“Garments of Salvation”
A Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B; preached December 14, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“The night is darkest before the morn,” an old hymn testifies; so too that “when the pain is sorest the child is born.” Every year around mid-November, our scripture readings for worship take us into dark texts about the end times and a coming day of the Lord, and you indulge me as we pull out the old Pilgrim Hymnals and sing number 417, “The Day of the Lord Is at Hand”, the old hymn from which that testimony comes.
But any of us who have spent much time with the story of God and the stories of the Bible shouldn’t need an obscure 19th-century English hymn to remind us of these truths. One of the major themes throughout the Bible and its diverse testimony of God and God’s people is that when those people are in the most dire of circumstances… in the darkest of days and the deepest of troubles… when Plan A fails and people have gone through plan B, plan C, and even all the way past plan Z… when hope seems no more and they think they’ve been forgotten… just at that moment, God shows up. The cry is heard. The people are rescued. Salvation finds a new beginning.
The five hundred thirteen prisoners of war who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines during World War II, they came to know this, too. The prisoners had basically given up hope after three years of brutal imprisonment. Many others had died during the long forced march itself. Still others had died of malnutrition, or disease, or execution. The survivors knew the probability of their being rescued and liberated was remote, to say the least. They weren’t even sure anyone knew where they were.
Then on one unforgettable day in January 1945, a hundred-and-twenty-one US Rangers emerged from the jungle. After only a brief skirmish, the camp guards fled, and the gates were thrown open.
In his 2002 book about the rescue, which was made into a move in 2005, historian and journalist Hampton Sides writes:
Slowly, the awareness that this was a jailbreak was beginning to sink in among the rest of the prisoners. They were reacting with a kind of catatonic ecstasy, numb and inarticulate. One prisoner wrapped his arms around the neck of the first Ranger he saw and kissed him on the forehead. All he could he say was “Oh, boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy!” Alvie Robbins found one prisoner muttering in a darkened corner of one of the barracks, tears coursing down his face. “I thought we’d been forgotten,” the prisoner said. “No, you’re not forgotten,” Robbins said. “We’ve come for you.”
In our scripture reading from Isaiah this morning, speaking the word of liberation released profound joy, laughter: a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning (vs. 3). So too in the prison camp there were tears of joy and laughter:
‘I was glad it was dark so he couldn’t see my tears,’ Tommie Thomas remembered years later. The Rangers didn’t know that the camp held prisoners from other nations: Norwegians, Canadians, Dutch, and British. After the camp was secured, a Ranger cried out, ‘You’re free—all Americans assemble at the main gate!’ To which one of the proper English prisoners yelled gleefully, ‘I’m not American, but shall I come too?’
With the help of many heroic Philippinos, the liberated prisoners, sick, weak, frail, made their way all the way back to the Allied lines. Finally they saw an American flag set in the turret of a tank. It wasn’t much of a flag, but for the men it was galvanizing. Ralph Hibbs remembers that his heart stopped. It was the first Stars and Stripes he’d seen since the surrender three years earlier. “We wept openly, and we wept without shame”
They were free. They were home. They weren’t forgotten at all.
But, indeed, as I’ve said, if there is anything the Bible seems to be pretty clear on, it’s this over-and-over again reality of God showing up when the night is darkest and the pain sorest and the situation most hopeless. When God’s people are in slavery in Egypt, God hears their cries and is moved and sends Moses on a mission. The seas are parted, the people are liberated, and there is rejoicing, laughter, dancing even.
These kinds of tears, this sort of laughter, these shouts of joy… of the World War II prisoner, of Miriam as she danced on the shores of the Red Sea, of the people on who’s behalf Isaiah spoke… they’re a far cry from what much of the world is preoccupied with around us this time of year. Here we are in church on this third Sunday of Advent thinking about oppression, captivity, and liberation, while all around us the holiday parties are in full swing, our halls are bedecked in gay apparel, our recycling bins bulge with the newest pile of holiday sales flyers, and the shopping mall sound systems are ablaze with ever-cheesier renditions of the classics… all of it with the ability to numb and to nag… none of it with the power to truly liberate.
Distinguished preacher John Buchannan retired not that long ago from his long tenure as senior pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. The remarkable congregation of that church occupies a grand neo-Gothic building that would qualify as monumental just about anywhere else, but seated 2/3rds of the way up Chicago’s famous “Magnificent Mile” retail district, the church’s tower is dwarfed by the John Hancock Tower right across Michigan Avenue and its lights blend in to the blaze of the store marquees. In the midst of the Christmas shopping season, it could be easy to despair trying to do church in such a setting, with the numbers in the pews paling in comparison to the throngs of consumerism-driven shoppers on the streets outside, even there in a congregation that is one of the largest in its denomination. But Buchannan did not despair. In fact, in a sermon preached this same mid-December weekend over a decade ago, he said “It’s great to be a church in this place on this weekend. Never is the contrast between church and culture more dramatic. It’s Christmas out there, but it is still very much Advent in here. You can hear Christmas carols in Water Tower Place; here we’re singing ‘Watchmen Tell Us of the Night.’ With a delightful dedication bordering on grim determination, the sidewalks are full of shoppers. In here, we’re almost hunkered down, asked to do serious introspection, invited to deal with serious ideas, invited to open our ears and minds to a love that can seriously transform us.”
