Advent 2020: Tear Down the Heavens

December 17 | 3rd sunday of advent |Year B

Dressed in Righteousness

Updated & expanded for 2023

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 | Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24| John 1:6-8, 19-28


Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Ancient lens

What’s the historical context?

Living as Captives

Our text today matches, at least in part, last week’s lectionary passage (Isaiah 40). Just as in Isaiah 40, a message of comfort is given to a long-weary 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 who 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 proclamation 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.

The people of God were living in exile, away from their ancestral homes and their place of worship. It must have felt like the end of the world. Waiting and waiting to return to their ancestral homes. Waiting and waiting to once again worship in their own temple, where the very presence of God lived. Waiting and waiting for a homecoming. As Lamentations attests, “They heard how I was groaning, with no one to comfort me” (Lam. 1:2,9,17,21).

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 … faint 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 wrongdoing, 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: Chabash

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.

Jesus lens

How do we point to Jesus?

Understanding the Call Through Isaiah’s Words

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 impact us today?

Two Types of Suffering

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, and 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, is 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 New Day with a Marriage

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.

At the very least, most of us can relate to feelings of displacement. Or at the very least, feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging. Loneliness has become an epidemic in a long list of countries. Many of us, especially coming out of the COVID pandemic, are not quite sure how to reconnect with our neighbors and our communities. As the world seems more and more divided, we’re afraid of being judged for our faith or our political views. Perhaps we aren’t quite sure how to connect like we used to. And so, without trying to draw a 1-1 correlation, I think there is a part of us that can relate to the pain of exile.

Sermon resources

Key Quotes

“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.

Key Illustration

Oaks of Righteousness

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.

Discussion Questions

  • The scripture passage begins with God’s people in exile, longing to return home. Most of us have never experienced a similar exile…but are there ways, or seasons, in which you have felt like an outsider? Or felt as though you didn’t quite belong in the place you lived? 
  • In what ways do the themes of exile and waiting resonate with the human experience, both historically and in contemporary contexts?
  • What significance do the “insteads” mentioned in the text (e.g., garland instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning) resonate in your own life as you’ve experienced the ups and downs of life?
  • How might the message of Isaiah 61 and the promise of restoration inspire us to provide comfort and hope to individuals and communities facing adversity in our own time?
  • The text speaks of a time of comfort after a period of long suffering. Has there been a time or times in your own life that God redeemed after a long period of pain?
  • In this season of Advent-of expectant waiting, where might God be working within you to bring healing and hope?

Liturgical resources

Call to Worship

Adapted from Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Adapted from Psalm 126 (Modern day Context)

When the LORD restored the fortunes of _______, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the people, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the ________.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their harvest.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Prayer of Confession

Almighty and most merciful Father, we are thankful that your mercy is
higher than the heavens, wider than our wanderings,
deeper than all our sin.
Forgive our careless attitudes toward your purposes, our refusal to relieve the suffering of others,
our envy of those who have more than we have,
our obsession with creating a life of constant pleasure,
our indifference to the treasures of heaven,
Help us to change our way of life
so that we may desire what is good,
love what you love,
and do what you command,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Assurance of Pardon

As Jesus healed the afflicted and restored those who have died, he also forgives our sins and gives us new life.
Leader: Friends, believe the good news of the gospel.
People: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven!


May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 15:5-6 

Great Isaiah Scroll<br />
The Great Isaiah Scroll, the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Photo by David Harris, ©Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

More Quotes: Advent 3

More Illustrations: Advent 3

Stu Strachan Jr.

Stu Headshot

Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.

In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.