In Isaiah 61, the prophet claims his personal vocation. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted.” When Jesus was beginning his ministry, speaking in his hometown of Nazareth, in the synagogue where he grew up, he uses the same words to speak of his own vocation. Out of all the words he could have used, he chooses to quote those words of Isaiah as describing what he was to be about in his life. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, To bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Having a strong sense of vocation is something that is a constant search for us. From those early days of youth when we start thinking about what we want to do when we grow up, to our last days, we ask ourselves the vocational question. Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing? We long to have a sense that our lives are intersecting with the Divine life. That we are using our gifts and our energy in a way that is meaningful and will have some kind of lasting impact in the world. When we don’t feel any sense of calling, we stumble and struggle. When we feel that our life is aligned, even in some small way, with the leading of the Spirit, we are filled with a sense of purpose and gratitude.
Although I know that some who speak and teach about looking for one’s life calling would disagree with me, I’m not convinced that there’s a single plan for our life that God has established and it’s just up to us to figure that out. I see our vocation as a partnership, with God giving us great freedom in how we use and develop our gifts, but with us having the responsibility to be listening to the way the Spirit is speaking, nudging, directing us to live out our vocation in a way that represents God’s dreams of justice, peace, reconciliation, and healing for the world. Fredrick Buechner and Parker Palmer both have similar phrases they use for helping us discover our vocation – “listen to your life,” and “let your life speak.” We not only live life, but we listen to it, and somewhere in there, we hear God’s voice acting as a small rudder that steers us along our course.
I like what Bruce Epperly has to say: “Our callings and vocations in life are grounded in our environment, DNA, family of origin, religious upbringing, past choices, and many other factors, including God’s emerging vision for our lives, but our callings and vocations always aim toward the future. Whether or not we are aware of it at the time, our growth as persons and communities is shaped by future visions and dreams, both short and long term. In (this way), each moment has a vocation; each day, many callings; and each lifetime, many pathways, in the context of God’s Holy Adventure.”
One of the great gifts we can be given by someone is when they listen well to our life. I remember some time when I was a teenager and my Mom told me something that has stayed with me and helped shape my sense of calling. It was a simple observation that she passed along to me, but I have since taken it as an example of the voice of God speaking to me. She said, “Joel, your brother and your sisters always bring home stray animals, but you bring home stray people.” That wasn’t a point where I all of a sudden knew what I wanted to do with my life, but it did help me realize that whatever it was I was going to be doing, that I would be involved in people’s lives who are on the margins. Every once in a while we get these little pieces that help give us a picture of who we are called to be.
One of the things to be listening for during the season of Advent is the way that the birth of Christ speaks to our own vocation. Christ’s birth reaches the full range of vocational settings. It is first celebrated by those doing the undesirable and dirty work of shepherding, as well as the intellectual elites, the magi from the east. How does the coming of a Savior who saves through love, a king who rules through servanthood and humility, a teacher who teaches by telling his students to “come, follow me” affect how we view our calling?
There are as many vocations as there are people, but as ones who believe the birth of Christ to be of great significance for our world and for us, there is a general vocation that we share. It’s a vocation that we share with the prophet Isaiah, that we share with Jesus, and that we share with each other. As a way of exploring our general vocation, I would like to offer what we could call an Isaiah 61 Remix, giving some amplification and application to these first four verses of this passage to remind us that they are addressed to us. I’ll be following straight through the text, so you’re welcome to open up to Isaiah chapter 61 and follow along if you wish. This is one of those words that gives us a piece of the picture of who we are called to be.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, says Isaiah. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me says Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me? Is upon you. And you and you, young and old, and us. Is upon Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, upon Mennonite Church USA, upon all in this city, around this globe, who are willing to receive it. The Spirit of the Lord, the energy of the Lord. The Holy Wind that hovered over the chaos of the world at the dawn of creation, The breath that entered the clay and made the human creature a living being. The Divine spark that the Quakers speak of, the Holy Wildfire that was present at Pentecost, the gift giving, fruit producing Spirit of the Lord is upon us.
Because the Lord has anointed me. Anointed us like priests, like Aaron, like Samuel. Anointed us like kings. Like David, like Solomon, like Josiah. Anointed us like prophets, Amos, Jeremiah, Daniel. Anointed us like Mary chosen to bear the Christ child in her womb – “for the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Anointed like Jesus at the Jordan River hearing the voice “you are my beloved son,”. Anointed. Oil flowing down our heads, our faces, covering us, baptizing us, marking us for life. Spirit flowing through our bodies, enlivening us, enlightening us. Overshadowing us, for life.
