Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 (December 11, 2011)
1) The Text
61The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to 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. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
a. What needs rebuilding, refashioning?
When God says in Isaiah 61: “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,” he was speaking of Jerusalem. The Holy City. The City of David. The place that once housed the Ark of the Covenant, and thereby the very Presence of God himself.
It was in ruins, but those ruins will be “built up” and repaired. Not in an act of historical refurbishment, but in a new way – in a new form. And, far more important than the ruined buildings, was the faith of Israel that was in tatters. It was a renewed faith and hope that the God who had brought them out of the fiery furnace in ages past would once again work his wonders.
It doesn’t take much looking around these days to see things in ruins. Economies. Jobs. Lives. Marriages. Childhoods. Educations. But, our God is a God who builds up and restores. Who makes all things new. And, he’s the God who has invited us along, to pick up a hammer and get to work rebuilding and refashioning the world around us.
Where are the ruins in your community? In your church? On your block? Where are the places that you see, and identify as being in ruins. Because right there is where God is at work. And, right there is where God needs us. It’s where he plants us. To be agents of rebuilding and refashioning and hope.
b. What is the basis of hope?
In this third Sunday of Advent we return to Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). It is clear from v. 4 with reference to building up ‘the ancient ruins’ and repairing ‘the ruined cities’ that the people still look forward to rebuilding Jerusalem and Judah. Hope is high. It is interesting that the lectionary introduces a passage about the disappointment of hope at the beginning of Advent (November 27, Isaiah 64:1-9) and then goes back to passages that are in fact earlier and where hope is more vigorously expressed (December 11, Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11). The lectionary, in effect, reminds us early in Advent that the hope we have may not work out as we would see it; the events of life can dash it on the rocks. Nevertheless, by going back to earlier, more hopeful passages, the lectionary also says that when our hope does not eventuate as we might expect, that does not mean that hope itself is in vain, given the one upon whom our hope is grounded.
The passage begins with someone (the prophet?) speaking of their commissioning by God. The upheaval inherent in God’s hopeful reign is stressed further in the section omitted from today’s reading (vv. 5-7). The people of exile, who slaved and worked for strangers, who struggled to make a crust, and who felt abandoned by their God, now will receive that of which they could have only dreamt. Strangers will serve them, they will have prosperity, and the old promise of the ‘priestly kingdom and holy nation’ (Exod 19:6) will become a reality.
The basis of this reversal is outlined in vv. 8-11. Every genuine hope is founded on the Lord’s love of justice (v. 8). It is that which overturns the harshest oppression, the darkest dungeon, and the pain of mourning. That justice is seen in action first and foremost in the relation of God to his own people. These are the ones whom he raises from the deepest despair. And all who see them will recognize that ‘they are a people whom the Lord has blessed’ (v. 9). This blessing is the outworking of the Lord’s justice, and the restoration of relationship is its result.
This in turn fosters unhindered, unrestrained praise of God (vv. 10-11). It is as if the speaker’s whole being cannot help but tremble with praise (v. 10a). Moreover, the speaker is fully aware that what is happening is not of his own doing. He trembles with praise because God has clothed him with salvation and righteousness. Again images of royalty are evoked in the ceremony of robing. The image then changes to one of sheer joy as the speaker imagines himself like the bridegroom or bride, decked out in the very best garments and jewelry. Finally, another, different image is evoked to portray the fulfillment of the people’s hope. Just as a small seed springs forth from the bare ground, so the Lord brings forth in his people righteousness and praise (v. 11).
The passage stresses a couple of important points about hope when read in the context of Advent. Hope is founded on the Lord’s love of justice which overthrows oppressive structures, regimes, and conditions in life, to bring wholeness, joy and praise. Our hope is also based on the Lord’s prior action of justice in blessing and granting growth and development. Our hope ultimately falls back onto the one in whom we have hope. It is God who is our hope, the very ground of that hope, and the end of it.
c. Who died and put you in charge?
How would you fix the world? Isaiah suggests that we become an “oak of righteousness,” and he says that we do this by preaching good news to the poor, loving justice, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming freedom to the captives, releasing prisoners from darkness, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, comforting those who mourn, bestowing a crown of beauty, giving oil of gladness instead of mourning, giving the garments of praise instead of despair.
The first important word comes in the very first phrase of Isaiah 61, where the prophet claims, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” The prophet makes the claim that he is the one on whom God has poured out the Spirit. But his claims are not over! The next significant word in the verse is the prophet’s claim that he has been anointed by God and sent to bring good news to the oppressed. The challenge of this particular time in the history of Israel was to accomplish the difficult task of restoring the nation, rebuilding her cities and reconstructing the temple. These things did not happen over-night. For years, they did not happen at all.
The third and fourth important words appear in 61:2-3. The prophet announces that the year of the Lord’s favor has come, as well as the day of God’s vengeance. Many scholars believe that this is referring to the year of jubilee described in Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15 and Exodus 21-23. Jubilee called for the release of indentured servants, the fallowing of the land, the remission of debts, and returning property to its original owner.
As for the day of God’s vengeance, Israel has now come full circle. The prophet once again announces that God is on the side of Israel. God will help them to rebuild their nation and restore them as a nation. It was time for them to fix their world with God’s help.
What would you do to patch up this world? It’s hard to go beyond what Isaiah offers. Isn’t this what Advent is all about? The world’s a broken place and it is our mission as Jesus people to lend a hand. Isaiah, Jesus and God don’t expect us to fix every problem. They merely want us to try to help where we can. Don’t worry about a quick fix. Be an oak. Ask yourself what it is that gives your life meaning and purpose.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this passage is that Jesus used it as his text for his very first sermon in Luke 4:14-30. Jesus explained that he was the Suffering Servant, that the Spirit of God had anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to liberate the captive, and bind up the broken-hearted. When Jesus was put in charge, this was his text. And then when Jesus left the earth he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)
Who died and put you in charge? Jesus did. He died on a cross to try to fix the world. But then he went to heaven and proclaimed, “So send I you.” He commissioned us to go do his work. If you want to really celebrate this Christmas, then fix the world. Be an oak of righteousness.