If salvation is not another place and time but the reality of this world as it should be (what we mean when we say the Kingdom of God), then Isaiah asks us to think about how we might participate in ushering in what is, theologically speaking, the “real world.”  Being missional, in light of this passage, means profoundly challenging all forms of cultural Christianity that would make “church” an end in itself, a community of the saved devoted to maintaining a building, a set of programs, and a fellowship of the like-minded.  -Scott Bader Saye

This week’s lesson material encourages you to open class on the third Sunday of Advent by asking what salvation means to each class member:

  • Salvation means God’s deliverance in the here and now
  • Salvation means life with God in heaven after we die.

Of course, there is not a right or wrong answer here.  In fact, both are correct.  For most, however, one or the other receives most of our attention.  And much has to do with worldview, life circumstances, and what we first learned about God.

For some, life has been and remains difficult.  Others see how life is unfair for so many folks.  These may even feel guilty due to their relative ease and others pain.  Heaven offers them a hope that God does have something better and eternal that helps make sense of the suffering here on earth.  Goodness does win out in the end for those who can’t see a different outcome here.

For others, life has been hard and unfair.  Or they acknowledge to have lead a blessed life while acknowledging this isn’t the case for everyone.  Yet, they don’t assign hardship to God’s will.  It is the sin-filled world that works temporarily against God’s desire.  Humanity’s role is to repent for its participation in sin and join God in bringing about the world God had in mind when he called it out of the void.  They believe heaven will one day come, when everything will be set right.  But in the meantime, God’s people are called to be actively involved in bringing heaven to earth through righteousness.

When I say righteousness, I don’t mean for it to sound churchy – that makes it less meaningful and accessible.  Righteousness is really just desiring what God desires.  If heaven is a place where God’s intentions and plans are always met, then as Christians living here on earth, our desire should be that our living matches heaven as much as possible.  That includes how we treat our neighbors – whether they live across the street or across the world.

In our study today, we get to look at salvation in the light of the second group of people.  Salvation happens when a big change takes place in our lives and impacts the way we understand the world and our place in it.  We confess that God, through Christ, bring us salvation when we understand that without Jesus our sin-filled life would have its way in us.  First, we would be separate from God.  Our sinful behavior creates me-focused living that often takes advantage of all of God’s creation for our own benefit.  Sin leads us to abuse relationships – even all of God’s creation – all for the sake of me.

Salvation occurs when the Holy Spirit opens our awareness to the fact that we were made to know and follow God – to be in a relationship with God.  Our new awareness that we are headed down a dead-end path that we were not created for causes us to repent and seek God.  Seeking God leads to righteousness and righteousness leads to desiring God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Which leads us to our passage today.  Isaiah 61:1-4 is a familiar passage – Jesus quotes this passage in Luke 4, when he announces his ministry by reading the Isaiah passage from the scroll and saying “today, the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

So, what does God want?  For Isaiah, it is a people whose communal life is dedicated to God and whose behavior is so counter to the way the world behaves, others have to take notice.  Our society awards winners based on how successful they are.  How much money to you make?  How popular are you?  Do you look a certain way, drive the right thing, live in the right zip code?  None of these things are wrong in and of themselves.  But we have a way of making these things the ultimate – our God – so that we are willing to do whatever it takes to possess them, even at the expense of other people.

Isaiah, and later Jesus, says righteousness is all about wanting what is best for others, sometimes maybe, at the expense of ourselves, instead of what is best for us at the expense of others.  Jesus certainly modeled this as he was willing die on a cross so that our eyes might be opened and we might have life with God.

This is what advent prepares us for.  Are we prepared to welcome God among us who is willing to lay his very life down for our sakes?  And who challenges us to do the same for others?  Are we willing to proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim release for the prisoners, to comfort those who mourn and proclaim the Lord’s favor, at the expense of our getting ahead in the dominant system we live in?

For those who are, they will be recognized as “oaks of righteousness” by our creating and saving God.  Oaks stand strong and live long lives.  They lay down deep roots.  They do not spring up overnight.  Perhaps this means that it takes we humans a long time of growth and training to reach such a counter-intuitive and faithful way of life.  Or perhaps our faithfulness to the things God desires for his creation transforms us into strong, wise oaks.  Either way, to be compared to an oak is a good thing to hear from our Lord.

Finally, our lesson helps us see that God’s desire all along is for all creation to live in a loving, self-sacrificing relationship with one another.  In looking back at Leviticus 25:1-28, 35-43, we see that God sets up a way of living together for the Hebrews that requires concern for one another.  For sure, there are consequences for bad choices or behavior.  If  you don’t manage your resources correctly, and you may lose your land and your income.  But even when that happens, the people of Israel are counseled to not take advantage of people in need.  Rather, in all dealings with people who are in a weakened state, God calls his chosen people to deal fairly and justly.  We even see that God has concern for the land that nourishes life. Every seven years, the people are told to let the land rest for a year (and in doing so, allow their servants rest, too).  And every 50 years, the Israelites are to forgive any their debts of their fellow people and restore them to their former wealth.  They are to give everyone a chance, whether they deserve it or not, and start over again.

Why?  God says, “for the land is mine” Lev. 25:23 and “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.” Lev. 25:38.  God reminds the Israelites that he called them from nothing and gave them a name and a land.  They did nothing to earn it.  So treat each other the way I’ve treated you.

We’d do good to remember the same is true for us as well.  God started this relationship – he made us and gave us meaning.  Sin pulled us away from seeing and realizing our purpose.  God sent us his son as messiah, to redeem us from our sin and set our purpose back on its proper course.  As righteous oaks, we continue to follow in his Son’s footsteps in the present tense, longing after what God desires for all his creation.

 

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