2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Commentary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

My guess is that most Christians have their own cherished scripture passages. There is, however, something of a New Testament endorsement given by Luke for this text from Isaiah 61. Luke's Jesus uses this Isaiah text as Jesus preaches his first sermon in the hometown Nazareth synagogue. The placement of this passage from Isaiah in Luke, although a paraphrase of Isaiah 61:1-2, makes any expositor keenly aware of the prophet's promises and the power they wielded upon the Third Evangelist. For oppressed people Isaiah's prophecy represents the highest hopes and dreams that the faith community could envision. God lifts up and encourages the spirits of the downcast and disheartened according to Isaiah. The reversal of fortune is a magnificent divine promise that imbues hope in an otherwise desperate situation. What could have been a more powerful word to the world into which Jesus was born? Faced with economic, political, and military turmoil—all courtesy of a Roman occupying force—the faithful Jews were desperate for a word of hope-filled promise. Most people can endure any sort of circumstance as long as the future looks different from the present. This is the picture Isaiah paints for the prophet's faith community. Later, Luke receives this magnificent promise and represents the hope it furnishes in the life of Jesus.

The context of this passage from Isaiah is apparently the plight of rebuilding that the people of Israel encountered when returning from Babylonian exile. Various conquering armies had over time devastated Jerusalem. The phrase "those who mourn in Zion" indicates a link between Jerusalem and Zion. The text announces that God is eager to reverse Israel's previous misfortune. There is to be a new day for those steadfast and faithful to Yahweh's promise. For people who have lost hope or expectancy in our day, what with Bosnia, Kosovo, and shootings in our own schools in the United States, a return to the word of hope-filled promise requires another hearing. When contemporary Christians revisit Isaiah's vision, we also return to God's promise that has sustained the faithful.

The text begins with an unidentified prophet announcing that God has anointed this prophet to speak a word of "good news." The substance of the prophet's message is first that Yahweh will build up the people returning from exile. In addition the prophet proclaims "the year of the Lord's favor," no doubt a reference to a jubilee year. Jubilee is that measurement of time, "seven years of seven years," when Israel freed its slaves and returned land to its original owners. In a jubilee year everything begins afresh with the cancellation of all debts. Jubilee means a new beginning for the people of God. Yahweh revives the people of Israel. The second component of the prophet's message is that Yahweh will also build up Zion. Thus, the promise is that God's vision will reconstitute both the people's fortunes and the holy city's fortunes. Yahweh reverses the people's fate and Jerusalem's fate. Incidentally, the reconstituted people will rebuild the holy city Jerusalem.

This text provides preachers with a cornucopia of images of reversal. A few of many images: "liberty to the captives," "a garland instead of ashes," and "the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit." Each of these images is a reversal. The despairing and dismal are replaced by God's promise of goodness and loving-kindness through the prophet's message.

Vv. 8-11 provides several windows through which to see the mercy and the grace of Yahweh poured upon God's returning exilic people. The first speaker is the Lord. The Lord declares what Yahweh loves: justice. Yahweh also declares what Yahweh hates: robbery and wrongdoing. Subsequent to these declarations is given the promise of an everlasting covenant with those who are faithful. The text also provides a description of these new covenant people. When the other nations see these new covenant people, they will see "a people whom the Lord has blessed."

Finally, the prophet rejoices and exults, apparently singing the songs of the praise of Yahweh. This joyful song recounts how Yahweh blessed the life of the prophet, and no doubt, the fortunes of the covenant people of Israel. Righteousness and praise mark the outward and inward life of this new people, reconstituted in Yahweh's righteousness and justice. When this occurs, the people will truly be home again.

For preachers the theme of a return to the promised land and the idea of homecoming for Christmas will tie together in the minds of worshippers on the third Sunday of Advent. In many small rural communities this Christmas people will "come home for the holidays." Modern sophisticated people like us twentieth century citizens scorn "the Currier and Ives" or "Norman Rockwell" images of home and hearth for the holidays. We also know all too well that there has to be more to life than mere buying and selling. We all hope that life can again have meaning and purpose. The month of December gives all but the most cold-hearted people a radiance of hope. Perhaps for some this feeling remains largely unidentified, but for many it is the hope to return to simpler times and sensitivities. To allow this text to do its work I suggest that preachers not avoid the authentic failings of this age. Rather, faithful preaching reminds us all that for us to return home we can remember that homecoming is a gift from God and not something that we ourselves can create out of whole cloth. Christmas, and its anticipation in Advent, recognize ultimately that to be fully and truly human is to rely on God for a gift we cannot give ourselves. As Isaiah reminds Jesus' generation and ours: "The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations." This is God's gift to us in Christ Jesus.

David Mosser