapter by heart. Once he begins, the whole passage comes to mind. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us from the 61st chapter of the prophet Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners; 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn; 
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
   they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
   the devastations of many generations. 

For I the Lord love justice,
   I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
   and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
   and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
   that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
   my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
   and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 
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. Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

It’s a dangerous thing to preach on this text from Isaiah. When Jesus did it, his own neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff. They weren’t too happy with the way he interpreted the scripture, and there is no guarantee that you are going to like what you hear this morning either. So Bruce has the car keys in his pocket, just in case we need to make a fast get-away.

The original audience for this prophetic scripture was a group of exiles who had returned to Jerusalem after many years in Babylon. The Assyrian empire had overtaken Babylon long ago, and some of the Jewish exiles had been allowed to return to Israel at that time. But not much had happened in the way of rebuilding. The temple was still in ruins, and the walls of the once-great city of Jerusalem were piles of broken stone.

The remnant that had been left behind represented the poorest of the poor, and those who had come to Jerusalem over the last hundred years or so weren’t much better off. Now, the Assyrian empire had been defeated by the Persians, and the Persian King had ordered the work of rebuilding to begin again.

Those who traveled from what was now Persia to what had once been Jerusalem were the descendants of Jews who had been taken into captivity centuries before. They had no real memory of the Temple, or of the city itself. All they had to go on were the stories that had been handed down to them. What they found when they arrived in Jerusalem must have been a shock.

Perhaps it’s the same feeling John Wesley might have had if he’d visited your average American Methodist congregation in the last 30 years. The Methodist Church of the late 20th century had developed into something far removed from the church Wesley had seen develop in his lifetime.

According to Church historian Thomas Kidd, “The Methodist Church’s rise and recent decline is perhaps the most statistically striking story in American religious history. At the time of the American Revolution, the denomination was tiny. … In 1770, there were about 20 Methodist churches in America. By 1860 that number had grown to more than 19,000” due almost entirely to the dedication of the circuit riders who traveled on horseback from town to town.

By the 1960s, there were more than 11 million Methodists in the United States. But over the past 40 years or so, as in other mainline denominations, the Methodist church has seen dramatic decline, losing nearly 40% of its members, even as the overall population grew.

Some argue that the primary reason for this rapid decline can be traced to an over-emphasis on politics, at the expense of the gospel. Kidd writes, “The church’s primary business, of course, should never be contemporary politics. Confessing that Jesus is Lord has always had political ramifications, but aligning that confession too closely with specific powers of this world often leads to the church being exploited as a political tool and ultimately abandoned when the tool is no longer necessary.” Or, as our district superintendent once told me, “Methodists are eager to fill sacks with food for the poor and hungry, but they’ve forgotten why they do it.”

That’s what had happened to the Israelites. Rather than trusting and obeying God, they had become entangled in political struggles for power, and they had paid the price. First Babylon, then Assyria, and finally Persia had overtaken them. Their cities had been destroyed, their temple had been demolished, and their people had been carried away into captivity. Generations had come and gone. Many of them had given up hope of ever seeing the land of Israel.

But then, this prophet Isaiah started proclaiming the word of the Lord, and hope began to rise. Isaiah preached comfort to God’s people, and they responded with eagerness to that message.

This passage we heard today includes three different voices. The first part is clearly spoken by the prophet himself, and this is the passage that Jesus quoted, applying it to himself:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,…”

Jesus stops there, but Isaiah goes on to say:

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

The second voice is that of God:

“For I the Lord love justice,
… I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed”

And the third voice is that of the people, as they respond to what they have heard from the prophet of God, and from the Lord directly:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
… 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.”

These words resonate with the initiative our conference is beginning to reach new people, renew existing congregations, and rejoice in God’s goodness. These words have meaning for us now, just as they did for those exiles returning to Jerusalem, and for the people of Nazareth who heard Jesus say, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

God has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty and release, to announce the Lord’s favor and grace, available to all. God sends us to Reach new people for Christ. That “E” word – evangelism – might make us a bit uncomfortable, but that’s what we are called to do. Spread good news. Reach new people. Make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Back in October, some of you came on a Sunday afternoon to hear Amy Jo Bur explain the Reach-Renew-Rejoice initiative. As she described the need to plant new churches and revitalize existing congregations, she also asked us to commit to support this initiative as a congregation, and I told those of you who were there that Bruce and I had already contributed to the campaign, and had made a three-year pledge as individual donors.

