As we discussed last week, in the sixth century B.C.E., Jerusalem was utterly destroyed.
Hardly one stone was left upon another.
All the leaders were carried off into captivity in today’s Baghdad.
Though times and conditions have changed dramatically, human needs are very much the same.
The people of Israel wondered if they had been abandoned by Yahweh,
wondered whether they could still have faith in God in a such a time of trouble.
During the exile in Babylon, the people of Israel endured their deepest crisis,
but also during that terrible time, the foundation was laid for a profound renewal.
The prophet foretold that a righteous One would be born.
The prophet claimed that “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” would be born among them,
and would bring about a powerful transformation – spiritually, religiously, economically –
not only for the people of Israel, but for all nations and peoples.

Notice that the first several verses that we will read in Isaiah 61 are the verses chosen to be read by Jesus
when he began his public ministry. When Jesus arrived at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth,
after the days of testing in the wilderness, he pulled out one of the old scrolls of Isaiah,
read several verses of prophecy, then sat down to teach the people, proclaiming to them:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
After hundreds of years of wondering and waiting,
after generations of longing for hope and peace, longing for righteousness and praise,
finally a “prophet, priest, and king” would dwell among them who would usher in a new order.
This prophecy from Isaiah looks toward that day that would ultimately come.

Isaiah 61:1-11
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.
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory.
Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs.
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.

Perhaps the first gift of Christmas is the knowledge and understanding
that human beings are loved by God. This is no small idea to be taken for granted.
Vernon has been beating this drum again and again in the Faith in Real Life small groups
for the past several years, because for many people, this truth seems hard to accept.
You are loved. You are loved by God.
God sent his Son into the world so that we would know and take to heart this great truth.
This message cannot be stated often enough. God loves you. God loves me.
We are beloved children of God!
This sounds so simple, but it is so transformative.
To know that human beings are loved, to take to heart that you and I – and all our neighbors –
are beloved children of God – can change everything about the conditions of human life.

The second gift of Christmas is the commandment to love one another as Jesus Christ has loved us.
How that plays out in our daily living varies widely as our daily experiences,
but to love another person, to extend oneself for the sake of the other, regardless of our feelings,
is to embody Christ’s love for the world, to continue the incarnation of God’s love.

What does God’s love look like?
It is very important that we acknowledge that the love of God in the Christmas story
is not only the warm and cozy feeling of a children’s Christmas pageant.
This is an aspect of God’s love, no doubt,
but the redeeming love of God also has an edge to it, a toughness, if you will,
God’s redeeming love does not allow the status quo to remain,
does not allow you and I to remain the same.
As Mary’s Magnificat proclaims in Luke 1: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,
he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the following story:

“Several years ago now I attended a weekend retreat with about seventy other people,
where the opening exercise was to tell a story about someone who had been Christ for us in our lives.
After we had all thought about it a little while, some people got up to tell their stories to the whole group.
There was one about a friend who stayed put through a long illness while everyone else deserted,
and another one about a neighbor who took the place of a father who self-destructed.
One after the other, they were stories of comfort, compassion, and rescue.
The conference room turned into a church, where we settled into the warmth of each other’s company.
Jesus our friend was there with us and all was right with the world,
until this one woman stood up and said,
“Well, the first thing I thought about when I tried to think who had been Christ to me was,
‘Who in my life has told me the truth so clearly that I wanted kill him for it?”‘
She burst our bubble, but she was onto something vitally important
that most of us would be glad to forget:
namely, that the Christ is not only the one who comforts and rescues us.
The Christ is also the one who challenges and upsets us,
telling us the truth so clearly that we will do appalling things to make him shut up.
If you do not believe that, maybe it is because you have not recognized Christ
in some of the offensive people God has sent your way.
Not all of them, mind you, but some of them – people sent to yank our chains and upset our equilibrium
so we do not confuse our own ideas of God with God.”
(from Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1999)

The One who comforts us and rescues us,
the One who comforts those who mourn and binds up the broken-hearted,
is also the Lord who “loves justice”, the One who “hates robbery and wrongdoing”,
whether that wrongdoing is on the streets or in the white-collar boardrooms.
The One who comes down at Christmas is the One who loves when things are set right,
loves when those who have been mistreated find relief in the courts,
loves when those who have been oppressed are given freedom.
Love came down at Christmas to create a turning, an upheaval, a transformation, of all that is.
Love came down to cause real change in the hearts and minds of people,
real and lasting change in the ways that governments and economic systems work,
change in the manner that banking systems and healthcare systems treat the most vulnerable among us.

Hear this: the compassionate, transforming love of Jesus Christ coming down at Christmas
is NOT good news, at least initially, to any who oppress others, to any who unjustly hold people captive,
to any who hold debts over others who have no ability to pay them off.
The promise of love coming down at Christmas is that the oppressed will receive good news,
the broken-hearted will be comforted, those who are in captivity will discover freedom,
and those who are imprisoned will be find release.
The promise of Christmas is that the “year of the Lord’s favor” will be proclaimed.
The “year of the Lord’s favor” is related to the Old Testament concept of the Jubilee Year,
the 50th year when all debts are forgiven and lands are restored to original owners.
In the ideal of the Jubilee Year, all those who are imprisoned for debts will be set free,
and all those who live in servitude to others will be able to go home.

One commentator pointed out that “Oftentimes, when we think of favor,
we think of earning someone’s favor, but this is obviously not the case with God.”
We cannot earn God’s favor. God’s favor is graciously given.
In other words, the Hebrew word in this text for “favor” could potentially be translated as “grace.”
Jesus proclaimed that the year of God’s favor, the year of God’s grace, has come,
which means that that which we could not do for ourselves (being brought into the favor with God)
has been accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. (

The angel in the Christmas pageant always cries out:
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2)
The primary gift of Christmas is that the healing and restoration that we cannot do for ourselves
has been accomplished for us in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Love came down on that first Christmas to offer this good news for all the people –
including those whose voices have been long silenced,
including those who have not been included,
included those who have purposefully been excluded.

Jesus proclaimed good news both to those who are poor in things
and to those who are poor in spirit.
He proclaimed freedom to those who are captive –
those who are captive to their own doubts and fears and anxieties and those who are captives to others,
bound in prisons or bound by the attitudes of those who have power over them.
Jesus proclaimed recovery of sight to the blind.
He healed the man born blind and he brings healings and wholeness still,
offering new insight and understanding to those of us who have been blind to his ways.
And Jesus came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee year,
when people would become free of crushing debt,
when people who must work far from home would be able to return to the land of their ancestors,
when the world would slow down long enough to enjoy a Sabbath rest from worry and concern.

When you read the news today, do you feel as though our people, our nation,
is in need of a powerful transformation?
Do you believe that far too many among us – both locally and globally –
are facing great distress, heavy troubles, “whose forms are bending low,” as the old hymn states?
Good news is coming. Relief is on the way.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon the One born in a stable.
God anointed him and sent him among us to bring good news,
to bind us up, to release us from that which binds us.
God has sent him and will send his Spirit among us again to proclaim grace and peace, justice and love.
God has sent him and will send his Spirit again to speak dangerous truth to power
and to tear down all forms of wrong-doing and corruption.
We are still a world in need of a Savior; come quickly, Lord Jesus, come quickly.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
December 17, 2017