© 2020 Evan D. Garner
In today’s reading from the Book of Isaiah, the ancient prophet declared of himself, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me.” The image of an anointed prophet would have probably startled those who heard the prophet’s message. In the Hebrew tradition, prophets were not typically anointed. That privilege belonged to kings and priests—those set apart by God with a clear, divine mandate. Prophets, on the other hand, were usually those whose words came to God’s people from outside the established religious and political hierarchy. The prophet Elisha was a rare exception, whom Elijah himself anointed to be his successor in order that he might literally take up the mantle of confronting the corrupt kings and priests of his day. But, in Isaiah 61, the prophet claimed that authority for himself, thus defining his ministry and his message as one that God himself had both authorized and enabled.
In the Netflix series The Crown, when Queen Elizabeth is anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury at her coronation, the solemn act takes place under a golden canopy. When one of the characters who is watching the event on television asks why the camera does not broadcast a clear view of that moment, he is reminded that those watching on television are mere mortals. But, for the anointed monarch, upon whom a manifestation of God’s power and authority is being imprinted, the distinction between divine and human begins to blur.
When the prophet announces that God has placed God’s spirit upon him through his own holy anointing, he is asking us to hear his message as if God were the one speaking to us—as if it were God who had come down to accomplish this thing that the prophet foretells. And why was he anointed for this work? Why must God’s spirit come and consecrate him and set him apart and make him holy? Because the vision that God is delivering to the world through the prophet is God’s own holy vision for what the world will be like. It’s is God’s vision for what the world will become when all the princes and priests and presidents and prelates of the earth are enfolded into the complete and total reign of God.
This vision, the prophet announces, is good news for the oppressed and the means by which the brokenhearted will be bound up. But how does one bind up the wounds of a broken heart? Where does one find a bandage or a poultice for that? Yet, with these words, the prophet signals to us that the good news he brings is not merely emotional or spiritual consolation for those who have suffered but somehow a physical, tangible healing of their invisible wounds.
Liberty for the captives and release for the prisoners may sound like a hopeful metaphor to those of us who have never experienced exile from our homeland or imprisonment because of our debts. But what about those who have been forced to live in cages or who have felt the powerlessness of having to choose between food on the table or medicine in the cupboard? Isn’t the prophet’s message of freedom and release more than an image of hope? Isn’t it a promise of real transformation?
Over and over, we see that this prophet has been anointed by God to comfort those who mourn by providing for them—by allowing them to exchange their ashes and tears of grief and loss for the garland and oil of comfort and ease. Their ransacked and destroyed cities will be rebuilt. Their crumbling homes will be restored. They will be given their recompense—literally their true wages, their proper value, which had been taken from them. Given the extent of the economic imagery that the prophet uses, it seems likely that the binding up of those broken hearts that God had in mind included a recalibration of the financial systems that had imprisoned the poor and pressed the vulnerable to the edge of society and beyond.
The prophet was probably envisioning the sort of economic transformation that was first recorded in the Book of Leviticus, in which God sets out the concept of jubilee: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family” (Lev. 25:10). In that year of jubilee, all debts were to be cancelled. Everyone who had been forced to sell themselves into indentured servitude was to be released from their obligation. All the ancestral land that had been mortgaged or sold by those who needed the money to pay their bills was to be returned to its original family. The liberty that the prophet had been anointed to proclaim—the freedom that God was bringing to God’s people—was a world in which no one was crushed under the weight of economic injustice, a world in which no one was held prisoner by the bonds of poverty.
“I the Lord love justice,” the prophet declares on God’s behalf. “I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” God’s vision for the world—God’s plan for how we live our lives here and now—is one of universal prosperity and abundance. But if God’s people were able to pursue that vision on their own, if they were able to come together and make the words of Leviticus 25 a reality in their lives, we wouldn’t need prophets to come and speak on God’s behalf and call us to account and show us the divine vision that we have chosen to forget.
What is the anointed prophet asking us to see? Imagine what would happen to our economy if everyone’s debts were wiped away once a generation. Imagine what would happen to you and your family if the land on which your home is built was given back to its original occupants. Imagine what would happen if the generational wealth on which this parish depends was reset and redistributed not according to the value that its inherited owners have assigned to it but according to the intrinsic value of every human being the people of St. Paul’s come into contact with.
Imagine that? We can’t. I dare say that on our own we cannot imagine such a world. But God can. And, inspired by the Holy Spirit, God’s anointed one can. And that anointed one comes to make such a world a reality not only at the end of time—a final, last-gasp vision of egalitarianism—but here and now. It starts within our imaginations and then unfolds throughout our lives. But how will we ever see it? How will we ever pursue it? How will we ever get past our own limitations and make such a dream the reality we inhabit? We can start with the example of John the Baptist by remembering that we are not the messiah and by seeking the one who is.
We are not God’s anointed one. We are not God’s Christ. We are not the ones who make God’s kingdom come. But, as followers of Jesus, we are united to the one who does, and we are empowered by the Spirit that he has sent us. When we belong to Christ, that Holy Spirit, in turn, anoints us and propels us into God’s divine vision for our lives and for our world. It calls us to repent of the wrongs we have done and left undone, and it forms us for the holy life into which God calls us. With the Spirit’s help and inspiration, we can follow Jesus into that vision—not only in theory or metaphor but in ways that impact the decisions we make, the policies we support, and the priorities we fund.
Like John the Baptizer, we look for the anointed one who stands among us, the thong of whose sandals we are unworthy to stoop down and untie. That is where we must start—at the feet of the anointed one whom God has sent to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the brokenhearted. If you yearn for that vision of the world with all your heart but find it just beyond your grasp, then give yourself back to the one who empowers us to pursue it. He will lead us there. And, if you aren’t ready to wrap your mind or heart around the vision of the world that the prophet declares, then give yourself back to the one who empowers us to imagine it. He will teach you how to see God’s vision for your life. God’s great intention for the whole world is unfolding all around us. And we who follow Jesus follow him into that vision.