Now, perhaps that sounds a little depressing and dreadful to you. Why would we want to “hunker down” and do “serious introspection” when there’s much fun and lots of toys to be had? Besides that, here in America we Christians aren’t very used to being in “contrast” to the rest of the culture… especially us more liberal- or progressive-identifying Christians. Appearing at odds with the culture, that’s the shtick of those other Christians, isn’t it?
But standing there in the midst of the shopping frenzy of North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the reality of this contrast—and moreover, the gift in it—was abundantly clear to Buchannan. “The Christian claim” he said, “is not that the cultural celebration of Christmas is wrong, just misleading. The Christian claim [is] that what is transpiring out there, while in many ways nice and in a lot of ways great fun, will not ultimately live up to its promises. It will not make us happy, fulfilled, or content for very long. It will surely not make us free, as anyone knows who sits in dread waiting for the January Visa bill to arrive. The Christian claim is that the birth of the baby in Bethlehem is about that—releasing us from our prisons, our liberation from captivity.”
Releasing us from our prisons, liberating us from our captivities… that’s good news in downtown Chicago… and it’s good news on a hilltop in Storrs, in a hollow in Mansfield, on a neighborhood street in Willimantic or Rockville, in a hall-of-power in Hartford or Boston or Washington.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” the prophet proclaims, “because the Lord has anointed me;[and] 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.” The Isaiah we hear in today’s reading does not say these things because they are obvious. Like those faithful worshippers at Buchannan’s church who would dare to sing the yearning tones of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and cry out the plea, “Come, Lord Jesus” while right outside their doors the tinsel sparkles and the cash registers chime, the prophet spoke words of hope and healing and freedom in the midst of their very opposite.
Having been liberated from their generations-long exile in Babylon, the people found themselves in a new prison back home: disappointment their chains and disillusionment their bondage. Freedom from exile, as it turns out, didn’t mean freedom from themselves and their own shortfalls. The people—or at least the portion of the people Isaiah spoke for—were seeking to restore themselves as a holy and pure people back in their homeland, a people who walked in the true ways of the Lord. But as the time went on, the picture of life back in their homeland wasn’t nearly as rosy as they’d hoped. Injustice and lack of concern for the disadvantaged seemed to rule the day. The ruling groups co-opted the efforts to re-establish worship and rebuild the temple, and what was happening didn’t reflect the faithfulness called for from God’s people, at least as Isaiah understood it.
Life today for us here in North America, in many ways it’s not all that different. As a society, we have every token of material blessing at our fingertips, and yet still we find ourselves feeling hollow rather than hallowed. Moreover, even for all the great promises with which we’ve been christened as a nation and a people—a place where “all men are [supposedly] created equal” in the so-called “land of opportunity” where Lady Liberty stands at the gate purportedly welcoming “the huddled masses yearning to be free”—still we open the newspapers and news feeds to the headlines of Ferguson and Eric Garner, to the stories of immigrant deportation and discrimination, to statistics of an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.
In the midst of all evidence to the contrary for the ancient people, though, this prophet Isaiah found joy in being called to proclaim a different reality. Anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to proclaim good news and liberty and comfort, the prophet himself enters into the joy of the promise he proclaims. The same one who testifies that he has been sent to bring the good news says that he “will greatly rejoice in the Lord … for [the Lord] has clothed me with the garments of salvation … [and] covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Simply the word of God’s great reversal begins to bring about that reversal. Just like the word of freedom and liberation brought about tears of joy in those prisoners of war even though they still had a long way home before them, so too the word of a hope beyond hopes begins to bring about the very thing it foretells.
In just a few moments, we here in this congregation will renew once again our commitment and partnership with Covenant to Care for Children. Through Covenant to Care and its programs of advocacy and assistance for neglected, abused, and impoverished children in our area and around our state, a word of hope is proclaimed in the midst of what seems its opposite. Through this ministry and so many others, we speak the word that says “you’ve not been forgotten” even when all the rest of the objective signs in the world speak to the contrary. And in speaking that word of a different reality, that different reality begins to break in. As one scholar writes, the prophet “plants herself in the present, in all its blessedness and mire, and says God is present here. She declares a new world and in this bold, courageous declaration God acts. In the very act of speaking a God-inspired word of consolation and hope, the prophecy comes to life in our midst as we lift our hands to serve our neighbor and move our feet to go to the most desolate places and discover there that God and God’s servants are very much alive, very much present. We find that those desolate places are not so desolate after all.”
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; [and] 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 as that baby born in Bethlehem would years later come to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Charles Kingsley, “The Day of the Lord Is at Hand”, in Pilgrim Hymnal (Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1958), #417.
 Thanks for pointing the way to this illustration (in this and subsequent paragraphs) go to John Buchannan in his sermon “Born to Set Thy People Free”, delivered at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinios, 15 December 2002, which I directly quote and acknowledge later in the sermon; manuscript accessed 13 December 2014 at http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2002/121502.html.
 Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers (New York: Anchor, 2002).
 John Buchannan, “Born to Set Thy People Free”, sermon delivered at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinios, 15 December 2002; manuscript accessed 13 December 2014 at http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2002/121502.html; quoting Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers.