What a great text for this Third Sunday of Advent! It is full of Good News, but there is still an air of mystery, a sense of “it’s not Christmas yet.” This poetic description of what God is about to do for his suffering people is among the most lovely and powerful in the Bible. But like all poetry, this passage raises all kinds of questions that defy easy answers.
Of course, we can skip over all those questions and get right to the Good News. As I researched this text, I found some scholars who immediately wanted to preach about Jesus because Jesus applied this text to himself in his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). And I found others who wanted to preach social justice sermons because of the passage’s focus on preaching good news to the poor. In a world that desperately needs to hear the Good News about Jesus and the Good News about God’s concern for the poor and oppressed, it is tempting to ignore the questions in the text and just “preach it.”
But those preaching approaches don’t take enough account of the original text in its historical context. And in the end wrestling with all the questions will make our proclamation of the Good News more suited for Advent with its sense of anticipation and even confusion. So, let’s dig in a bit.
What are the questions? Well, to begin with, who is speaking and to whom? It’s pretty obvious that in verses 8-9, it’s God who is speaking to his people. But who are his people? Most scholars think this is addressed to post-Exilic Israel, just back in the Promised Land that isn’t anything like what was promised. So, is this a word for all Israel? Or just the repentant remnant (cf. Isaiah 59:20)? And if this is a word for ancient Israel, what application does it have for the Christian church and for the world?
And who is speaking in verses 1-7? Who is the “me” on whom the Spirit rests and who has been anointed by the Lord? Some say it’s Isaiah, or the anonymous prophet dubbed “Second or Third Isaiah.” And still others say it is the Servant of earlier chapters in Isaiah, the Suffering Servant who is a Messianic figure. The fact that Jesus applied this to himself is certainly strong evidence in favor of the last interpretation. Here is the coming Messiah (Anointed One, ala verse 1) bringing good news to the poor.
But who are the poor? The Hebrew word here is anawim, a word so full of meaning that it is difficult to determine what is means. For decades now the church has talked about the Bible’s “preferential option for the poor,” assuming that the poor are those who are economically deprived and socially oppressed. But that new tradition replaced a centuries-old tradition that understood the poor to be those who are poor in spirit, who are spiritually oppressed and morally bankrupt. Or do we need to go back to the original historical situation of the first readers, exiles who have just returned from Babylon only to find that their beloved homeland is in ruins? They are both physically and spiritually poor. So, is this a word of Good News to those on the lower rungs of society or to those far from God or both?
And what is being offered to the poor? This beautiful poetry describes restoration, renewal, reversal—the brokenhearted healed, the captive set free, the mourning comforted, and if we take “the year of the Lord’s favor” to be a reference to the Year of Jubilee, the cancellation of debt and the return of property. The Messiah will completely reverse the situation of the poor. But does this mean a sea change in people’s social conditions or in their spiritual condition? To put it another way, is God going to change the sinful things that make people grieve or is God going to change the lives of those who grieve their own sins?
Perhaps the answer to those questions is not a simple either/or, but a more comprehensive both/and. The salvation that this Mysterious Messiah announces will make all things new: a new spirit (“a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”); a new vitality (instead of uprooted and transplanted, they will be replanted as “oaks of righteousness” to display the splendor of the Lord); a new task (to “rebuild the ancient ruins… and places long devastated”); a new covenant (“an everlasting covenant”); a new place in the world (“known among the nations… a people the Lord has blessed”); a new set of clothes (“garments of salvation… a robe of righteousness”); and a new future (“the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all the nations”). “Behold, I am making all things new.”
That’s the promise of our text for this Third Sunday of Advent, a welcome promise in a world that is sick and tired of the same old same old. Out of the dust and smoke and fog and darkness emerges a figure we can’t quite identify yet, bringing Good News we can’t quite define yet. In a world filled with questions for which there are no easy answers, perhaps a text like this is exactly what we need. We are still in the dark, but help is coming, and soon. He will be more than we expect and he will do more than we can imagine. “O Come, O Come, Immanuel!”
Actual pictures (or your own verbal pictures) of the fire ravaged towns on the West Coast and the hurricane blasted areas of the Gulf Coast and the riot ruined cities all over the US and the COVID induced chaos in emergency rooms and classrooms—such scenes of devastation will put your congregants in touch with “those who grieve in Zion… with a spirit of despair (verse 3).” Pair these with first responders moving through the smoke and sorrow to offer help that is heroic, but never enough. In Advent we await the coming of One who will bring help that is more than enough.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 13, 2020
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Commentary