January 5, 2014 Second Sunday After Christmas
The Age of Liberation
Micah 4:1-5, 5:2-4, Psalm 65, Isaiah 61:1-3, St. Matthew 2:19-23
In my time working with prison inmates I found myself speculating more than a few times on which ones were free. Some, by God’s grace, had found release from the old demons and vices that had kept them in bondage. Others had not.
I learned I am not much of a prophet in determining which are which. But this discernment becomes easier when a man leaves prison on parole. If he chafes at the conditions of parole – monthly reporting, urinalyses, substance abuse classes, anger management classes, home visits, work visits and so on – he is probably not free.
The one who accepts these constraints gracefully likely latched onto liberty gratefully when he was inside the wire. He has cast off the old life and put on the new. Having no yearning now to offend against man’s laws, he treats his parole officer’s intrusions into his life as minor inconveniences which he deserves as the fruit of his earlier bad behavior.
And so the one who is more willingly restricted is the one who is more free; a curious thing, this freedom.
"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound . . .”
So begins our passage from Isaiah 61, just the first three verses. In this trinity of verses we find the three Persons of the Godhead, the first and second comings of our Lord, God’s grace and His judgment, His restoration of His people . . . We may be here for a while.
This is the passage we hear our Lord Jesus quoting in St. Luke’s fourth chapter. Jesus goes to the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth on the Sabbath. He stands up to read and an attendant hands Him the book of the prophet Isaiah; Jesus seeks out what we know as chapter 61 and begins to read.
He reads this first verse, then continues as verse 2 begins, “To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord . . .” And He stops – in the middle of a sentence. This “acceptable year of the Lord” is the Year of Jubilee that Yahweh had mandated for His covenant people Israel.
It was each 50th year, following seven Sabbaths of years, and in it every displaced land owner received his property back and every slave received his freedom. Here is the Old Testament’s great proclamation of liberty.
Jesus then closes the book and returns it to the attendant and sits down. With the eyes of everyone present fixed on him and all ears itching for His next word, Jesus says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
He has just claimed for Himself the mantle of the One on whom the Spirit of God rests, the One whom Isaiah foretold as the great Healer and Liberator. The congregation accepts this revelation with some awe but without rancor . . . but then Jesus produces Old Testament examples of God bypassing rebellious Israel and showering His saving grace on gentiles.
His hearers arise in a rage and flush Him out of the synagogue and force Him to a hill outside of town, intent on throwing Him off of a cliff and down to His doom. If not for a supernatural escape, He would have met His end there.
But Jesus had more work to do.
With this great brouhaha following His sermon, it appears that no one ever paused to reflect on the fact that Jesus left out of His Scripture reading something I think we must regard as more than a trifle important.
He proclaimed that coming year of the Lord’s favor and freedom, the Year of Jubilee, but omitted the rest of the sentence: “. . . and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Grace without judgment? Is this the same Lord Jesus we encounter in the rest of the Holy Writ? Indeed He is. He has limited the prophetic utterance to that part that applies to His first coming, in which He will set the captives free.
Only at His second coming will He impose God’s vengeance on the world.
We live in the age of liberation. Isaiah’s prophecy reaches its crescendo here. In the previous chapter he has declared God’s blessing on Zion. Now, in chapter 61, the prophet reveals how God will accomplish it.
Messiah, the Anointed One who will heal God’s people and set them free, is the One who does the work of the suffering Servant the prophet has been describing. Messiah and Servant are one in the same. Liberty will come to God’s people by the sacrifice of His Servant who will suffer in their place:
“He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities . . . by His stripes we are healed” (53:5). And from the New Testament, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners . . .” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Who but God could conceive of triumph through humiliation, of life by way of death? Is this the plan of man? Who but God could define freedom from sin as enslavement to righteousness, as our Lord does through St. Paul in his letter to the Romans?
Men treat liberty like an old Frisbee, to be tossed about and scraped on the pavement and left out in the rain – as long as it’s someone else’s liberty. Everyone agrees there must be curbs on it: Your freedom ends where my nose begins.
And because opinions differ on where to draw the line, cynics and oppressors move the line to suit their tastes. We live in a cynical time, an age in which, we’re told, nothing can be known to a certainty; in which, we’re told, truth can be shaped and reshaped like Play-Dough. In our time, the line doesn’t merely move, it wriggles and squiggles.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn disappeared in chains into the Soviet gulag. When at last he emerged in tatters he taught us the extent of the cynicism. The Russian revolution rubbed out all the old lines and imposed movable new ones.
Government policy, rather than any foundational document, became the standard, and government policy was prone to change. So it was that a political dissenter could vanish into the gulag because the freedom of the many demanded that nothing and no one should counter state control.
