Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
In this third week of Advent, the week of “joy” in which we light the rose candle, our lectionary has given us an early Christmas present. Whenever I hear the beautiful words of Isaiah 61, it’s as if I have just unwrapped a gift from God. With ancient Israel, my soul rejoices in the new clothes of salvation and righteousness that God has brought to me in these prophetic words. I can picture the glory of them and feel the comfort of them on my winter-dry skin.
Have you ever received a Christmas gift, though, that is so wonderful that it makes you feel a bit guilty to have received it? “Oh, they spent too much on me,” you fret. “I’m not worth all this.” Underneath today’s joy, there's a hint of shame, too, in me, when I read our first lesson. After all, Isaiah is announcing liberation for the oppressed and judgment on the oppressors. Is this gift really meant for the likes of me? Me, with one hand deep in the stock market grab bag and with the other hand complicit in the torture of prisoners? Me, whose white skin puts me on the wrong side of the history of oppression? Me who sleeps every night in a comfy bed while children are homeless?
“Hold on. Should this text make me tremble rather than rejoice?” whispers a part of my soul. “From what am I being saved?”
Barbara Brown Taylor defines salvation as “a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there …. It opens a door in what look[s] for all the world like a wall.”
The wall that holds us captive can indeed be a plain wall of stone or brick. The tight places that encircle us can indeed be crafted by real-world oppressors. After all, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to a people who have spent generations in exile, to a people who were torn from their homes by war, to a people who are finally being allowed to return to their plundered land. He is offering encouragement to a discouraged and truly downtrodden people. In Isaiah’s vision, salvation is truly freedom from an oppressing enemy. Salvation is a people returning home and rebuilding what was laid waste by human oppressors. God is surely still calling for this kind of liberation today, as well, in situations all over the world, including in our own backyard.
But there are other, more metaphorical walls that put our lives at risk. There are even metaphorical walls behind the walls of stone and steel. Chris Hoke is a prison chaplain in Washington State.  Like Isaiah says, his work is to bind up the brokenhearted and to bring good news to the prisoner. He doesn’t see his call as “saving sinners from hell” though. He actually finds more truth and holiness in his encounters in the prisons than he does in most church communities. His job isn’t to break the inmates out of the prison, either, or to fight the authorities for their freedom. His job is to be an agent of that “divine spaciousness” that Taylor describes.
When Hoke first started visiting prisoners, he would sit with them across the steel table that lawyers use to talk with their clients, and the prisoners would lay their heads on the table and weep. All of their pain, all of the anguish of their lives, would pour out of them, and he would listen to them and love them in spite of it all. They would hug at the end of their sessions, and groups would hold hands in prayer circles and lay hands on one another in prayer. Through touch, the walls came down, and God’s love could begin a healing process as powerful as the touch of Jesus in the gospels.
After awhile, though, the prison authorities decided to start a “no touch policy” in the prison. There were no more hugs, no more prayer circles, no more laying on of hands. And the prisoners suffered. Hoke says that incidents of violence actually imcreased, and then more clamp-down measures were enforced. Metaphorical walls were strengthened, and the men found themselves in a double-prison.
Hoke now had to speak to prisoners through a phone, separated by a thick glass wall. If the prisoners wanted to tell their stories, they knew that all of their words were being taped and were available to prosecutors. There were no more liberating confessions. The prisoners didn’t cry anymore. Their tears and their hearts dried up. As Hoke says, “when hearts don’t have a place to break, they become harder.” The glass became a wall that had to come down before healing could occur.
One prisoner whom Hoke visited was in solitary confinement, spending his days alone in a 9 by 12 foot room. He was losing hope. So Hoke decided to find the man’s youngest daughter—a daughter whom the man had never met—and convince the mother to let the child visit her father in prison. On the day that he brought the four-year-old girl to see her long-lost dad, Hoke spent the drive to the prison teaching her to sing “You are my sunshine.” Sitting behind the glass with Hoke, the beautiful little girl beamed at her imprisoned father on the other side. She told him that she loved him, and she sang “You are my sunshine” to him. The father was able to weep again, tears falling from his face as he told his little girl that he loved her. And according to Hoke, the glass then “melted away.” The man was still incarcerated, but he was saved. Saved not from hellfire or from serving his time—but set free as only love can set us free. Through Hoke and the love of a child, God had cut a door in the wall.
Jesus, of course, adopts Isaiah’s words as the statement of his own mission. In Luke's Gospel, right after Jesus' baptism and his temptation in the wilderness, he goes into the synagogue in Nazareth and unrolls the Isaiah scroll. He reads aloud the prophet’s words of release and good news for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus announces. All are amazed, and Jesus' ministry begins.
I recently attended a service in which the preacher talked about Jesus’ saving grace for us sinners. But there was something about one of the illustrations that he used that bothered me. For a long time, I couldn’t quite figure out what wasn’t right. It was a compelling story. The preacher talked about a little toddler who was locked in a hot car while her mother was in the store. The preacher was actually there and saw the child. At first, bystanders thought that they could get the child to pull open the tab that was locking the car door, and they yelled out instructions to her. The child, of course, couldn’t comply, because she was strapped in her car seat, bound by straps of cloth. This child is like us, said the preacher, bound by lives of sin, captive and unable to free ourselves.
Finally, in the story, a big, burly onlooker grabbed a metal hammer off of a nearby truck and smashed in the glass of the car window, pulling the child to safety. That hero is like Jesus, said the preacher. Smashing sin and death and saving us in our helplessness.
In thinking about Hoke’s story, and about salvation, I finally figured out this week what was bothering me about that story. You see, Jesus isn’t some muscled superhero with a sledge hammer. God comes to save us in the tender flesh of a baby, a baby just as helpless as the one in that car seat, a baby just as helpless as you, and me, and the man in solitary confinement. Jesus doesn’t smash the glass that walls us in, sending shards a-flying. Like the prisoner’s little daughter, Jesus penetrates the glass with powerful Love. Writes Rowan Williams: Christmas shows us “that miraculous love is possible … The vilest offender … is now deserving of attention and compassion; no life can be allowed to fall out of the circle of love. Because God has overthrown the empire of numbers and calculations, mass movements and majority interests: ‘The story of a human life became the life story of God and filled the universe.’ …. This was when the new creation began.”
Even the most privileged of us here today are each held captive: Captive by the inevitablities of age or by the chains of illness. Captive by guilt or by shame. Captive by our own insidious doubts. Held behind walls that we erect and behind walls that others use to enslave us. Hear the good news of Christmas: God has come behind our walls to dwell with us, making room in the tight places and beaming love through the walls of glass, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, comforting all who mourn. Open the gift of a love that will allow you to weep, so that you can rejoice. Don the garments that will break you open so that the Baby’s love can seep in through the cracks. "Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves." Rejoice!