Releasing the Captives
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Sermon #211 St. James the Less #118 12/13/20
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; 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
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; * for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: * the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him * in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, * he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, * and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, * and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, * for he has remembered his promise of mercy, The promise he made to our fathers, * to Abraham and his children for ever.
More on Advent
Well friends, here we are on the third Sunday of Advent. We have been wading through the tough themes of this season, but we are better off for it.
We have noted over the past two weeks that Advent is primarily looking towards the Day of the Lord when Jesus will come again. We are the waiting church, preparing for his arrival once again. Only after that, is this a season about preparing for Christmas.
It is only in the recent past that some group proposed the Advent candles represent Peace, Joy, Love, and Hope rather than the classic medieval themes of death, judgment, heaven, and hell—in that order (Rutledge 23).
What we’ve been doing, like some other churches, is to return to these ancient themes of Advent, and show why they are so important. We have felt the tension most of all in our readings over the past few weeks between doom and deliverance, darkness and light, judgment and hope.
Advent forces us to reckon with the tough realities of our world, so that we may know with certainty why we long for Christ to “stir up his power and with great might to come among us,” as our Collect said this morning.
The primary voice we have heard through this season that walks the tightrope of judgment and hope is the Prophet Isaiah. The words of the Messiah ring out in our Old Testament reading, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon 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.”
Liberty to captives…release to prisoners…
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about captivity, what that must have been like for the people of Judah to be led into captivity by Babylon, and what it must be like for modern-day captives.
One of the most controversial stories of captivity that has been debated over the past few years is of Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was held captive from 2009 to 2014. Megan and I recently listened to a podcast that interviewed Bergdahl, it was done by a reporter who wanted to understand why he did what he did.
Many have called him a traitor or said that it was not worth exchanging five Taliban members for him in 2014. He broke the all-important rule: don’t leave your post and desert your men. He not only left of his own volition, but the military spent weeks and months trying to find him. Some families have made the case that their loved one died looking for him, and that’s what makes him such a divisive figure, even today, years after the fact.
But in the podcast, it interviewed Bergdahl and some of the other soldiers in his company. The one thing that they can all agree on is the absolute horror of his captivity.
Five long years of being held by the Taliban, they constantly moved him to different locations so that he wasn’t found by US forces until they finally smuggled him into Pakistan. He spent days, weeks, and months chained to a bed at one point, and another time locked in a cage in total darkness for weeks at a time.
I can only imagine myself in his situation for a few moments, how does anyone survive weeks in a cage with little to no food and complete isolation? We can’t even fathom that kind of existence.
He tried to escape twice, only be to found and severely punished.
When he returned to the US some made the case that he had served his punishment already. What could be worse than being a prisoner of the Taliban for five years? Others wanted him to pay the price for his selfish actions; captivity was not enough.
We are Captives
I bring this story up because it is charged with so much emotion, especially for those who have served in the military. It is a pretty straightforward crime: he deserted his post, and he’ll be the first to admit that, but the punishment is nuanced because of what he suffered.
It was his fault that he walked away and got caught by the enemy, but none of us could imagine what he lived through. It is easy for us to sit on our throne, distant from the situation, and name his punishment. But what price must a guilty man pay?
This is a central question for our justice system. What punishment fits the crime? This is also a theme that plays out in Isaiah’s day and time when the faithlessness of Judah was judged, and they were sent into Babylonian captivity. They had forsaken their covenant with God, and justice was to be served.
But it is tempting when we read the Bible to keep an arm’s length from its implications in our life. We can think historically about those who were in Babylonian captivity and pity their situation though they were guilty. We may ponder the plight of captives or prisoners around the world today, but it’s unlikely that you or I have recently considered ourselves captives or prisoners.
But when it comes to the biblical understanding of humanity’s relationship with God, we are all Bowe Bergdahl. We have all deserted our post, walked into enemy territory, and are held captive to the great and awful Powers of Sin and Death.
We may be comfortable in our lives, but comfortability may be a form of captivity, and it sure isn’t a good indicator of our spiritual health and awareness. In fact, that may very well lull us into forgetting that we are prisoners in desperate need of freedom.
“We are sorely hindered by our sins,” our Collect says, and we earnestly pray that God will “let his bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”
We are not in a place to self-righteously pity the ancient Judeans in captivity or the modern-day prisoners as if they’re alone in this—we have skin in the game too. We are in need of being delivered from the bondage of Sin and Death just as much as the next person.
And with all of this in mind, Isaiah’s words ring out through the darkness—there is good news on the horizon, he says, for Judah and all the people of the earth. The Messiah is coming to free all of us captives, to mend our broken hearts, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He will build up that which has been torn down and replace our ashes will a garland.
No matter how dire the circumstances may seem in this world, or our lives, there is good news of God’s restoration project in the world. And ultimately, God’s judgment and justice are not without his promise of hope and mercy.
And so, we take a deep breath today as we reach the halfway mark in our Advent journey. We have waded through the darkness, but like the dawn, it is getting progressively brighter as we get closer to Christmas.
This Sunday is known as Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the Latin word “Rejoice,” and it harkens to Paul’s words in Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Though we’ve been wrestling with some heavy themes these past few weeks, this Sunday is a splash of color (a splash of rose color), and it’s a clear sign that we are moving towards the great celebration of Jesus’ incarnation. Hope is rising out of the muddled human predicament.
Nothing sums up this joy more than what we read in place of the psalm this morning, Canticle 15, known as the Magnificat. In this beautiful song, Mary proclaims the greatness of the Lord when she hears that she will give birth to the Messiah.
Though by the standards of the world she was a nobody—a poor Jewish girl whose nation was under Roman occupation—God said that he was going to use her to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor. The invasion of God into enemy territory began in the womb of this young woman.
In this spirit of Isaiah 61 she says, “[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy.”
When she hears what God is about to do for her and the world she can’t help but burst into song about God’s faithfulness. We’re reminded that Christians are called to be joyful while we wait for the Lord’s return because of who we know God is. He is good and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.
Isaiah and Mary were confident that they could trust the character of God—that his judgment would ultimately be in service to his love and mercy. That even those of us held captive in darkness, God’s rescue operation would not leave us behind.
He has come for us once and he shall come again, let us rejoice! Gaudete!
3rd Sunday of Advent. Year B. Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. Lk 1:46-55. Advent by Fleming Rutledge.