Peace in God’s Promises

Isaiah 61




This morning is our final week in the Old Testament. Each year in September we start again in Genesis and follow the story of God’s people through creation, calling, covenant, and cycles of faithfulness and failure. We follow the story through God’s harsh cure, the hard reset of exile, and we end where the Old Testament ends, with return. After the exile, some people returned to the land of their ancestors. But they had been gone for a long time, and when they got back they discovered that things weren’t as good as they had expected. Maybe that resonates with you this morning: you wait and wait for something and when you finally get it, you discover it’s not all it was cracked up to be. This morning I want to reflect with you about how to find peace when reality doesn’t meet your expectations.

Our text for this morning comes from the book of Isaiah. The chapter we are going to read is one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible. Maybe my absolute favorite. It’s a scripture that has inspired me for many years. Every time I read it, I feel like the universe opens up a little bit and a I get a glimpse of something bigger than myself. 

Let me read it to you. This is Isaiah chapter 61.

The Spirit of Sovereign Yahweh is on me,
    because Yahweh has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim liberty for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Yahweh’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 Yahweh
    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 Yahweh,
    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.

“For I, Yahweh, love justice;
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
    and make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants will be known among the nations
    and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge
    that they are a people that Yahweh has blessed.”

I delight greatly in Yahweh;
    my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
    and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up
    and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Yahweh will make righteousness
    and praise spring up before all nations.

Isaiah 61

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

That has to be some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible. It is poetry. It is prophecy. And it is promise. Poetry, prophecy, and promise all make more sense when you understand the context, what’s happening when they were written. This is poetic prophetic promise from after the exile, once the people have returned. It’s been about 60 years, so some of the people who returned had never seen their homeland in the first place. But they had been raised on stories of what it was like back in the good old days. 

Unfortunately, the present never seems to live up to our rosy memories of the past, does it? By the time we get to chapters 56 through 66 in Isaiah the people who have returned are falling into the same bad habits as their ancestors did. There’s infighting between rival religious and political groups. The have religious and political leaders who are only interested in personal gain. The justice system is corrupt. Community spirit is flagging. The Judean people assume that God is only on their side and that all their enemies are God’s enemies. And the economy is weak.

But the people have all of these promises that the prophets gave them during the exile that said they would have a glorious homecoming. So they are pretty confused because their situation doesn’t feel very glorious. What’s going on? Were the prophets wrong? Has God failed them?

In the middle of all this mess we find Isaiah 60, and 61 which we just read, and chapter 62. These three chapters, in the middle of 11 chapters of disappointment and failure, these three chapters are full of poetry and promise. Hope for the future.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim liberty 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. 

As we read these verses you may be asking the very good question, “Who is me?” The text says “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has appoint me to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” Who is it talking about when it says “me”? Well I’ll tell you. We don’t know. And if you think it’s Jesus, I’ll ask you to hold your horses. At this point, when this text was written, there was no Jesus yet. But the Jewish people have kept and treasured this text, so even if we think it means Jesus, and we’ll talk about that in a few weeks, it can’t only mean Jesus. 

There are other places in the book of Isaiah where we find descriptions of a suffering servant, a mysterious figure who is willing to sacrifice their own comfort, safety, and power to participate in God’s work of justice. But scholars do not know who this suffering servant is. In general Jews are much better than Christians at living with ambiguity and mystery in their faith, so this doesn’t really bother them. Maybe this suffering servant is the Jewish people themselves, people who were blessed to be a blessing but have been persecuted for all of history. Maybe it’s the Messiah. Maybe it was a specific person at the time of the writing of the prophecy whose identity has been lost to history. Or, here’s an idea, maybe it’s you. 

I honestly believe that one of the reasons the Bible does not tell us the identity of this person is so that each of us can read the word “me” and think “me.” Would you read this out loud with me at home?

“The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me,
because Yahweh has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to bind up 
the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty for the captives
and release from darkness 
for the prisoners.

God’s poetic prophetic promises inspire us. They are designed to remind us who we want to be, what is possible if we align ourselves with God. We cannot do these things in our own strength. And we cannot do them if we are religious hypocrites, filling our lives with violence and greed and idolatry. Somebody has to do the work of God in the world. Does God make a way where there is no way? Yes. But God uses willing women and men as the vehicles for accomplishing justice and mercy. These poetic prophetic promises inspire us to participate in God’s renewal of creation. We are responsible to live well. What we do matters for God’s Kingdom.

Fully trusting Christ, fully committing yourself to a lifetime of walking in God’s way, asking Jesus into your heart, going through Confirmation, becoming a Christian— however you say it, however you get there— what it means is realizing that the Spirit of Yahweh is upon YOU. Your baptism is an anointing to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release from darkness to the prisoners, and to comfort all who mourn. That’s your calling as a Christian and that’s our calling as Christian community, as the body of Christ. 

And that realization, knowing who you are in God and what you are called to do, that realization brings tremendous peace. Peace means wholeness, congruence, integrity, all things in line. No matter what you do to make a living, your calling is to speak good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, liberate to those who are bound up, and to bring light into dark places. Amen.

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