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|"The Anointed One"
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
I've been told that one of the problems with the contemporary church is that it isn't always "user-friendly." Of course, much of LIFE is not "user-friendly," but one of the EXAMPLES of where this shows up in the church is in the language we use.
And I guess that means that the Bible isn't always user-friendly, either.
But let me give the critics their due, and admit that there are some words that even those of us who are on the inside may have trouble with.
For starters, I can't figure out why we have to cope with language that is three and a half centuries old, when contemporary words would do just as well.
But more specifically, and more to the point of this morning's sermon, I can still remember as a child learning the twenty-third psalm and trying to figure out that line, "thou anointest my head with oil." Well, my folks cleared up the thous, and the thees, and the thys for me rather quickly. And they also explained away the strange verbal constructions. But I was still left with that odd word, "anoint."
Yet, I do not want to belittle it. Indeed, I think it's a rather IMPORTANT word, although some television evangelists have bent it out of shape. And it definitely has Biblical significance.
We find the words "anoint," "anointed," and "anointing" used about one hundred seventy times in scripture.
So how do we go about understanding it? Well, I think we should look to a story in the fourteenth chapter of the gospel according to Mark. In the third verse we read, "While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head."
Well, the disciples weren't too thrilled with this, but Jesus defended her: "She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial."
So, "ointment" is oil; and the application of the oil is "anointment." And scholars tell us that there are three kinds of anointment: ordinary, sacred, and medical. Now let's apply this to the opening to the sixty-first chapter of 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 brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners."
Now, this is a beautiful verse, but let's pull out the middle of it: "...the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me..."
I've heard pastors talk about their "anointed" preaching, their "anointed" teaching, their "anointed" sermons; and I've wondered to myself, "who are THEY to declare THEMSELVES ANOINTED?"
I've always thought that was for God to know and the listeners to find out. But maybe Isaiah is on the right track. Maybe it is when we believe that we have been SENT by God that we can proclaim that God has anointed us.
And what a powerful mission on which the prophet has been sent! He continues to preach that he's been sent
"to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn."
A few years later, according to the gospel of Luke, another young preacher "came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up," [and] "went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.
He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was give to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And the anointing has taken place not only for Isaiah, but also for Jesus of Nazareth.
And Isaiah goes on to tell us that he has been sent
"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."
There are a LOT of responsibilities in here. The Lord has sent Isaiah, and Jesus, and us to do many things, to bring, to bind up, to proclaim, to comfort, to provide, to give.
So where do we start? Well, maybe at the beginning: "Bring good news." Because isn't it the good news that starts the ball rolling for everything else?
When my sister learned that she was pregnant with her first son, she called me to tell me about it. She told me, "John! You're going to be an uncle." Well, I was slow on the response. This was my baby sister.
She was about four years old when I graduated from high school. And I really didn't know what she was talking about! I said something like, "Oh?" And finally, she had to shout at me, "John, I'm PREGNANT!"
And by that time, I figured that congratulations were in order. But for Jane, LEARNING that she was pregnant changed her whole world.
It was GOOD NEWS that would alter her work patterns, her leisure, her diet, her relationship with her husband-- EVERYTHING.
So what difference will the good news make in the lives of those who hear it from the prophet?
"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."
Now, these are the Israelites returning home from the Exile. And the prophet is anticipating great things being done by them. But how are WE to interpret the words? What is being built up, raised up, and repaired? Is it material things, or is it the people?
Or does it matter?
When I read that line, "repair the ruined cities," I am reminded of Kansas City in the 1980's. Many folks had written off downtown, but during the eighties the rebuilding was unbelievable. And yet, just a few blocks away from shiny new buildings, were the slums that just got worse and worse.
But the good news is not the Dow Jones Industrial Average; the good news is not tax abatements or tax increment financing; the good news is not venture capital. And I think that the folks living during the reign of Solomon probably figured that out.
And I am SURE that those who lived through the exile knew it.
But what does the prophet mean when speaking of "the devastations of many generations"? I would suggest that we're not talking about short-term problems here. We're not talking about the misery of the moment.
But we're talking about attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that have been eating away at the people for a very long time.
So the prophet sees good things coming! And what is to be the relationship of God with the people?
"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."
And remember, again, that these people have come out of fifty years in exile. The only way they can hear these words, and the way that WE should hear them, is for the long haul.
When I hear God say, "I love justice," I also hear God say, "I AM justice." And when I hear God speak of hating robbery and wrongdoing, that doesn't mean that it won't HAPPEN; but it does mean that ultimately God's justice will prevail AGAINST it.
God IS faithful, and God WILL reward us, and IS rewarding us. And the reward is in the everlasting covenant, beginning with Abraham and continuing through all of Abraham and Sarah's spiritual descendants.
And the God who loves justice never stops trying, never gives up. And the best evidence we have of this was to come some five hundred years after the return from the exile in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, anointed of God, to bring us the good news. Again.
And who ARE these people for whom God is doing all this?
"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."
Well, it has now been about two thousand five hundred years since the prophet said this. And nations and empires have risen and fallen in great numbers in that time. And even today, mapmakers must have the worst job in the world. Because who knows where to draw the lines? And even where we have a good idea of where the lines are, think of all the nations or states or whatever, where we are unsure of who is in charge.
And yet, the spiritual descendants of those Israelites, the Jews and Christians of today, ARE known among the nations, among the peoples.
And ARE we a people whom the Lord has blessed? Amen. Indeed we are.
But if you're going to answer that question by measuring your material well-being against your neighbors, we're not even on the same wave-length.
I would argue that we demonstrate that we believe that we are a people whom the Lord has blessed by our very presence here, by our desire to worship God together. And it is sad that there are those who don't believe in God, or who doubt God's existence, or who only find their blessings in the material world. Because the blessings of the material world can be gone in an instant.
But the blessings of God are eternal.
And the prophet is excited by all this:
"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."
Now, I think there are a couple of things going on here. God is taking care of us by clothing us and covering us; but God is also giving us reason to celebrate new beginnings.
For my birthday several years ago, my parents sent me a check for a gift. And Mother wrote, "buy yourself something really NICE. For YOU." Now I tend to be functional in the way I spend money. What do I NEED? What does it DO for me?
Well, I NEEDED a new bathrobe. The one I had was developing rips and tears. And I decided I WOULD splurge and buy one really nice. And I bought a really heavy terrycloth robe. Which my cat then managed to snag in hundreds of places.
But when I put on that robe, I had a feeling of being not only covered, but also of being COMFORTED and PROTECTED. And when I read those words, "he has covered me with the robe of righteousness," I also think of God's COMFORT and PROTECTION.
Clothed and covered with salvation and righteousness. But each day for us in God's care can be seen as a day of new beginnings, just as the day of the wedding feast for the bride and bridegroom.
And as we experience God's care we have reason to feel a sense of celebration in those new beginnings.
"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."
And don't we take gardens for granted? Don't we just assume that if we plant something in them, that they will "spring up"? Don't we have FAITH that this will happen? So it is with God. We can have faith that God WILL cause righteousness and praise to spring up.
"The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me." I don't KNOW that God has anointed ME. That's for God to know and for you to find out.
But I DO know that I believe that God anointed Isaiah; and I DO know that I believe that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth. And both of them have brought us the good news of God's grace.
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