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Based on the Scripture reading:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

2005 December 11
Third Sunday of Advent
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

What Does It Mean?

Starting a little over one hundred years ago, Bible scholars began to ask a four word question that still drives Fundamentalists crazy today. There are similar questions asked in the study of law and the interpretation of the Constitution as well as in medicine and other fields. But this scholars' question in faith has led to countless serious arguments and radical applications of ancient texts that bring some people to self-mutilation, others to bomb medical clinics, and still others to organize Christian churches for one political party in America, although sometimes I wish all parties could learn this trick. Anyway this four word question divides people in their opinion of the virgin birth, the ordination of gays and lesbians, the propriety of slavery, and the understanding of whether Jesus' body started out in a manger, walked on water, or physically left the tomb to eat fish and bread. These four words are at the heart of much of what has divided the many members of the Body of Christ across the globe and across time.

Do you want to know them? Do you want to know the words that send fundamentalists beyond the boiling point faster than they could go from zero to sixty in a Porsche? The words seem so innocuous to me. They are, "what does it mean?" What does it mean?

Now, in the late 19th century this question about Bible texts was always paired with another one that came first: "What did it mean?" It was never the intent of scholars to neglect a look at what some lawyers call Original Intent. Bible professors always wonder what something meant to its first readers and hearers, but starting about one hundred years before I went to divinity school, they added that second question knowing that when you read certain things two thousand years after they were penned upon papyrus, you benefit from having both angles in mind. Back to topWhat did it mean and what does it mean? Remember that and you can get three advanced placement credits in divinity school.

Now for three preaching credits, let me reveal that this is also what I do whenever I sit down to write a sermon. I ask both questions. Probably they seem logical and obvious to you, but then we don't have too many clinic bombers in Newton. The truth is that asking the second question doesn't mean it's more important than the first: sometimes what a passage once meant is more important than what it means now. But other times contemporary insights and interpretations bring something alive that would otherwise be dead.

Whenever you turn to the Advent and Christmas scriptures, you have to ask both questions to get the whole story. I wouldn't say this on Christmas Eve, but haven't you noticed that in one gospel Jesus is laid in a manger and in one he rests in a house? What does that mean? Do you recall that shepherds were considered scurrilous and deceptive -- bad witnesses -- but that the ones near Bethlehem probably kept the spotless sheep for temple sacrifice? What does that mean? Have you pondered the fact that tradition allowed not only parents but a whole community to name children back in Mary's time, yet neither John the Baptist nor Jesus' families were allowed this privilege? How about that? Oh, and the virgin thing: again, not for Christmas Eve preaching. Wasn't this a mis-translation of a scripture that had to do with a prophecy about something entirely different to begin with? Original intent could really help here, but we ask, "What does this mean to us today?"

When you review them, Advent and Christmas have many more scriptures dealing with poverty and revolution than with innocence and miraculous angel music. They have much more to do with genealogy than with animal husbandry. And today's text is no different. I want to say a word about what it meant, but I have to ask you, what does it mean?

About ten chapters of Isaiah were written at a time when the exiles from the Holy Land and from Jerusalem were returning from Babylonian captivity. And they were anxiety-ridden, and since they had been away from home for so long, there were competing leaders hoping to guide the new nation, and since their enemies had been in charge of their original homeland, they were returning to a devastated, ruined place. As it turned out, there was also a class conflict present, with the wealthy and powerful folks saying, "Let's rebuild the temple area to its former glory," which could be good for tourism, and the spokespeople for the poor saying, Back to top"The creation of an egalitarian community is all that's important to God."

Now let me stop right here for just a moment. Exiles returning to a destroyed place and suffering from differing views due to a class conflict. Do you think this material would preach in New Orleans this year? I think so, but let me tell you a little more.

Isaiah sided with the poor. He wanted people's return and rebuilding to show God's glory. And while many other prophets used the word of God to argue their cases, Isaiah was one of perhaps three who said he had not only the word but the spirit of God, which was a very big deal. And the spirit of God told him that righteousness is what it takes to rebuild Zion, not temples, and he went so extraordinarily far as to say that this is true even if you are a foreigner. No matter who you are, if your are righteous, you're in. And remember: no one was more excluded, untouchable, or despised than foreigners, so this meant something big and means something big, too.

Today we get this half a chapter about the vision for restoration, and while we read in English, the Hebrew reveals that all five groups that are about to get good things -- the afflicted, the broken-hearted, the captives, the mourning, the bound -- all these groups are synonyms for one group: the righteous poor. The spirit of God has Isaiah saying five different ways that the judgment of the new society from divine perspective will be based on how it treats the poor. Or, backwards, God wants to treat the poor in ways that make them priests and royalty, which is what all that stuff about oil and mantles and garlands and jewels meant: that's the stuff that the closest to God and the most privileged in society all get.

From beginning to end, this Advent scripture used to mean that if we yearn for what God yearns for then we're yearning to change the way that the poor in society are treated. If we're honest, what we've had up until now is falling apart. And God doesn't want us just to gild our lilies, ever. The original intent of this bit is to require that readers liberate, comfort, heal, and rebuild the world of the poor. So that is what an honest fundamentalist would see in this passage. Now, what does it mean, to us?

I'm almost afraid to ask. But I can say this. We don't know exactly when or where Jesus was born. We don't know exactly how he was conceived or named. We don't know if anyone ever really gave him frankincense or if anyone ever really touched his wounds after he was executed. But we do know this: Jesus was born poor. He worked the life of a poor peasant and mostly preached to peasants. We know that his family was poor and we know that if God was somehow in him, somehow touching him, God knows the experience of the poor. We know that other than despotic and misguided rulers of church and state, other than deceivers and betrayers, almost no one else is mentioned in the scriptures any more than the poor. So even in the days getting ready for Christmas, Back to topfor Emmanuel, it would be wrong not to talk about the poor. What does that mean?

Well, it means when we have our capital campaign, it is of central value to share a tithe from our bounty with those in need from other building projects. It means when we review our church budget this month and the time that we spend on church volunteer work, it is important to examine what we've done, each year, to make sure that our work engages the needs of the poor. It means that when we each make our year-end donations, the plight of the poor is essential to Christian decision. It means when we vote in elections, the treatment and concern for the poor should influence us. It means when we look at ourselves and wonder whether we are rich or poor, we can compare ourselves to Jesus' original community and find ways to be in contact, whether that means reaching up or reaching down.

Now do you see why fundamentalists get worried and avoid this question of meaning? It's because compassion takes more than conservatism, or it isn't Biblical. War against the poor isn't Biblical. Inclusiveness is Biblical. Self-examination is. And building new communities which by their egalitarian spirit show God's glory is, too.

I'm not suggesting that anyone I know is perfect at this. Certainly I am not. But that's what it meant. I think that's still what it means. When God is with us, that is clearer. When Jesus is born in us, it brings joy to the whole world.


Copyright 2005 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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