Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
Living as Captives: Our text today matches, at least in part, last week’s lectionary passage (Isaiah 40). Just as in Is. 40, a message of comfort is given to a long-wearied people living in exile. These people are described as the “poor, brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners.” (vs.1) Such a description fits well the situation of those have been removed from their homeland, forced to work for a foreign king, regardless of their wishes.
Good News is Given: It is to these people that a proclaimation of good news (gospel) is given. What is this good news? At its core it is a restoration of a community who will “rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” In other words, God will restore his people to their ancestral homes. He will help them rebuild their defensive walls and restore what was lost when they were defeated by the Babylonian empire generations ago.
A Message of Jubilee: There is much dispute over the speaker of the text, who describes himself as the one for whom the “Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me. Regardless of the author’s existence, their role is crucial to the proclamation of the good news. They employ the language of a jubilee, (the year of the Lord’s favor (vs.2)) where debts are wiped clean, where lives can start over. Again the language of comfort is used for a people who have gone through so much.
Through a series of “insteads,” (garland … ashes; gladness… mourning; praise … feint spirit), God’s people move from broken and wounded to ecstatic celebration. As Walter Brueggemann states, “the transformation is from powerless indebtedness to the restoration of dignity and viability.” (Westminster Bible Commentary) As a result of God’s work, His people are described as “Oaks of Righteousness, strong and faithful.”
A Marriage as a Sign of a Covenant: After a brief interlude in which God describes his love of justice and his hatred of robbery and wrondoing, the metaphor of a marriage is used to describe the covenantal relationship between God and His people. The wedding is a metaphor for the celebration of this covenant. God’s people are draped in garments of “salvation” and righteousness.” Just as the families and the community would celebrate a wedding of two people, so too do the people of God celebrate the renewal of the covenant with their God, which results in the dignity being restored as they return to their country.
Word study: The word translated as “bind up” (chabash), in verse 1 literally means to wrap someone tightly. Such a word evokes an experience of being comforted, not by a distant deity, but by the personal Immanuel, “God with us,” who draws near to those who call on Him. The incarnation of Jesus in advent is the climax of what it looks like for God to be with us. As the bridegroom of Christ, we too have the opportunity to bind up the brokenhearted.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Just as John saw his calling through a prophecy of Isaiah’s (ch.40), so too does Jesus as he begins his earthly ministry. Jesus interprets his calling through the first few verses of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:18-19. His vision of the messianic role includes the same kind of comfort that is spoken of by the LORD in Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus’ ministry fulfills the universality of Isaiah’s vision. It would not be just the Jews who would benefit from Jesus’ ministry, but all who believe and call Him “Lord.”
Preachers may take notice of the response elicited by Jesus’ proclamation of Isaiah 61 in terms of his own ministry. As commentator John Oswalt has argued, the “radicality of the proclamation evoked such hostility among listeners that they sought to kill him (w. 29-30).” By aligning Himself with the vision of Isaiah 61, Jesus comes dangerously close to identifying Himself as the one who brings comfort to the broken-hearted, freedom to the captives, etc., a job that only God Himself is capable of.
For Jesus to quote these verses among all the Law and Prophets shows just how significant this text was to Jesus’ self-understanding of His earthly ministry. The same language of a bride and bridegroom, found here in Isaiah 61 is picked up again in the New Testament. For the church to be the bride of Christ, is to be involved in the same ministry of Jesus himself. Preachers may want to make this connection explicit, that the bride of Christ is most radiant when she is living faithfully as Christ’s covenant partner. What does this look like? It looks like verses 1 and 2.
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
One of the things I’ve (Stu) been reflecting on recently is the idea that human suffering occurs mainly on two levels. The first is individual and the second is communal. What do I mean by that? For some people living in 2020, individually they have had a great year. They’ve gotten married to a beloved spouse, they’ve graduated from a competitive school and begun their careers. At the same time, no matter how good of a year it has been, all of us have been impacted by the challenges of 2020. With a global pandemic, harsh racial divides, not to mention a vicious political scene, it would be naïve to think that anyone has escaped some of the discouragement associated with 2020.
Our text this morning, as with many of the preceding texts in this series, are spoken to a people who have suffered on this same level, the communal. Isaiah’s prophecy is spoken to a people who have suffered greatly. Exile and displacement will do that to you. So the prophecy is given to a people who are called “poor, brokenhearted, captives, those living in darkness.”
2020 has poignantly reminded us of a central Christian belief: that we live in the “already” and “not yet”. On the one hand, Jesus has already come, he has pierced the darkness with the light of salvation. He has bound up the brokenhearted and given hope to the hopeless. And yet, sin still remains. Sickness and death still remain. We wait on His return, what will ultimately be Jesus’ second coming, where pain and death have no place.
While the situation is obviously different in many ways, what connects Isaiah 61 to 2020 is a communal pain as a result of circumstances beyond our control. The beauty of this text is that it is spoken to a people in a place of darkness and the reminder is that this is not the end of the story. That their displacement is coming to an end.
As the COVID pandemic continues month after month, people are tired. They are weary of the isolation necessitated by this disease. They need a word of hope that this time will not last forever. Just as the Jews awaited a messiah, we too await a cure for this dreaded disease. But we also recognize, that the cure to the ultimate disease: sin, does not come from a vial or a set of antibodies, but from the one true God, who became flesh and took that sin onto Himself, that we might ultimately experience eternal life.
A part of what this text testifies to is a new morning. A morning that comes with a marriage. This marriage is a celebration of the covenant relationship between God and his people. As we wait expectantly for COVID to end, may we also be seeking opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a world that is hurting.
Jesus fulfills his mission from Mark 1:14, that the “kingdom of God is at hand” by enacting not only the words but the works of the kingdom. Mark’s stress on the swift and immediate flow of Jesus’ Galilean ministry in chapter one reflects the “nearness” and “immediacy” of the kingdom. The remainder of Mark’s Gospel uses the word euthus more sparingly, but his near overuse to this point has set the scene for his readers of the the impending Kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus.
Son, ’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. Or to put it slightly differently: a contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. It is about you and me coming together to form an ‘us.’ That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform.
Jonathan Sacks, Address by the Chief Rabbi to The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.
In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling contrasts our overly busy lives with a vision of the kingdom from Isaiah chapter 61:
Isaiah envisioned a kingdom in which those people in need of grace become, over time, solidly rooted in God’s grace, enough so as to be able to extend his grace to others. He envisioned a kingdom where we would experience favor, comfort, blessing, honor, new perspectives and deepening roots that enable us to do the rebuilding, restoring, renewing work in places, structures and persons who have long been ruined (Is 61:4). These characteristics of oaks of righteousness are the fruit of apprenticeship.
Further, we, as these oaks of righteousness planted by the Lord, put his splendor on display, a display quite different from human excitement, enthusiasm and thrills. Splendor is quieter, stronger, less hurried and more deeply rooted. Oaks take a long time to grow. A newly planted acorn can take between two and three decades to provide significant shade, and these slow-growing oaks can live more than two hundred years. One reason for their longevity is the taproot they send deep into the earth that makes them very drought-resistant.
Oaks are indeed solid, stable, reliable, majestic trees—but it takes them a while to get there. Do we take that same long view of growing in Christ ourselves and helping others do the same? If so, what can we do to help others become attentive and teachable apprentices to him so that one day they will shine with his splendor and flourish in the fruit of his Spirit? Whatever it is that we do, I believe it will require a less hurried, longer perspective approach than we have commonly taken.
Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com