In keeping with Advent we continue to read from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Speaking for God he tells us that God has anointed Isaiah “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the hearts that are broken.” He will “proclaim liberty to the captives, freedom to those in prison; to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord.” God clothed him in the garments of salvation as a bridegroom wearing his wreath and a bride adorned in her jewels. As a garden makes seeds spring up as will the Lord make integrity and praise spring up in the sight of nations. John’s Gospel continues to describe John the Baptist. John came to speak for the light but not to be the light. He attracted enough attention to attract Jewish leaders to him who asked who he was. John responded by quoting Isaiah, describing himself as “a voice that cries in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.” Puzzled, they asked him why he was baptizing if he wasn’t an important person. John then told them that one will come after him who is so important that “I am not fit to undo his sandal.”
What does it mean to “give good news to the poor and to bind up the hearts are broken?” If Advent gives us a blueprint for Jesus’ message we need to go back to Isaiah to fully understand. I’ve spoken about this before but little of our history cares for the poor and the downtrodden. Even today many believe the poor are lazy, captives are guilty, and debtors are irresponsible.
When we look on those who are suffering we can see a vast population. Some are poor, some are angry, some are oppressed, some are unforgiving, and well, you get the picture. And not to put too fine a point on it, every one of us is suffering from something, be it a lost job or a broken relationship but we all experience pain somewhere in our lives.
So what do we do with this suffering? As Christians we believe that we are called to make our world better, to be part of God’s Kingdom. OK, I’ll admit it. If we look around it’s easy to see that this job is beyond our abilities. We just can’t do it.
But what if we can? What if we begin with Isaiah’s promise to “bind up the hearts of the brokenhearted?” Maybe I’m dreaming or delusional, but I suspect that if we focus our efforts on healing the broken hearts of those around us we can find the best path toward the kingdom that God wants for us. Nearly thirty years ago I was at a convention and heard the famous Baptist preacher Tony Campolo say this (and I’m certain this is not an exact quote): “We cannot be true disciples until our hearts are broken by the things that break the heart of Jesus.” In her 1992 Christmas Album the Christian singer Amy Grant sang Grown Up Christmas List where she gave Santa her wishes for the year. One of them was this line: “No more lives torn apart, that wars would never start and time would heal all hearts.”
A heart that cannot be broken is not a strong heart, it’s a hard heart. And it’s bad. It’s self protective, fearful, and angry. A hard heart cannot bind up the hearts that are broken and it leaves no room for compassion. Alas we see it all around us. We see it in those who insist on celebrating their blessings by building a higher wall instead of a longer table. We see it in those who insist that “justice” is really “just us.” And we don’t see it in today’s readings.
I’ve said this before but Isaiah writes in these chapters at a time where hearts were broken. When they were defeated by the Babylonians, when their temple was destroyed, and when they were sent into exile they didn’t know what to make of it. Had God abandoned them, or was God defeated by a stronger god? Were they being punished? And when they were freed from captivity, was that God’s doing or was that the work of the liberators? Isaiah writes in compassionate terms because they all needed their broken hearts to be healed.
As time went on life began to return to normal. But that also meant that while some prospered others were left behind. By the time of Jesus the descendants of Isaiah’s listeners ran the gamut from obscenely wealthy to destitute.
In the Gospel we continue to hear from John the Baptist and I have to believe that the poor hear his message differently from the wealthy. We don’t read much about how the poor heard his message but I have to think they welcomed it. For those in poverty the coming of the Messiah promised a respite from their suffering. In this reading John was questioned by priests and Levites. They may not have been wealthy, but they held power and this power allowed them to harden their hearts. It allowed them to look at John the Baptist and Jesus as threats, as people who could well endanger their status. And, as we read through the Gospels, their fears turned deadly. Both John and Jesus were executed by the rich and powerful out of fear of their message.
Does this happen today? Blessedly today we use capital punishment less often. But the call to heal the brokenhearted remains elusive. Too often we continue to hear the call to blame those whose hearts are broken. Puerto Ricans who lost everything in Hurricane Maria don’t deserve our help because they neglected their infrastructure. Syrian refugees shouldn’t be allowed sanctuary because their religious beliefs frighten us into thinking they threaten our safety. A candidate for the United States Senate needs to be supported because his opposition to abortion matters more than his history of sexually abusing children.
We are called to better than this. We are called to provide to those who suffer from natural disasters. We are called to welcome the refugee regardless of who they pray to. We are called to care for the helpless, before and after their birth.
We are all brokenhearted but we are all also healers. If we learn nothing doing this Advent season we need to learn this: the messages of Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus tell us that God gives us both the ability and the responsibility to take our broken hearts and heal the broken hearts of everyone around us.
In a few weeks we will celebrate Christmas. We will recognize that God chose to crash into our darkness not because we deserved it, but because he loved us so much. We worship God best when we treat those around us as well as he treats us.