St Paul told the church at Thessalonica, "Do not despise the words of prophets." Now, that would be a lot easier thing to do if the prophets always said things that were easy to understand.
Our reading from Isaiah today seems for the most part to be easy reading. It seems easy enough to not despise such wonderful things as bringing good news to the oppressed; binding up the brokenhearted; proclaiming liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, to comfort all who mourn, to give a garland rather than ashes, oil of gladness instead of mourning.
But, in the middle of all that, we seemed to have hit a bit of a speed bump. In the middle of all those wonderful claims about what God is going to do, there was a very different claim.
In the middle of all the wonderful things, truly wonderful and amazing things, we also read that Isaiah will proclaim the day of vengeance of our God.
Good news to the poor. Liberty to the captives. Release to the prisoners. The year of the Lord's favor. Comfort those who mourn. Garland instead of ashes. Oil of gladness instead of mourning. The day of vengeance of our God.
What can that possibly mean?
We've obviously hit some very strange sort of speed bump. And now we've gone back to take a look at it, to see what sort of thing we hit. But, it's not at all clear just what it is.
All those other things are clearly wonderful things.
Well, maybe not so clearly wonderful.
I mean, when I go back to take a closer look, I begin to wonder just what it meant to release the prisoners. I have to think that if our prisons were suddenly opened up, it might not be such a good thing.
And if we look back through history, when those who were being oppressed received good news, that usually spelled trouble – lots of trouble.
The Gettysburg Address must have certainly been good news for the oppressed, but for a big, big chunk of society, it wasn't. Gandhi's ministry of empowerment to the poor of India was certainly good news to the oppressed, but also very bad news to a big, big chunk of society.
These things that sounded so good before, I think, are clearly showing us that there is much, much more going on here.
Meditating on this passage leads me to think of at least a couple things. Who is being spoken to – who are the oppressed and downtrodden that are being addressed? And, how can the day of the Lord's vengeance fit into the picture Isaiah is painting for us?
First of all, what the devil does the Lord's vengeance mean? It seems with the last few natural disasters, there's been enough preachers to quickly claim the devastation and loss of life was the vengeance of the Lord. But, here we see that the year of the Lord's favor is somehow intimately connected to the day of the Lord's vengeance.
Favor and vengeance.
The year of the Lord's favor, has within it, the day of the Lord's vengeance. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we find the claim, "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord". We find that claim and it seems pretty clear in the context that it means God is really angry is about to make a lot of people really sorry for the things they've done.
But, then we read it in today's passage and from the context, it's not at all clear what it means. And, so earlier this week, I really began to wonder what God's vengeance really means. Now, when I wonder about a word, I usually first go to other translations, and then I go to a dictionary. Other translations use the word "recompense" here instead of vengeance. Unfortunately, that didn't really help me much. Recompense is not a word I'm particularly familiar with. And so, I dig deeper.
Recompense, it turns out, is closely connected with the word compensation – basically, to set things right. Vengeance and recompense, it turns out, especially when applied to God, mean just what I've been saying for months now – God will set things right.
Vengeance and recompense is a call for justice. A call for the Lord's justice. A call for every human being to be respected as a child of God – for God's creation to be respected as God's creation.
Those things in the world, those many, many things in the world, which hold people back, or hold people down, will be done away with. And when that happens, it can't help but upset some big part of society. I mean, the poor and oppressed are quite simply the poor and oppressed because they are not the rich and powerful.
But, you know, no sooner do I say such a simple sounding statement, then I realize how God's logic makes even that simple statement not entirely true.
Sometimes, some of the rich and powerful do everything in their power to help raise up the poor and oppressed. The rich and powerful can also be the catalyst for justice. Sometimes they are. Sadly, most of the time, it seems that they aren't.
To do the things that Isaiah speaks about will certainly be upsetting to many. It may even be uncomfortable and upsetting to those who may have gotten used to being poor and oppressed. But, our belief in Christ helps prepare us for this sort of upsetting. Because our belief in Christ Jesus has at its very core something deeply upsetting to many, many people – even some who claim to be Christian.
You see, the Good News of Christ is at least partly just this – the most powerful person – God – gave up all that power to become a little, helpless baby human being. Moreover, a helpless baby born to a poor family. Even more than that, a helpless baby, born to a poor family in a poverty-stricken land beaten down and oppressed by the great power of Rome! God gave up being The Creator, so that He might become one of the created. So that He might live and dwell among us.
That is the first and greatest hint at what we can expect at the Day of the Vengeance of God. The day when all things will be set right.
With sober recognition that this world is not perfect – that death and pain and injustice are still a part of life; with sober recognition of that, we can still be people of hope. We can still prepare ourselves for that day of so-called vengeance. And to do that, we can look to Paul's words to the church at Thessalonica.
Pray without ceasing.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything.
Hold fast to what is good.
And may the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely. Amen.