The Gospel of Deliverance
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Quincy Vermont Street UMC
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
December 14, 2014
If any city of the world understands the gospel of deliverance, it is Jerusalem. One of the oldest cities in the world, “Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times.” Experience has taught her citizens or inhabitants that countless nations and conquerors will always be interested in possessing her. Now the capital of the state of Israel, the Holy City Jerusalem, was captured from Jordan in 1967 during the Six Day War. Even today, tensions are being played out between Christian, Moslem and Jew in Zion. All of this begs the question. Who is the next conqueror waiting in the wings to capture or liberate Jerusalem?
Our scripture for today draws on this history. Isaiah’s fellow exiles are in Babylon, wards of the state and their conqueror Nebuchadnezzar. Without any proof that his prophecy will be fulfilled, Isaiah raises new hope for God’s people in Babylon and Jerusalem. One day, their sadness will end. One day, God will liberate them. One day, they, their children, or their children’s children will leave the sorrows of Babylon behind. But until then, the gospel of deliverance will have to do. The Word or The Message must feed their souls and bodies until the new Pharaoh let God’s people go. So what are the living conditions of the Babylonian exiles?
First, the exiles are in Babylon, 500 miles from home. They dream of home, want to go home, worry about home, long for the comforts of home. All the wishing, hoping, singing and praying about “I’ll be home for Christmas” is useless because it’s not going to happen. Israel has no army or allies willing and able to extract them from the clutches of their powerful conqueror Nebuchadnezzar. Many resign themselves to slavery as certain patients give themselves over to death when a doctor says, “You have three months to live.”
Second, life as a captive means familiarity with chains, working for peanuts, being watched constantly, newborns doomed to a life of servitude, or accepting a mantra of hope without believing in the reality a change is going to come. Psalm 137 describes the difficulty of Isaiah task.
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows ther, we hung up our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs and our tormenters mirth saying sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
And yet, my ancestors sang and composed the songs of Zion under the drumbeat of American slavery John Wesley called “an execrable villainy.” Negro spirituals offered hope and the gospel of deliverance. Messaged with double meanings, hearers understood trouble won’t last always. You’ve heard these words. “Sometimes, I feel discouraged and think my works in vain but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sinsick soul.”
Third, maybe the 400 year history of Jewish enslavement in Egypt stripped the Babylonian exiles of hope. I know that God sent Moses to help free them. I know it took 40 years to cross the desert and get to the Promised Land, that God fed them with the bread of heaven. I know liberation and freedom came but it took a long time just like answers to longstanding prayers. Among the Babylonian exiles, who had 400 hundred years ahead of them? Who had 40 years of life left to get back to Zion? None of them: of course. Said differently, if medical researchers find a cure for cancer, emphysema, blindness, SIDS, the Ebola Virus, AIDS, Malaria or Parkinson’s disease 400 years from now, what good will that do persons wrestling with these diseases now? Wouldn’t the gospel of deliverance be too late for them? They’d be dead and gone. Not necessarily. The gospel of deliverance has many facets mental, spiritual, physical etc.
I stumbled across an interview of Muhammad Ali by Bryant Gumbel in 1991. Then, he could still talk although Parkinson’s disease had removed his clarity of speech. Twenty-three years later, Parkinson’s disease has tightened its grip on every aspect of his life. Without the help of his wife and the assistance of others, Ali could not fully engage in public life or private. Still, his thirty year struggle with Parkinson’s disease has launched him on journey of spiritual growth and development that none of his battles in the boxing ring nor Uncle Sam could match. It is as if Ali and the 27th Psalm have been glued together. “The Lord is my light and my salvation whom shall I fear.” Translated, Ali doesn’t fear the imprisoning effects of Parkinson’s anymore; rather he fears estrangement from God in this age and the age to come. He fears having gained the whole world and lost his soul. By faith, God renews Ali’s strength daily to be accountable to God and neighbor even as PD tightens its grip on every aspect of his body.
Ali’s dependence on God mirrors the way Isaiah enabled God’s people to get through their daily journey in captivity. To hear that God wants to be on their side, that God cares for them and that God has not abandoned them is enough to renew their faith in God. In the prophetic Word of Isaiah, “God’s chosen people see, feel and know the emergence of hope.” Maybe God is speaking the same words of hope to us today as we go through our own time of exile, redemption and release. When our Lord began his public ministry, he used the same words of Isaiah to lift people’s spirits. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to peach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught us something about the gospel of deliverance. George Whitefield invited Wesley to Bristol to do Field Preaching. Using Isaiah 61, the same words Jesus used, launch his ministry in Nazareth. John Wesley preached to a crowd of about 3000 people outside. He’d never done it like that before. Two comments, first, Wesley thought “the saving of souls and repenting almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” Had John Wesley temporarily forgotten about the desert preaching and the saving of souls by John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord? Second, more people heard John Wesley’s message of repentance and spiritual renewal than ever heard him in church. After that, Wesley continued field preaching for the rest of his ministry. More people came to Methodism by that route than any other method, shades of Peter and Pentecost. Quite frankly, more people may be tuned in to this worship service from Vermont Street UMC than members of the church can imagine or think.
