Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 17, 2023

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Commentary

Covenant Renewal, Part 1

Isaiah 61 follows the main themes of the preceding chapter with its focus on Jerusalem finally coming into its own, exalted over the oppressive nations being brought low. What is unique to this text is the human agent who speaks through this text.  In fact there is a dialogue between this human mediator (vs. 1-7) and God who responds (vs. 8-9) and then the word of human mediator again.

This structure indicates that what is happening here is a covenant renewal of sorts between Israel and Israel’s God.  This human mediator demonstrates significant authority over the people and, even, the practice of Judaism.  But this authority is granted to the human mediator by God’s Spirit and God’s anointing.  Walter Brueggemann points out that, to the original audience, this would have had all the resonances of David’s own anointing by the hand of Samuel, directed by God.

Once the human mediator is chosen, the text tells us what he will do to alleviate the suffering of the weak verses 1-3.  The purpose of this text, then, is to communicate to the exiled people of God (in this case the weak ones) that God will come to transform their circumstances.


Sound Familiar?

If these words sound familiar to you, there is a likely a good reason for it.  In Luke chapter 4, when Jesus enters the synagogue and takes up the scroll, this is the text he read aloud, the foundation of his very first sermon.

Recently emerged from 40 days of temptation and testing in the wilderness, in this text from Luke 4, Jesus resists temptation again. Perhaps the greatest temptation preachers ever experience. The temptation to preach a sermon that everyone is going to like because it reinforces that the people hearing it are good and deserve good.  And likewise reinforces that the people out of earshot deserve God’s judgment … and ours.

Based on the clear evidence of the text – the congregation running Jesus out of town and trying to run him over a cliff – Jesus did not preach a crowd-pleasing sermon. The text is clear that no one is in a hurry to invite this guy back for future pulpit supply gigs.  But what is less clear in the text is where Jesus’ loses his audience.

Jesus makes some minor edits to Isaiah 61 along the way, though this was more-or-less accepted practice among Rabbis. What was definitely LESS acceptable to his congregation was where he cut off the reading.  The Messiah has come to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”. Full stop. Where Isaiah goes on to say, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor AND the day of vengeance of our God.” Over time and, understandably for a people under Roman occupation, God’s people in the tiny overlooked hamlet of Nazareth had gravitated toward the second part of the promise.  They were bound to notice when vengeance gets edited out of the text.

Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey observes:

“The reader fully expects Jesus to attempt to please. Surely he will support the traditional values of the community. He could offer a word of encouragement for their efforts at reclaiming the countryside from the Gentiles … He can add several guarded comments on the Roman occupation and how the Messiah will bring relief from injustice.

But no attempt is made to shape his message along the lines of their agenda. In bold and uncompromising terms Jesus announces his ministry …  He knows his edited version of the text of Isaiah 61 will trigger deep anger, and it is a risk he is willing to take.”

He might have been forgiven for omitting the vengeance bit if he’d gone on to detail, as Isaiah 61 does, the way God’s people will be blessed by the Lord’s favor. Instead, he drops the mic with this: “BTW, ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’ isn’t going to be especially for you just ‘cause I grew up here.  It isn’t even going to be especially for Israel.  Elijah provided for a Gentile widow, even though there were plenty of deserving widows in Israel.  Elisha healed a Gentile soldier even though there were plenty of lepers in Israel.

One commentator sums it up this way: “The radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ ministry shocks his audience…They have understood themselves to be the primary beneficiaries of Jesus’ message. They can all relate to being poor, captive, blind or oppressed. They are ready for deliverance, but they are not prepared to share it.”


Covenant Renewal, Part 2

In verses 8-9 God the Lord replies to the human mediator with a reminder of God’s character: just, faithful, generous and covenant-keeping.  Despite appearances, as Brueggemann says, “It was easy, perhaps inevitable, to conclude that the exile was a termination of Yahweh’s covenantal fidelity to Israel. In exile and thereafter, however, the most daring theological voices were able to assert that exile was not termination.” The promises cannot depend on humans because, well, have you ever met a human?  Instead, the promises must be God’s to make, as he did to Abraham in Genesis 12.  And here, referring back to that promise through the language of nations and blessing, God will keep that promise or, as Brueggemann puts it, “The great ‘instead’ of Judaism; has ancient, reliable, Yahwistic foundation.”


With a toddler in our home, I can vouch for how willing children are to hear the same story over and over again.  They notice every skipped page to hasten bedtime and, in the case of their most treasured books, parents have them nearly memorized by the time their child graduates to reading for themselves. This week, you might consider reaching out to some members of the congregation with young children, asking for their favorite books.  During a children message or even at the start of the sermon, consider starting off with some lines from these books:

“In the great green room, there was…

“Oooo snuggle puppy of mine, everything about your is especially fine…”

“I’ll love your forever, I’ll like you for always…”

That is how beloved this text was to the Israelites on the underside of power, at first in exile and then under Roman occupation.  But the One whose coming we await in this Advent season will change the text.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that, as the human mediator, he allows it to say what it was always intended to say!


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