Isaiah 61:1-7 – Better Days Ahead

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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations.
Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
    foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
And you will be called priests of the Lord,
    you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
    and in their riches you will boast.

Instead of your shame
    you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
    you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
    and everlasting joy will be yours. (New International Version)

The message of better days ahead was a breath of fresh air to a beaten down people.

Just today I was speaking with an intensive care nurse who said, “It’s one thing to have a hard day, or know a few weeks will be difficult. It’s altogether another thing when it seems there’s no end to the hard deaths we experience.” Whenever things have gone sideways for so long, we find our lives needing restoration and renewal.

That was the situation for the ancient Israelites. They needed deliverance from their awful predicament. They longed for healing, freedom, and comfort from their grief. After centuries of a downward spiral into disobedience and going their own way, the people found themselves bereft of resources.

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.

1 Peter 5:10, CEB

The people needed the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee was supposed to occur every fiftieth year of Israel’s existence in the Promised Land. For forty-nine years there were individuals and families who either incurred debt, indentured themselves into servitude for survival, landed in prison, or ended up laboring in the fields they once owned.

According to the Law, after the forty-nine years, on the fiftieth year, the debts were erased, slaves were freed, fields allowed to rest, and the land restored back to its original owners. God’s deliverance is meant to be not only spiritual, but also very tangible and real.

Salvation is not just otherworldly – it’s also a transformation of the world we inhabit in the here and now.

The need for good news presupposes there’s been some bad news happening. The Lord deliberately gives attention to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn, and the faint of heart. God is concerned for the lowly and the weak. 

It’s significant to note that Israel found themselves in such need not necessarily because they were always victims of adverse situations, but also because they failed to obey the stipulations of their covenant with God. 

We have no actual evidence the Israelites even practiced the Jubilee. After entering the Promised Land, by the time fifty years came down the pike, they had slid so far down the spiritual drain, it was completely off their radar to practice a Jubilee.

It seems no one had any intention of forgiving debts, freeing their indentured servants, giving back the land to original owners, or providing the land itself with a Sabbath rest. 

To not practice the Jubilee was to rob people of their land and practice injustice. But God loves justice and hates robbery. God pays attention to those who are not receiving very real and tangible needs for their lives. So, God speaks words of hope and deliverance for those in circumstances beyond their ability to cope.

The first few verses of today’s Old Testament lesson were the words Jesus read in the synagogue when he began his earthly ministry. Christianity observes that Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of this promise for deliverance and provision. He came to establish a Jubilee celebration that would never end.

It might be easy for some folks to overlook these verses as pertaining to them. After all, they are blessed, both materially and spiritually. They can always identify people who are in much more need than they are. But we must recognize that the maladies of our hearts are very real. There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us, not just them,in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like the Israelites of old. 

We must name those maladies which are stuffed away in a closet of our heart, such as: the love of things and money; severed relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; and hatred. Outward smiles and small talk may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

It’s okay to be a glowstick, sometimes we need to break before we shine.

The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs. The gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom so that we can pass on that very real good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick. 

There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help. Yet, we will not have eyes to see them, or have hearts to help, if we are stuffing our burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

On the other hand, we may too easily read today’s lesson in a manner it was not meant to be heard, as if we are more in need than we actually are, hearing it something like this: The Spirit of consumer choices is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the middle-class. He has sent me to bind up the half-hearted, to proclaim more options for the limited, and release from Black Friday for the buyers, to proclaim the year of the Cyber-Monday. 

Perhaps we may not be so crass as to say that out loud, but we might have the tendency to misinterpret Bible passages so as to avoid our own great poverty of heart.

Whichever lens we tend to look at Isaiah’s prophecy, when we become experts at ignoring our needs and emotions, we fail to see the year of Jubilee. The stark reality is that no matter who we are, we need a biblical Jubilee.

Many people are either one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, or one bad decision away from being the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want as next door neighbors.

We may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation. So, we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty. But everyone knows what a broken heart is. Everybody has a bondage they don’t want to admit. All people need renewal and restoration.

If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

How, then, shall we live?

Turn from the things which cause us poverty and bondage and turn toward delighting in the Lord your God. Rejoice, because God will make a sprout come up. God will cause us to grow. God will rebuild our ruined souls. God will restore the places of our lives that have been devastated. God will even renew the places that haven’t seen renewal for generations. It begins with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us.

God can neither bring comfort to those who don’t mourn, nor turn grief into joy unless there is an acknowledgment of a dire situation. If we want to be an oak of righteousness, then there must be a confession of despair and an allowance of God’s justice through Jesus Christ to work its way in us.

Let us envision Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty. Picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace those stinky clothes of grumbling. Allow your life to display the grace of God in Christ, since we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God.

Lord Jesus, Carpenter and King, be merciful to the multitudes who today bear the indignities of injustice everywhere. Raise up leaders in every land dedicated to your righteous standards of order, equity, and justice. Grant to us the grace to fulfill our vocation of being loyal to kingdom ethics. Sharpen our intellects to pierce the pettiness of prejudice; to perceive the beauty of human fellowship. Guide our minds to a meaningful understanding of the problems of the poor, the oppressed, the unemployed, and the needy. Incline our hearts toward them, as is your heart, O Lord. May we hunger and thirst after justice always and do it in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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