Preparing this sermon, I learned that I’m guilty of over emphasizing a major reality of the Babylonian exile and saying nothing about the other. I’ve said that Nebuchadnezzar blitzed the Holy City, that he took the cream of the crop with him e.g. skilled artisans, the royal family, honored priests and well-spoken citizens and other persons of worth. Though captive, these exiles saw the bright lights of Babylon. What I failed to emphasize enough was right in front of me. Nebuchadnezzar left behind so-called persons of little value. In his mind, certain Jewish citizens had little or nothing to contribute to Babylon. Those citizens had to fend for themselves and begin the task of rebuilding the Holy City.
Excerpts from Lamentations 1: ff provides a glimpse of what they faced.
“How lonely sits the city, she that was full of people!! How like a widow she has become; she that was great among nations…” but no more.
One commentator painted another graphic picture. Everybody left behind had no choice but “to stand at ground zero and witness the collapse of the city around them.” Jerusalem looked like ground zero of 9/11 in New York City, the devastation wrought by atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, destroyed homes, businesses and lives in Washington and Gifford, Illinois pummeled by devastating tornados several years ago. These poor citizens have no place to go. They cannot leave. To carry on, they must call on God as never before to help them make a way out of no way. A cry for deliverance goes up to God and God answers.
Last but not least, Isaiah offered another rationale, or interpretation, for the predicament of God’s chosen people. Other gods became the object of their devotion. Israel forgot about the God that had brought them out of the house of bondage, took care of them for forty long years in the desert, fed them with the bread of heaven and brought them to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Despite all this care, the people of God turned away from God. Power, prestige, money and selfishness became their God. Israel expected God to serve them not them serving God. Consequently, the judgment God brought down on Jerusalem was the fall of the city. That’s how God used Nebuchadnezzar.
At the same time the prophet Isaiah informs Israel that there is a price to be paid for our sins; God is figuring out a way to redeem his people and bring them home again. The word of God from Isaiah causes the people of God to repent in Babylon and Jerusalem and prepare the way of the Lord.
Some may ask, what is repentance? Repentance has two dimensions. Turning away from sin and turning toward God. When John comes preaching the gospel of repentance and baptizes hundreds of people at the River Jordan, he offers some illustrations of turning away from sin. If you have two coats, provide a coat for someone who has none. Be done with selfishness. If you’re a tax collector, stop ripping off people. If you’re a Roman soldier, don’t resort to extortion, physical threats over the powerless or false accusations with parties unable to defend themselves. (Luke 3:10-14) Whatever your sin; stop doing it and God will abundantly pardon.
When I preached last week at Wesley UMC in Charleston, home of one of your former pastors, I mentioned the privilege and responsibility of having made six or seven pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Time and again, I’ve stooped over and touched the baptismal waters of the Jordan River and asked God to forgive me of my sins. Every time I asked God to forgive me of sins, the spirit of John the Baptist offered me this unforgettable reminder. If you want forgiveness Bishop, “bear fruit that befits repentance.” There are no shortcuts. Turn away from sin and turn toward God in prayer and devotion, loving God and loving neighbor.
When God saw an effective pattern of repentance and devotion to him re-emerging in his people residing in Jerusalem and Babylon over a period of seventy years, God took off his cloak of judgment and put on his royal robes of mercy, his tunic of grace, his garb of compassion, his mantle peace and his cape of advocacy. God who moved Nebuchadnezzar bring judgment on his people used another conqueror to redeem them. Cyrus the Persian attacked Babylon, conquered it and established Persian rule far and wide. Finding Jews in captivity, Cyrus made up his mind not to keep them captive. Cyrus turned redeemer told the exiles to pack their bags, go home and rebuild Jerusalem. I’d like to believe they began singing a new song of Zion as they tasted the full the gospel of deliverance on the way home. “Come ye that love the Lord and let our joys be known, join in a song with sweet accord (repeat) and thus surround the throne (repeat) and thus surround the throne. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion; we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.” Amen.