If the dissenter fell ill under the strains of forced labor, poor nutrition and poorer medical care and was unable to work, he could be killed; his death served the interests of the state, and thus the good of the free citizens of the people’s republic.
Solzhenitsyn had time to reflect. When he completed his eight years in the gulag – this was regarded as a mild sentence – during which he almost died of cancer, he learned that without any new proceedings against him the state was exiling him to the outer reaches of the empire in Central Asia.
This, too, he survived, and still he had many years to think and write, first in the United States and later in post-Soviet Russia, because, somehow, he lived to age 95. Asked to consider what had gone so horribly wrong in his homeland, he said:
“Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.’
“Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval.
“But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.’”
I think it’s safe to assume that Solzhenitsyn would agree that God does a better job of defining liberty and setting its limits than does man. He could grasp far better than we the aptness of the prophet Isaiah’s metaphor of captivity and prisoners.
God demands perfection of those who would dwell with Him – “Be holy for I am holy” – and perfection comes through completion. To be perfect, we must be whole, and wholeness entails the absence of any spot or blemish.
To be whole, we must be free – from sin. Once again, Isaiah illustrates for us the captivity of God’s people of our time in sin with a picture of God’s people of old in exile.
Prison is a place of spiritual darkness, and those of us who have never known incarceration may be less free than some who are marking off the days inside the wire right now.
This is the day of completion that brings liberation. When the Lord returns He will bring the day of vengeance. Until that terrible, wonderful time, all who draw breath may find wholeness and perfection – and the salvation that comes with it. Where do we find it?
We look to the One anointed with the Spirit of God. We cannot locate it in ourselves. The Anointed One has come “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound . . .”
He has preached good tidings to the poor, who are the poor in spirit – those who have humbled themselves and thrown themselves on His mercy. This Anointed One is the first to preach good tidings – the gospel – and the Healer of the broken-hearted – those who carry in their hearts the weariness of this world and feel in their bones the burden of their sin.
If we are free, it is because we have found wholeness in Him, the One who is perfect. Just as He is both Messiah and Servant, He is both the first to preach the good news and the Good News itself – or should I say Himself?
He is complete because He is One in Three, and Three in One. Who performs this miraculous feat of throwing open the locked and double-bolted doors of the prison of our sin? “The Spirit (the Holy Spirit) of the Lord GOD (the Father above) is upon Me (God the Son) . . .”
Each and every Person of the Trinity takes a part in our healing and our liberation. He is All in All, complete in three Persons and perfect in His unity.
A literal translation would tell not of healing the brokenhearted but of “bandaging those whose hearts are broken.” The prophet uses the same word elsewhere to refer to oozing, unbandaged wounds that result from sin. And the Anointed One will “proclaim liberty” in the way a king proclaims an amnesty.
But no human king could deliver what this one promises; only Messiah can usher in a reign of perfect justice, righteousness and peace.
He will console those who mourn in Zion, the eternal City of God, taking from them the sackcloth that covers their bodies and the ashes that rest upon their heads and replacing them with beauty – a festive headdress – and the costly oil scented with joy.
And He will lift away the spirit of heaviness and exchange for it the garment of praise, an effusion of gladness for the glory of God. The former mourners are transformed into trees of righteousness – unmoving, permanent, abundant. It is the Lord who has planted them. Why?
That God may be glorified.
Through His Servant, it is He who has done for them – for us – what we could not do for ourselves. He has set us free from sin and made us complete in His perfection – when we cry out to Him for salvation.
As the Father by the Spirit anointed the Son to proclaim freedom to the captives, the Son has sent the Spirit to anoint the ones the Father has chosen to spend eternity with Him. Will you not bless His holy name?
We claim freedom in wholeness, and we discover wholeness in a life wholly dedicated to God, who closes the circle. When He heals He seals the rupture we have made with our sin and restores us to the innocence of Eden. The man He created without sin He has re-created without sin.
And now, St. Paul teaches us, “all things work together for good.” For whom? “To those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
At our Lord’s second coming we will see the day of vengeance, the annihilation of evil in His creation. We populate the age of completion, of restoration. All He asks of us is that we ask healing of Him.
I have never met a survivor of the gulag. They must be harder than steel. The prisoners I have known over here are nothing like that. Some know how to look tough and talk tough. Many, I have no doubt, I would regret meeting in a dark alley.
But as emotional beings, I have often suspected, they would shatter like glass at a mere cross glance. Spiritually, we are all they, unable to escape our captivity, desperately in need of our Father’s Son, anointed by His Spirit, to heal us and make us whole . . . and perfect in Him . . . and free. Amen.