2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Part 3

The hope of heaven, of a new earth and a new order, has been developed imaginatively by generations of particular visions, some utopian and political, some allegorical and spiritual. This passage in Isaiah, which offers a litany of hope, seems to anticipate the ministry of St. John the Baptist as well as of Jesus and since then of others who proclaim the good news. Artists have imagined heaven and the "new earth" as paradise as long as this hope has been alive. An interesting tension has been held in those images between pastoral and urban versions of renewal. In the pastoral versions, such as that emphasized in today's passage, imagery of fruitful trees, flowering plants, garlands, gardens and peaceful animals predominate. In the urban versions, such as the vision of St. John at the end of the book of Revelation, heaven is a city, and its dazzling and luminous beauty is represented by an array of sparkling gemstones. Even there, though, the natural order is represented in the pure river that flows through the city. The promise of water for the thirsty symbolizes in its elemental character the promise of all other kinds of fullness and satisfaction.

The human figures in artistic representations of that promise of heaven and a new order also vary. In some paintings, such as Van Eyck's The Last Judgment,1 all the faithful are gathered like a choir, arranged in clear hierarchical order, turned toward the throne of God in praise. In Fra Angelico's altar tryptich now housed in San Marco, the apostles are seated by the throne watching a rather lively and various celebration among the faithful. Angels, monks, nuns, scholars, laborers, and ordinary folk mingle in a circle dance. In one corner a monk and an angel exchange an embrace. Two others stroll near the dancers deep in conversation. The pleasures depicted suggest that the riches of human community, enjoyed under the loving gaze of the Father who delights in our happiness, lie at the heart of this heavenly vision. Like children who play in an environment of complete security, who are happy because they feel safe and loved, this depiction of the faithful at play articulates the hope and the promise of Isaiah in a way that also recalls Jesus' teaching that only those who become as little children shall enter the kingdom.

A different focus that comes to mind in reading today's passage is the figure of the prophet himself, the one who delivers the message of good news for the oppressed. Most stories of prophets are stories of messengers whose message is misunderstood, rejected, received doubtfully, or soon forgotten, though a faithful few hear and heed and repent. What does it look like when the spirit of the Lord God is upon one? How do we discern authenticity when such a claim is made? Michelangelo's portraits of prophets on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel emphasize maturity, seriousness, concentration and interiority as characteristics of the prophet.2 Jeremiah leans into his thought like Rodin's thinker, listening deeply to some inner voice while his body is bent to the task as though the effort of such listening exacts physical energy. His brow is furrowed. Isaiah, younger, turns as though surprised in the midst of reverie, toward a cherub at his shoulder who points excitedly outward as though bringing him an urgent commission. Joel reads a scroll with an intent gaze, as though scanning it for some cryptic message while two angels stand sentinel over his solitude, one pointing toward his ear, as though to signify that to read scripture rightly is to hear the voice of God. Zechariah likewise reads, but he appears to be riffling through the pages of a weighty book, looking for some particular word. Two angels look companionably over his shoulder as well, one with his arm about the other, as though there is all the time in eternity to wait for him to find what he is looking for. Daniel, in another panel, rests his large book on the back of an atlas-like young angel who holds it up and open while the prophet turns to write on a tablet at his side. In all of these figures it is the attentiveness to interior process—reading, listening, interpreting, pondering, composing words of response—that seems to define their calling, rather than the public acts of warning and admonishing one so often associates with the prophetic task.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre


1. Janson, plate 108, p. 73.

2. Maruizio Fagiolo dell'Arco, ed., The Art of the Popes From the Vatican Collection (NY: Greenwich House, 1982), pp. 120-124.