Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Broadway Baptist Church
Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2011
“We know that not to believe it would be to live in that cold, joyless place where it is always winter but never Christmas.”
Young William—or “Trey” as his family called him—was a bit of an under-achiever. He enjoyed being the class clown in school and being a bit of a goof-off.
It got to a point where eventually Trey’s parents felt it necessary to send him off to a private school that would provide a more strict and structured environment for him. They sent him to a psychiatrist for a while to help him better understand how to focus his concentration so that he would work harder.
When Trey was 13 he met a friend who had similar interests. As these two kind of “nerdy” guys grew older, they went off to college but quit after a couple of years to form their own company.
They had some interesting ideas and a little money—about $15,000. But Trey made the right business decisions with his first simple product, and received the attention of a business giant, which paid him to develop something they needed.
He did so successfully and then continued to build on his successes. About 10 years later at the age of 35, he became the youngest person in America ever to reach billionaire status. Now in his mid 50’s, he is the richest individual in the entire world with a net worth of 56 billion dollars.
For young Trey (or William H. Gates III or BGIII or Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft) it didn’t start off so promising. And yet, his story is one of a reversal of fortune.
Just the kind of story we enjoy hearing, isn’t it? We like to read books and watch movies about people who in some way or another, either through hard work or just dumb luck, have their lives turned around. We love these rags to riches tales, and countless rags to riches books and movies have been big sellers. Cinderella stories, we sometimes call them. We like stories about a reversal of fortune.
If you like a good reversal of fortune story, you’ll love our text for today.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, the prophet Isaiah says, 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;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
Reversal of fortune.
Remember what has happened to the people of Israel. They have been in the darkest period of their history. The Babylonians had taken over their Promised Land. Their temple had been destroyed—the dwelling place of God, the center of their worship and their identity as apeople. They had then been removed from their homeland and scattered all over the area in what is called the exile.
Chapters 56-66 most likely belong to the period after the first stages of return and rebuilding in Judah around 520-500 BC or possibly even later.
In Isaiah 61:1-4, an unnamed speaker announces a special calling that he has been given by God to bring about the renewal of the community.
The good news in this announcement is that the beloved city of Jerusalem, left in shambles by the Babylonians, will be rebuilt (v. 4). Isaiah points to precisely what so many people long for every single day of their lives: the great reversal.
The poor whose lives have for so long been filled with nothing but bad news get the gift of good news. Those long held captive in dungeons and prisons of all kinds get promised their freedom. Those who for years have spent so many days dampening handkerchiefs with their tears get comforted and pointed toward a day of smiles and laughter. Ashes get blown away to make way for glittering crowns. The drab clothes of mourning get replaced with festive and colorful garments fit for a great party. People who for too long have felt like dead branches are promised that they will soon stand as tall and sturdy as the grandest oak tree.
This is Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations actually having her groom arrive at last. The window shades go up, the sun streams in, the old and rotten wedding cake is replaced with a freshly iced one. Miss Havisham’s tattered wedding dress is swapped out for a glistening new gown of silk and lace, and the long-postponed (and apparently never-to happen) wedding takes place among great laughter and smiles all around from the throng of friends and family who have suddenly burst in on her loneliness from seemingly out of nowhere.
This is Robert Griffin III of Baylor, of all places, winning the Heisman Trophy.
This is Nelson Mandela emerging from his jail cell after so many years of unjust incarceration and walking out into the sunlight of a new day dawning. This is the rollback of injustice and of oppression as this once-imprisoned man takes the oath of office as president of the very nation that had locked him away for 27 long years.
This is exuberant crowds of disbelief standing atop the Berlin Wall and taking whacks at it with sledgehammers as the old order of things was swept away. This is East German families streaming through the cracks in the walls to embrace loved ones who for decades had lived both three miles away and a million miles away on the other side of the wall.
This is tears of wonder. This is Psalm 122 when people arrive at a new day and find their mouths filled with laughter they could not suppress even if they tried.
This is Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings awakening in a sunlit room only to see Gandalf—who they were sure had died—standing watch over their beds and letting loose with a laugh so contagious it soon swept up everyone in the vicinity. This is Sam asking the eschatological and profoundly joyful question, Does this mean that everything bad that has ever happened is going to be unmade? This is God’s “Yes” to that a question.
We all long for these kinds of reversals deep down inside. Even those who are not outwardly imprisoned, even those who by all worldly standards are far from being poor in any economic sense, even those whose fashionable outfits seem miles away from garments of rags and whose heads show no sign of being laden with ashes:
we all long for the day of the great reversal. Scratch the surface of anyone’s life, I heard someone say, and you’ll find just below that outwardly calm-looking surface a world of hurts enough to bring most anyone to tears.
Isaiah 61 is a wonderful text for Advent because it speaks of a hope that God is coming to restore and redeem the world.
