Rejoice in Joy

Today’s title is brought to you by the Redundancy Department of Redundancy. Isaiah sets up some heavy expectations in our lesson today. A servant of God is on the way. This one will bring justice and righteousness, and will do so with gentleness, meekness, silence, even. The blind will see, the prisoners will go free. What we have known is gone; something brand new is happening!

Our text today was likely written when the ancient Israelites were in captivity in Babylon. They mourned what they lost when the Babylonian Empire conquered them, stormed Jerusalem, leveled the temple to the ground, and carried them east. And now, there seems to be a hint of the Persians rising even further east, led by King Cyrus. Could it be that he could topple Babylon and send the captives home?

When we read this text during Advent, it sets us up for hearing it in a certain way. The servant Isaiah describes is Jesus – he is the gentle one who will bring these grand concepts into being, things like justice and righteousness. He is the one who will be crushed. He is the one whose birth we await, whose ministry we follow, whose dying and rising again are our cause for hope.

And yet, whatever the Spirit may have intended for the understanding of this text, what was likely heard, initially, was God’s promise to the ancient Israelites that they would be that servant. As a people, they would act as a collective light to the world, a gentle people whose own way of being would exemplify justice and righteousness the way they ought to be.

Echoing Isaiah, I’ve been throwing these terms around: justice, righteousness; but what do they actually mean? I have talked before about how we tend to associate “righteousness” with the individual, living rightly and piously and correctly; and that we tend to associate “justice” with communities, creating a society that is fair and equitable, where wrong is punished and good is rewarded.

That said, in the Biblical languages, there is actually very little to distinguish them from each other. They are so overlapped and intertwined that it seems almost silly to have two separate words at all. In any case, there they are, our goal posts: righteousness and justice.

So in light of these words, given the call of God’s people to be agents of justice and righteousness, how are we doing?

It seems like an important conversation for us to have. Horrific words like “torture” and “racism” are emblazoned across our headlines, far cries from concepts like “justice” and “righteousness”.

Before I say anything else, though, I want to say this: I have no idea what I’m supposed to say about any of this today. The past two Sundays, I have talked about the grand jury verdicts of Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, and about the Department of Justice’s report on the Cleveland Police Department. I know that to speak about these things again today risks going too far for some of you.

It’s not that I have a problem with making us uncomfortable; after all, if the purpose of preaching is to speak to the gospel, then we should all, including the preacher, be at least a little bit uncomfortable. That’s not the issue for me. It’s a little more complicated.

Sermons are monologues, not conversations. And if my preaching is marked by what some would call “ambulance chasing”, following issue after issue, week after week, then we risk becoming superficial, losing interest as soon as the news cycle does. We also risk becoming a church that only talks about the issues that the pastor cares about. And that’s a problem, too. More than that, I think we can do better. I think we can go deeper and wider in all of this.

When we look at the world around us, we should be able to see beyond liberal and conservative, democrat and republican. We should be able to examine these things as matters of faith, discerning where it is that grace and sin are at work, where it is that we are called to minister, and how it is that we are to act as God’s agents, Christ’s hands and feet.

And then I look back at our history as a congregation. Hanging out in the hallway is a framed reprint of the front page of the Atlanta Journal from 1957. 80 pastors, including our own, signed an open letter calling on Atlanta schools to follow the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1960, the leadership of Oglethorpe took a stand on the role of race in worship, by affirming that they would “continue the present policy of seating anyone presenting themselves for worship.” The subtext is rich here. At the time, churches were becoming not only informally segregated, but formally so. African-American Christians were testing that resolve, arriving to worship in so-called “white” churches. In many cases, they were turned away, sometimes conveniently labeled as “agitators”. I am proud to say we made a very different decision, saying that all are welcome to worship here.

At our twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, we invited Ambassador Andrew Young as our guest preacher. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1974, some considered inviting an African-American into the pulpit a step too far.

This is our legacy, of taking stands that spoke out for justice and righteousness as we saw them. None of these, of course, happened without controversy, but they did happen. And, I can’t help but notice, they all happened decades ago.

Look: I honestly don’t know what our next step should be. As I’ve said the last two Sundays, the issue of the treatment of young black men at the hands of police is not going away. What began as individual protests has now been galvanized into a movement. If the Christ child, whose birth we await again, was truly Emmanuel, God with us, then surely the church must be enfleshed in justice and righteousness in this broken world. I don’t know what the church is called to do, but I do know that we are not called just to sit by and watch.

Fifteen years ago, I was working in Wilmette, a Chicago north shore suburb. That summer, a young white supremacist from Wilmette went on a shooting spree. He ended up killing himself, but not before killing and wounding several others. One of his victims was Ricky Byrdsong, the African-American coach of Northwestern University’s basketball team.

While our church had no connection to the young gunman, the fact that he was from our town was a bit of a wake-up call. Out of that tragedy, our senior pastor and Coach Byrdsong’s pastor struck up a friendship. That friendship grew to include the leadership circles of both churches, and then eventually broader partnerships between the two congregations. This all happened in the year prior to my ordination, and so I cherish the memory of Byrdsong’s church being a part of that service.

As vivid as that was, the moment that stands out more than any other was the first time our leadership circles got together at our church in Wilmette for conversation and coffee. They shared with us what it was like to be black and drive into Wilmette from Evanston, and how they often took a deep breath before doing so, especially at night. We were stunned! We had no idea. In short, it was a glimpse of our own sleepy little town through their eyes.

This is what justice and righteousness do: bring sight to the blind, wisdom to fools, freedom to the prisoner. And when those moments happen, they are causes for joy.

Where have you seen where you once were blind? Where have you heard where you once were deaf? Where have you been freed where you once were captive? Where have you been enriched where you once were poor?

When the world seems hopeless, our causes for celebration remind us that God is not finished with us yet.