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed. We are sent out. Sent with a mission. Sent in all directions. Sent into the streets and into the high rises. Into the city, into the suburbs, and into the countryside. Sent into the school rooms, sent into the marketplace, sent into our own homes, and the homes of those who welcome us in. Sent with something invaluable to carry with us. Something needed. Something precious. Sent with Good news. The Good News is not quite like the morning news, not the evening news, not the news that flutters from one crisis to the next. It’s not the news where they report and you decide, but the Good News. The news that rises above all the news that’s fit to print, and, all things considered, remains Good news to the oppressed. Those who are in trouble will experience this as good news. Those who are beat down will rejoice when they learn what you have to say. It is Good news.
To bind up the brokenhearted, Prepare your hands for a gentleness of touch, tender contact, as if each encounter with another is a chance to cradle the Christ child. We are living among the broken, among the disappointed, among the walking wounded. Small actions can have large impacts. A careless word can strike deep and cause offense. A careful word or a kind gesture can strike deep and help to heal, help to bind up the brokenhearted.
To proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Find a prisoner somewhere, pull them close to yourself, and whisper in their ear that they are free. That you’ve heard the orders from the top, and the year of favor has arrived. Tell them you’ve heard rumors that the slaves came through the Red Sea out of Egypt, that blacks and whites can now eat at the same lunch counter, that the wall has fallen in Berlin, that a baby has been born in Bethlehem, and that liberation is on the march. Proclaim to captives behind cinder blocks and captives who live on your own block. Captives on death row, skid row, and the row house next door. Captives whose chains aren’t visible to the naked eye. People trapped in fear, in regret. Prisoners locked up in addiction, serving an undetermined length of term with no parole in sight. Proclaim that the time has arrived. The year is here. The year of the Lord’s favor is at hand. Jubilee for the captives, forgiveness for the debtors, a dawning of a new day for those who can remember nothing but the night. Christ is born. Proclaim the year of favor.
And (proclaim)the day of vengeance of our God. Uh-oh. The day of vengeance is at hand. But not in the tit for tat vengeance of the law, not in the seven fold vengeance of Cain. But vengeance Jesus style. The seventy seven times vengeance of forgiveness. Fighting the battle that is not against flesh and blood but against all the principalities and powers of darkness in the spiritual realm. The kind of vengeance that refuses to become the evil which it opposes. Which takes a different tack, sets a different course. The kind of reverse revenge that happens in turning the other cheek, in going the extra mile, in loving one’s enemy until the enemy is defeated by no longer being one’s enemy. Turning up the thermostat of love so high that it is like heaping burning coals on their heads. Vengeance as reconciliation. Resurrection vengeance by which the crucified victim appears to those who have abandoned him in his hour of need and says “Peace be with you.” God’s day of vengeance is at hand.
To comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. We are the ‘instead of’ people. Instead of mourning, the oil of gladness. Instead of isolation, community. Instead of building walls, building bridges. Instead of fear, love. Instead of accepting the status quo as it is handed to us, asking questions, probing below the surface. Instead of chronic activity, Sabbath. Handing out hope instead of despair. Living with enough instead of never having enough. Choosing to stay awake and alert and watchful instead of falling asleep to our hope for Emmanuel, God with us.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display God’s glory. You will be called names. People will talk about you when you aren’t around. You’ll be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord. You will be called a tree of justice. A pillar of truth. A fortress of faithfulness. A garden, a refuge. You will be talked about. People will say “she’s a blessing.” “He’s a servant.” “He’s trustworthy.” “She is a wonderful human being.” You will get a reputation. “They truly care for one another.” “They are peaceful people.” “They are welcoming.” “They don’t care about your status, they treat everyone with respect.” “See how they love each other.” Even if you can’t see it in yourself, people will see God’s presence in you. You will display God’s goodness. You’ll be exhibit number one for the radiant glory of God shining in the world.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. What all this amounts to is that we are building something together. You are all gifted craftsmen and skilled craftswomen for a grand construction project. You’ve been enlisted, given full employment in renovating lives, remodeling hearts, pouring fresh foundations for crumbling families, a barn-raising for restoring what has been lost.
The essence of a remix is that it uses old, familiar words and themes and applies them to a new beat – a new melody to fit the new context of instruments and rhythms and voices. I can’t think of a much better way of thinking of our vocation. We are called to take these ancient familiar themes of compassion and justice, and be a walking, breathing remix, adapting the rhythms of God’s grace into the beat that pulses around us each moment and each day and year that we are given to live.