And in Luke 4:18-19, Jesus himself quite specifically claims this text for himself and his vocation. Jesus steps forward and says, You know that one that Isaiah was talking about who’s going to bring about that great reversal? That’s me. I am the anointed one of God who will
liberate the defeated,
bring hope to the hopeless.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he went back to Nazareth, his hometown– where he grew up. On Saturday, he went to the synagogue to preach. He stood up to read and the clerk of the synagogue gave him the scroll, which contained that day’s reading. It was from the book of Isaiah. Jesus unrolled the scroll and read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he rolled up the scroll and sat down. Then he said, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
This scripture from Isaiah about God bringing about a great reversal of fortune for all people was fulfilled in the birth and the life and the ministry of Jesus Christ.
Some of my favorite books as an elementary age kid were The Chronicles of Narnia books by C. S. Lewis. The first of those books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is the story of a group of English schoolchildren who discover at the back of a tall wardrobe a secret door into a magical land called Narnia. At first, Narnia seems to be nothing but a winter wonderland—a place where animals talk and serve a beautiful sleigh-riding queen.
As time goes on, however, it becomes clear that things are not as marvelous as they appear. The Queen is far from benevolent. The delicious treats she so sweetly offers turn out to be dangerously addictive. Some of the Narnians are ruthless predators on the Queen’s payroll; others know that something is wrong but hide their feeling in fear of rejection or punishment.
Life goes on like this in Narnia—a place where it is said to be always winter but never Christmas.
And then, one day, the children hear a Word whispered behind closed doors. They hear that Someone called “Aslan,” has entered the land. The good king Aslan is on the move, they’re told.
Listen to C. S. Lewis describe the children’s response to this news:
Perhaps it has happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand, but it feels as if it had tremendous meaning… a lovely meaning which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all of your life… always wishing that you could get into that dream again. It was like that now.
At the name of Aslan, each of the children felt something jump inside… [Peter] felt as if some delicious fragrance or some delightful strain of music had just floated by. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the start of the holidays, or the beginning of summer.
It’s a great story that evokes strong feelings in me when I read it or see the movie. And obviously it has this effect on many people. The reason we still find something within us jumping at the very mention of the King’s name is because this story strikes a chord of truth within us. It speaks to our deepest hopes and deepest longings. It is because the greatest children’s story of the last century echoes the greatest true story of all time.
In the 6th Century B.C., the prophet Isaiah foresaw the Advent (the coming) of the true King and described in very specific terms what this Suffering Servant, the long-expected Messiah of mankind, would do.
500 years later, a baby was born in Bethlehem, grew up into a man, and stood before his home-town congregation. He read aloud the first two verses of Isaiah 61, and then declared in terms that signaled a staggering shift in the climate of a creation gone dark and cold, a world where it seemed always to be winter but never Christmas.
He said: Today, these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.
And maybe when you hear those words it makes you feel like you’ve experienced a beautiful dream that you want to hold on to.
Maybe when you hear those words you feel something jump inside, like wonderful fragrance or beautiful piece of music has just floated by.
Maybe when you hear those words you feel like when you wake up and realize that today is a holiday. You don’t have to go to school today.
Maybe when you hear those words it strikes a chord of truth somewhere deep inside of you and addresses your deepest hopes and greatest longings.
That’s what the story of Jesus does. Jesus’ life was a story of reversal of fortune, the kind of story that we love to hear.
One reversal after another:
The great God of the universe became a baby in a manger.
Jesus ate with sinners and condemned the religious leaders.
He exalted the outcasts and ignored the powerful.
He gave sight to the blind.
Freedom to the oppressed.
And in the ultimate reversal of fortune, Jesus went into a tomb dead and came out of the tomb alive. And when we enter into this story we take all our failure and guilt and shame and weakness and fear and bury it with Christ in the grave. And just as Jesus came out of the grave we are reborn with a new life in Christ—we are raised up to walk in newness of life.
The ruins are rebuilt.
The defeated are liberated.
This is the message of incredible good news proclaimed in Isaiah and fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
To say that God really has sent the anointed one to change the lives of the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, those bound in prison, and those who mourn is almost impossible to believe, really.
To say that God really will rebuild the ruins of our lives, that God really will give garlands instead of ashes, that God really will bury the messes we’ve made and failures we’ve experienced and give us a rebirth—
to make that claim is really hard to believe. I wonder if you really believe it. It’s almost impossible to believe.
It sounds like one of those too-good-to-be-true offers that smart people like us know not to believe. You’ve seen the signs: Make $2,000 week working from home in your spare time. It’s too good to be true. We know better than to believe that.
But many of us here today do believe it.
I think—at least this time of year— it’s because when we hear the story of the baby Jesus, it makes something jump inside of us. And when we hear his words, that today these promises from Isaiah have been fulfilled in our hearing, it feels as though our greatest hopes and deepest longings are being addressed.
And we know that not to believe it would be to live in that cold, joyless place where it is always winter but never Christmas.
But to believe it is to have that lump in the throat, that something jump inside, the quickening of the pulse in anticipation, that wide-eyed wonder that is Christmas.
[Thanks for some of these examples to Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, Isaiah 61:1-4, 7-11, December 5, 2011, BB]