Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on December 14, 2014.

Some people have called the book of Isaiah, “the gospel according to Isaiah.” Christians see in its pages a hint of Jesus the Messiah, and while we must always remember to ask first what scripture was saying to its original audience, it can certainly be said that Isaiah returns again and again to the gospel theme of good news. “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). What is the best news you’ve ever received? Maybe it was the time that letter showed up in your mailbox and told you that “you’ve been accepted.” Maybe it was the time the doctor looked at you with a smile on her face and said “congratulations, you’re pregnant!” Or maybe it was a very different kind of message from a different kind of doctor—“good news, it’s benign.” The best news almost always arrives in the midst of great difficulty or great expectation; sometimes both.

Such was the case for the good news the prophet speaks of in Isaiah 61. The third section of Isaiah (Chapter 56-66, or what some commentators refer to as Trito-Isaiah) is written in a time of both great difficulty and great expectation. The exilic community has now returned home, but the hopeful idea of return has begun to crash against the reality of new challenges. The result is a mixture of both curiosity and discontent on the part of the people. They have begun to question.

But rather than condemn the people for their questions, God takes their curiosity and discontent and uses it for His own purposes. “For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them” (Isaiah 61:8). Most of us have a vision of what “the good life” might look like, a dream that we’d like to see become a reality. The post-exilic community must have had dreams of the restoration of Jerusalem, of the resurgence of their nation, perhaps even a return to the glory days of the Davidic dynasty. God, however, offers them a counter vision. Instead of merely offering them short term political stability, he instead offers them an eternal covenant. The common life of God’s people will not be constituted only in geographic terms but in their common commitment to justice and righteousness, and their common experience of salvation.

For the Christian there is a strong resonance here with the coming of Jesus (and thus with the themes we consider during Advent). The covenant communities of the 6th Century B.C. and the 1st Century A.D. both shared a hope that God would bring a new order into being, likely at the hands of a great leader. But Isaiah 61 connects this vision of a new order to “person” of the Servant of the Lord described in Isaiah 42. The Servant of the Lord will indeed help bring about a new order, but not through power but suffering, and not only politically but spiritually as well. Christians have connected the Servant texts to the person of Jesus, and Jesus himself chooses the words of Isaiah 61 for the first “sermon” he preaches (as recorded in the gospel of Luke). And yet just like the surprising nature of Isaiah 61, the crowd at the synagogue who heard Jesus sermon in Luke 4 were scandalized that the good news he proclaimed would be offered in unexpected ways.

What would it look like for us as preachers to try and open our listeners up to that same challenging but fruitful mixture of discontent and curiosity? What new possibilities might emerge in the covenant community of the 21st Century A.D. if we could? Advent is a fruitful and appropriate time for asking these questions.

Perhaps you have read about movements such as the Advent Conspiracy that, with contemporary prophetic imagination, seek to recreate a sense of prophetic expectation in us for a new world grounded in righteousness and justice. When was the last time that these two themes were a part of your Advent preaching? Just like the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke see the birth of Jesus as a catalytic moment, the arrival of the Servant of the Lord signifies the in breaking of new life into our old habits and patterns, both individually and corporately.

It is easy if we are not paying attention to exchange our birthright of newness of life for a bowl of sentiment and platitudes this time of year. But Isaiah will remind us of a good news of great joy if we will but listen and let our lives be shaped by the Lord’s anointed.

Matt CookDr. Matt Cook
Pastor, First Baptist Church
Wilmington, NC

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