We lit the pink candle this morning, which means it’s time to rejoice. This is the message the prophet delivered to a group of people who had returned home from exile in Babylon: “I will rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation.” Paul puts it this way in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). So, in the words of an old Three Dog Night song, let us sing: “Joy to the world, all the boys and girls, now Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me.”
When the exiles returned home from Babylon, they found their homeland lying in ruins. To get a sense of the devastation that is envisioned by this post-exilic prophet, we might think in terms of what we’ve observed from the wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. When you survey this kind of devastation, calls to rejoice might seem out of place. Yet, that is the message we hear in this word from Isaiah 61.
The prophet’s words of joy and praise to God might seem naive, but he’s well aware of the situation at hand. The reason the prophet can rejoice is because the Spirit of God had anointed him to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the brokenhearted. He could rejoice because he understood that God loved justice and would fulfill the covenant made to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
The opening lines of this passage are familiar to us because Jesus turned to them to define his call to ministry after being baptized by John. When Jesus returned home to Nazareth, he was asked to read the scripture for the day in the local synagogue. The words he read came from Isaiah 61:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
When he finished reading, he told the congregation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:16-30). Now not everyone appreciated his application of the text, but in doing this Jesus embraced his calling to preach good news to the oppressed. That gives hope to those who live on the margins of society. Consider this word from Esau McCaulley’s book Reading While Black:
Isaiah 61:1, as a central pillar of Jesus’ ministry philosophy, tells the Black Christian that neither slavery nor Jim Crow nor housing discrimination, nor loan discrimination nor any other weapon influences God’s love for them. In fact, it is just the opposite. God displays his glory precisely in rejecting the value systems posed by the world. [Reading While Black, p. 93].
While the prophet had Judeans living under Persian rule in mind when he made this declaration, Christians hear these words anew in light of Jesus’ Spirit-inspired claim to be God’s vehicle for justice and reconciliation in the world. Therefore, to be a follower of Jesus is to embrace the prophet’s claim that God loves justice (Is. 61:8).
When the prophet speaks of justice, he has more in mind than a synonym for “law and order.” It is important that we remember that the Messiah, the one who is anointed by the Spirit, proclaims “liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” In other words, the message here is not one of “lock them up!” It’s “set them free.”
As we move toward Christmas, it’s good to remember that when the babe born in Bethlehem grew up, he was filled with the Spirit so he could proclaim God’s justice. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we have been called to proclaim the “year of the Lord’s favor” and “the day of vengeance of our God.” If we do this then we can offer comfort to those who mourn. As we embody God’s love of justice for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captive, and the imprisoned, then together we exchange our mourning clothes for wedding clothes. As the Psalmist puts it: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” [Ps. 30:5].
Our reading from Isaiah 61 concludes with a celebration of God’s abundance. This too is cause for joy. The prophet reveals to us that “the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” When we hear the word righteousness, we should hear the word justice as well.
For the prophet and for us, this joyous message of God’s justice is rooted in God’s everlasting covenant with Israel. We have been added into the covenant people of God through Jesus. So together with Israel, we share in God’s blessings (Is. 61:8-9). So, let us join with the angels in singing
“Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Joyful, all ye nations, rise, join the triumph of the skies; With the angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” [“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”]
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 13, 2020
Attribution: Wall of Praise at Thanks-giving Square, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56332 [retrieved December 12, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_%22Wall_of_Praise%22_at_Thanks-Giving_Square,_a_small_(actually_triangular)_park_in_downtown_Dallas,_Texas,_that_is_operated_by_the_non-profit_Thanks-Giving_Foundation_LCCN2014633401.tif – Carol M. Highsmith.