I do believe strongly in the responsibility we have, as followers of Jesus Christ, to support the development of new congregations. It’s part of the DNA of the original church – that’s what Paul and Barnabas and Silas and Timothy did on those missionary journeys we read about in the book of Acts. They told the good news in existing faith communities, in the marketplace, and anywhere they could. People believed, and joined the group, and churches were formed. Those churches grew, and sent out more apostles to do the same work. The good news spread throughout the Roman empire.

Starting new churches isn’t a new idea – it’s what Francis Asbury and the other circuit riders did more than 200 years ago. It’s what the Methodist church did through the first half of the 20th century. It’s what the Minnesota Conference has begun to do again in the past couple of years. There are 18 worshipping faith communities and six multi-site ministries that are less than seven years old, and three of these were started just last year.

Many of you remember a former youth pastor from this church, Chris Studenski. He became a church planter in the Twin Cities, and the goal of that congregation, even as it was being formed, was to start new churches. So now, Chris takes on an apprentice every 2-3 years. That apprentice works on staff in Chris’s church, Emmanuel Covenant, learning everything possible about planting a new church, and at the end of the apprenticeship, the new church planter, with a core group from Emmanuel, go out and start a new congregation somewhere else in the metro area. You might think that, eventually, this process would result in so many churches, there wouldn’t be room for another one, or anyone left on the planet to attend it. That hasn’t happened yet. But it’s the goal.

Starting new churches, and rejuvenating existing congregations, takes a lot of resources. That is what the Reach-Renew-Rejoice campaign is all about – providing those resources, so that each congregation in the Minnesota Conference can “live out God’s call to grow in love of God and neighbor, reach new people, and heal a broken world.

But God doesn’t just call us to start new churches. The Minnesota Conference’s seven-year plan for congregational development has two components: starting new churches is one. The other is growing existing churches by equipping them to increase vitality and fruitfulness. God has called us to “repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” that years of neglecting the gospel have caused in the greater church, and particularly in our own denomination. God calls us to Renew the vitality of our church.

God is naming us as his own, and holding us up to the world around us as “a people whom the Lord has blessed” so that those who see us might be attracted to God’s saving grace and the promise of abundant life. Just as the people in Isaiah’s time responded with praise and thanksgiving, we too are called to praise the Lord for his righteousness, to name him as our legitimate and trustworthy Savior. We are called to Rejoice in the Lord.

On the Minnesota Conference website, we read:
“We have an opportunity to help new people find and experience Christ while stirring our own hearts and aligning them with what God is calling us to do.
If we sincerely believe that God is calling us to passionately and respectfully offer Christ in a Wesleyan way that’s relevant in our cultural context and that inspires hope and new life…
And we are sincere in our prayers for God to send one more person, family, or child for us to love and disciple in Christ…
Then we are compelled to come together to plant new churches and nurture congregational renewal in order to reach new people of all ages and life circumstance and connect them with the body of Christ.”

Last month, the church council voted to support the Reach-Renew-Rejoice initiative with a tithe pledge. This means a five-year commitment of 2% per year of our regular giving, or $4,000 per year for the next five years. That might seem like a lot, but it is well within our capacity to accomplish. Our participation in Reach-Renew-Rejoice is more than a financial commitment, though. God calls us to reach new people in our own community, to experience revitalization in our own congregation, and to rejoice as we see God at work in our own lives.

So be praying for God to show you someone you could reach. Invite that someone to come to worship on Christmas Eve. If you’re too shy to ask them directly, grab one of the door hangers that you will find on your way out today, next to the Guest Register book, and slip it onto their doorknob.

And be praying for God to revitalize our congregation, especially as the leaders in our church begin the work of discerning a vision and mission for First Church.

Then rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for God is with us, Emmanuel. Amen.

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