Advent Themes in Isaiah 61
This talk was given by Neil Banks on .
We join the talk part way through the reading of Isaiah 61 verses 1 to 4 and 8 to 11 from the Contemporary English Version (CEV).
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- The introduction to the talk and the first three verses of the reading from Isaiah 61 are not included.
- [00' 00"] Isaiah 61 (CEV)
- [04' 40"] Luke 4: Jesus in the synagogue
- [09' 05"] Today’s O Antiphon
Isaiah 61 verses 1–4 and 8–11
1 The Spirit of the Lord God
has taken control of me!
The Lord has chosen and sent me
to tell the oppressed
the good news,
to heal the brokenhearted,
and to announce freedom
for prisoners and captives.
2 This is the year
when the Lord God
will show kindness to us
and punish our enemies.
The Lord has sent me
to comfort those who mourn,
3 especially in Jerusalem.
He sent me to give them flowers
in place of their sorrow,
olive oil in place of tears,
and joyous praise
in place of broken hearts.
They will be called
“Trees of Justice,”
planted by the Lord
to honour his name.
4 Then they will rebuild cities
that have been in ruins
for many generations.
Then on to verse 8.
8 I, the Lord, love justice!
But I hate robbery
My people, I solemnly promise
to reward you
with an eternal agreement.
9 Your descendants will be known
in every nation.
All who see them will realize
that they have been blessed,
by me, the Lord.
10 I celebrate and shout
because of my Lord God.
His saving power and justice
are the very clothes I wear.
They are more beautiful
than the jewelry worn
by a bride or a groom.
11 The Lord will bring about
justice and praise
in every nation on earth,
like flowers blooming
in a garden.
I think it’s important to put some context when reading this text. When Isaiah was writing this, some 700 years before Christ, Judah was under threat. It was lurching from one conflict to another. There were wars and rumours of wars. People had turned away from God and pessimism, fear, and suspicion reigned. Does that sound familiar to anybody?
People at this time were living without God and hope. And these readings deal with the triumphant return of Israelites from their exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been invaded and destroyed but, more than that, God’s home on earth, the Temple in Jerusalem, had been obliterated.
It’s a sad fact that when invading armies ride roughshod into countries they also do it over cultural and religious beliefs. We can see in our own nation’s history and we see in our modern world. In the time of Isaiah it was the same. Practising Judaism could bring death on you and all of your family. The captive Israelites in Babylon were living as slaves. I wonder how many of us would truly consider ourselves to be captives. Of course we can use the metaphorical captivity like drug addiction, alcoholism, debt, gambling. But we actually have the privilege of being free.
The closest modern context I could think of would be for those Christians living in Iraq when Islamic State took over and the atrocities they faced and witnessed for being Christian. When IS were overthrown and they were subsequently released from their tyranny, I think of how joyous that must have felt, the celebration but also that determination to rebuild their churches and communities
For Isaiah, the prisoners in this text were also more likely to be political rather than robbers and murderers. Isaiah was using the metaphor of the hostage finally seeing the cell door flung open and that dawning realisation that the long-awaited Saviour has come.
The hopeful message here is one of homecoming, rebuilding, restoration, and renewal of the city of Jerusalem, but also preparing the way for the return of Yahweh. This message is joyful but, in the context of the time, it crackles with revolutionary zeal. You see, the Jews faced a long wait for God to redeem his people from exile and enable them to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. Isaiah’s words are for the oppressed, humiliated, and browbeaten Jews hoping for God to act in a time of crisis.
Now, some seven hundred years after Isaiah wrote this, Jesus, that baby born in humble circumstances and yet so full of messianic promise, now a grown man, enters the synagogue in Nazareth fresh from his time in the wilderness and reads this very part of Isaiah.
Now this event would not have been extraordinary in itself. Jesus was a Jew, after all. He went to synagogue and no doubt publicly read from time to time. But this is different because this text in its messianic promise would have been well known to all who were listening.
So to read from Luke chapter four verse 16, briefly.
Jesus went back to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and as usual he went to the meeting place on the Sabbath. When he stood up to read from the Scriptures, he was given the book of Isaiah the prophet. He opened it and read,
“The Lord’s Spirit
has come to me,
because he has chosen me
to tell the good news
to the poor.
The Lord has sent me
to announce freedom
to give sight to the blind,
to free everyone
and to say, ‘This is the year
the Lord has chosen.’”
Jesus closed the book, then handed it back to the man in charge and sat down. Everyone in the meeting place looked straight at Jesus.
Then Jesus said to them, “What you have just heard me read has come true today.”
All the people started talking about Jesus and were amazed at the wonderful things he said. They kept on asking, “Isn’t he Joseph’s son?”
Now, obviously, that was a surprising event in that synagogue, but Jesus takes it one step further. You see, he starts to preach about the times when God’s message had come to Gentiles. This was blasphemy, scandalous, and in the ensuing fracas he is almost killed for saying it. Now to me this is like a rabbi preaching at one of the most sacred sites in Jerusalem that God Himself will deliver the Palestinians from Jewish oppression in Gaza – it is that strong.
Now, of course, we know that Jews were waiting for Yahweh, and there were plenty of people making claims at the time to be the fulfilment of this prophecy. But, unlike the fakers and the charlatans, Jesus is the real deal. He backs up his claims. Just look at what he goes on to do in Luke four.
- In verse 31: he went to the town of Capernaum in Galilee and taught the people on the Sabbath.
- Verse 35: he ordered the evil spirit to be quiet and come out
- Verse 38: Jesus left the meeting place and healed many people.
- Verse 40: demons went out of many people and shouted, “You are the Son of God!”
- Finally, verse 43: Jesus said, “People in other towns must hear the good news about God’s kingdom. That’s why I was sent.”
He fulfilled the prophecy, he healed people, cast out demons, was preaching the Good News, freeing the oppressed, people’s lives totally transformed through meeting Jesus, no doubt about that. This is Immanuel, God among his people.
But Jesus’ message is not just for the Jews. The promise is for anyone who follows him, then and now. This is good news for all the people who choose to hear it.
You see, as Christians we know that Advent is joyous preparation for a huge celebration. Celebration that Immanuel truly did come and live among us. Died for our sins, and rose again to greatness.
Joyous celebration that God comes to us in our daily lives, our baptism, through answers to prayer, at the end of our lives, joyous celebration that Christ will come again in glory
Advent reminds us that we cannot save ourselves. How many people do we know whose lives will be transformed by meeting Jesus?
I believe that the prophecy of Isaiah, fulfilled through Jesus, now rests with all Christians to declare the year of the Lord’s favour.
Today’s O Antiphon
And I’d just like to end by reading today’s antiphon again.
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High.
You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner:
O come to teach us the way of truth.
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Scripture quotations marked CEV on this page and within the talk are from the Contemporary English Version (CEV) Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society. Used by permission.