Sermon - 14th December 2014
Scripture - Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-54
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
In this season of the year we hear a lot of this word “salvation”. The Christmas carols we will be singing and listening to over the next few weeks talk about God coming to save us. The Carol God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman reminds us that Christ came “to save us all from Satan’s power” many others talk about being saved. Both our Biblical passages today concern salvation – it’s an interesting Christian word. But this rather begs a question – what is salvation? What are saved from?
Contemporary Christians have narrowed down salvation to mean being saved from sin, going to heaven when we die. We’re often taught that being saved means being saved from God’s punishment – by being in Heaven not Hell; being saved from death – by being raised at the end of time; being saved from the devil – who won’t be in Heaven. This understanding of salvation leads to thoughts about mission as being the work of getting as many people as possible into heaven. The street preachers on Market Street are simply one extreme method of trying to do this. Liberals often speak in the same terms – by saying that everyone will be saved they mean everyone will get to Heaven; salvation, for them, is often also about who gets to heaven. In other words salvation is often thought of as a spiritual reality, something that happens in another world not this. This all may seem very familiar to you. You may be starting to get a bit anxious as you may be thinking I’m about to go somewhere you’re not comfortable with – if that’s the case just breathe deeply and hold on!
Both our Scripture passages today speak of salvation but not in the ways that we’re used to thinking about salvation. Isaiah challenges his hearers to see salvation in the here and now; salvation reflects God’s desire for human community. In St Luke we hear of Mary’s great vision of salvation where the poor are lifted up, the hungry fed and the rich sent empty away.
The passage from Isaiah is all about salvation but Heaven isn’t mentioned. The first three verses sum up the passage: 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 favour, 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. These are the words that Jesus preaches on in his first Sermon in Nazareth – a sermon that almost led to him being killed.
This passage from Isaiah was written after the Jewish people returned from Exile. Their country was in ruins but they were free. The Jews had seen God work, through the king Cyrus, to deliver them and many things now seemed possible. This is a text about deliverance. It shows that God can disrupt anything that imprisons us, bondage and exploitation, slavery and exile, oppression and injustice.
Isaiah views salvation in very concrete terms: good news, healing, liberty, release and comfort. It is the “year of the Lord’s favour” – this is a reference to the ancient idea in the Bible of a Jubilee year where slaves were freed, debts were cancelled, fields were allowed to rest and land was returned to its original owners. Salvation is viewed as both a restored city and as an abundant garden. There is also a theme of vindication which we might see as justice – those who have done wrong will be punished by the Lord. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky but something tangible that others can see. God’s salvation is real and tangible.
As Christians we’re used to thinking of all this as the coming Kingdom – indeed I often preach about the Kingdom. We have to be careful and realise the Kingdom is both now and not yet. The Kingdom is breaking into our world but isn’t fully here. It’s not pie-in-the-sky as it’s breaking in but it’s not yet all the way here so still we struggle. We are invited to participate in the in-breaking of the Kingdom by our actions and lives as we model what the kingdom is. Doing mission then, from Isaiah’s perspective isn’t about winning souls for heaven but challenging all the ideas that make Church an end in itself – a community of the sacred devoted to maintaining its traditions, buildings, programmes and keeping itself to like minded people. Mission, for Isaiah, it seems to me is about those who are the recipients of the Good News – the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, those who mourn, those who are faint in their spirits. This passage reveals God’s concern for the poor and the weak so the people of God are sent, first, to those who are most in need to hear that God will provide for them and redeem their losses. Mission isn’t something that we do, it’s something that we are. Our mission defines us as God’s people; we are called to exist for those on the outside.
This may not sound very missionary – as we used to missionaries being people sent out to build hospitals and schools, to found churches, to baptise and teach. The type of mission that, I think, Isaiah has in mind is a little different – it happens when the people of the world notice that the people of God live differently, that, as it says in verse 9 of our passage, we are seen as a people whom the Lord blesses. Isaiah sees the gentile nations standing in awe at how the Lord blesses Israel – when it gets its priorities right. The people of God are to be a living mission, a people living with good news, liberation, justice and comfort so that the world takes notice and is drawn to God’s ways. Of course when God’s people don’t live like this it leads people away from God.
As we draw nearer to Christmas our minds start to turn towards the story of Jesus’ birth and the key role that Mary, in particular had. In today’s Gospel passage we read where Mary personalises God’s special concern for the poor and the outcast in the words of her song which we now call the Magnificat. It resonates with the Isaiah passage – and much of what Jesus taught. God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty; the lowly are lifted up, the mighty are cast from their thrones. For a time in the 80s many regimes in Latin America forbade the singing of these words as the rulers were rather bothered by them!
This is another view of salvation being in the here and now. For Mary it is about a reversal of the world order, where everything is turned upside down – or maybe it’s all turned the right way up. It isn’t about ideas of heaven, or choirs of angels singing but about realities in the harshness of our world. Mary realised what God was about and saw that it was personal “for he has remembered me, his lowly servant.”
These two passages help us rethink our views on salvation. Instead of focusing on the next world we’re pulled to focus on this world and how God’s kingdom is breaking in. Just as the Jews of old longed for the Day of the Lord to come when the Messiah would make all things right, so the Church longs for Jesus to return to and complete his work of bringing the Kingdom; but the kingdom has already started to break in with Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. Every time we do his work we increase the reach of the kingdom, we help people find salvation.
Salvation for the abused woman is freedom from her abusive partner; salvation for the alcoholic is the strength not to drink; salvation for the couple you yearn for a child to love is a child; salvation for the persecuted is sanctuary and freedom; salvation for the spiritually searching in today’s world is to find community where they can learn and grow into God’s love; salvation for the despot and dictator is the grace to repent and find justice meted out to them. What is salvation for you? What does it look like? How can you co-operate with God’s sovereign will to bring it about?