Who doesn’t want to preach on a passage as chockfull of lyric imagery as is Isaiah 61!? These words are so redolent of new hope and new beginnings and fresh joy that just reading this chapter aloud delivers more gospel freight than even some whole sermons that are four times as long.
Of course, many of these words gain in poignancy when we read them today because we know that they formed the basis of Jesus’ first sermon as later recorded in Luke 4. But even without that connection, it’s hard to doubt that when Isaiah first penned and/or spoke these words to a tired and defeated people these words sizzled and popped and fairly exploded into people’s consciousness with hope and joy.
Isaiah points to precisely what so many people pine for every single day of their lives: the great reversal. The poor whose lives have for so long been filled with nothing but bad news get the gift of good news. Those long held captive in dungeons and prisons of all kinds get promised their freedom. Those who for years have spent so many days dampening handkerchiefs with their tears get comforted and pointed toward a day of smiles and laughter. Ashes get blown away to make way for glittering crowns. The drab duds of mourning get replaced with festive and colorful garments fit for a really great party. People who for too long have felt like dead sticks are promised that they will soon stand as tall and sturdy as the grandest oak tree.
This is Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations actually having her groom arrive at last. The window shades go up, the sun streams in, the old and rotten wedding cake is replaced with a freshly iced one, Miss Havisham’s tattered wedding dress is swapped out for a glistening new gown of silk and lace, and the long-postponed (and apparently never-to-happen) wedding takes place among great laughter and smiles all around from the throng of friends and family who have suddenly burst in on her loneliness from seemingly out of nowhere.
This is Nelson Mandela emerging from his jail cell after so many years of unjust incarceration and walking out into the sunlight of a new day dawning. This is the rollback of injustice and of oppression as the once-imprisoned man takes the oath of office as president of the very nation that had locked him away for 27 long, and seemingly never-to-end, years.
This is exuberant crowds of disbelief standing atop the Berlin Wall 25 years ago this Fall and taking whacks at it with sledgehammers as the old order of things was swept away. This is East German families streaming through the cracks in the walls to embrace loved ones who for decades had lived both three miles away and a million miles away on the other side of the wall. This is tears of wonder. This is Psalm 122 when people arrive at a new day and find their mouths filled with giggles they could not suppress even if they tried (and they have no desire to try!).
When Frodo Baggins awakens only to see Gandalf—whom he was sure had died—standing watch and letting loose with a laugh so contagious it soon swept up everyone in the vicinity. This is Samwise Gamgee asking the loaded and eschatologically joyful question (in the book, not the movie version), “Does this mean that everything bad that has ever happened is going to be unmade.” This is God’s “Yes” to such a question.
Let those of us who preach never underestimate how badly most of the people to whom we preach long for just such reversals. Even those who are not outwardly imprisoned, even those who by all worldly standards are far from being poor in any economic sense, even those whose haute couture outfits seem miles away from garments of rags and whose heads show no sign of being laden with ashes: even they long for the day of the great reversal. Scratch the surface of anyone’s life, a friend of mine always said, and you’ll find just below that outwardly calm-looking surface a world of hurts sufficient to bring most anyone to tears.
Isaiah 61 looks forward to a better day for all people but makes clear at every turn what the source of all that goodness, of all that happy reversal-of-fortune stuff, would be: God alone. It is the Spirit of the Sovereign God who makes the proclamation of hope possible in the first place. And when the people go from dried-up sticks fit for burning to “oaks of righteousness,” the planting of those mighty trees would be no tribute to human ingenuity but would be a planting “for the display of [God’s] splendor.” And when God’s people become paragons of justice, when injustice is swept away, those who look upon this just nation would not say, “Good for you! Look what all of you have wrought!” No, the text says in verse 9 that the others will see “that they are a people Yahweh has blessed.”
In this Advent Season, we know something else: the precise way that God would accomplish all this planting and sprouting of righteousness—the way the kingdom would finally come—took on the astonishing form of the incarnation of God’s only Son into the humble Savior we now know as Jesus Christ. We now know that not only is the work of Isaiah 61’s great reversals singularly and solely the work of God Almighty—and not the result of human hard work—but we know that it had to be this way because the way salvation finally comes to us is something only God could do (and even God would have to go all the way to a wretched cross of death to pull it off even so).
We are right to long and yearn for the great reversal of all things. But in Advent above all—and really at all times, of course—we are also right to locate the sole source of where this outbreak of goodness and shalom will come from: namely, from the Triune God who alone has both the power and the supreme savvy to make it all happen in the most surprising ways anyone could ever have imagined!
So we preach hope to the person who wishes his life had turned out more exciting, more fulfilling than it did. We preach hope to those whose marriage was never all it was cracked up to be (and to those whose marriage fell apart for just that reason). We preach hope to the adult child who has forever been disappointed in mom and dad and to the parents who have long been let down by their children’s lifestyles. We preach hope to those whose bank accounts are full and whose hearts are empty as well as to those whose hearts are full but they scratch out a poor existence. We preach hope to the lonely who never could find the love of their lives and to the minorities who were forever made to feel inferior by others.
We preach the year of the Lord’s favor because more than we know a lot of the time, most of the people who hear us preach are panting for just that word that Isaiah spoke and that Jesus later came to fulfill once and for all.
I once read a poem written by a Korean girl. It is just one girl’s words and yet, as Douglas John Hall has noted, these words could fit equally well on the lips of altogether too many people with whom we share this planet:
My mother’s name is Worry.
In summer, my mother worries about water;
In winter, about coal briquets.
And all year long she worries about rice.
In daytime, my mother worries about living;
At night, she worries for children;
And all day long she worries and worries.
My mother’s name is Worry.
My father’s name is Drunken Frenzy.
And my name . . . my name is Tear and Sigh.
Someday, as Isaiah tells us and as Jesus later confirmed, all who live this way (and oh the sorrow and the pity of realizing how many do indeed live just this way every day of their unhappy lives) there will be good news, there will be comfort, there will be an end to the worries that an unjust and fallen world bring to too many people. Some day . . . some day. But for this day, we point them to The One who has already advented into this world and who is coming again to make all things new.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 14, 2014
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Commentary