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;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
We have arrived at the Third Sunday of Advent. This brief and often neglected season has reached its midpoint. Soon, we will gather to celebrate the birth of the one Christians call the Christ, the one who incarnates God to the world. The reading from Isaiah 61 will likely resonate with followers of Jesus, who hear in it Jesus’ own sense of calling. It was early in his ministry, after baptism and temptation, that Jesus returned home to Nazareth and took an opportunity to preach in the synagogue. Having read this very passage, Jesus applied it to himself. Although the hometown folks did not respond well to his proclamation of himself as fulfillment of the word of Isaiah, we who are Christians have looked to it to understand Jesus’ own sense of call (Luke 4:16-30).
The reading from Isaiah (Third Isaiah) plays a role in Jesus’ sense of call, but it has an original application. This word comes to the people of Judah who have returned to their homeland after their exile in Babylon. It offers good news concerning the restoration of the land and of the people. The prophet proclaims good news of God’s favor on the people who have suffered oppression. That oppression has been lifted, and “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (vs. 4). Who is this “they”? It is the ones who have suffered, the ones who have mourned, but who are now comforted. The lectionary omits verses 5-7, which speak of the nations contributing to this rebuilding effort. Perhaps the reason these verses are omitted is that they seem to reek with vengeance, not something we would want to dwell upon during a season like this, though it’s understandable.
The theme that runs through this passage is God’s concern for justice. God is the liberator who brings comfort to those who mourn, providing a “garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (vs. 3). Justice/righteousness is a concern of God, as expressed throughout the prophetic writings. It is a concern of Jesus, as seen in his application of Isaiah 61 to himself in his visit to Nazareth. There is so much injustice in our midst that we find it difficult to name it all. The litany continues to grow longer, as we face questions of income inequality, racism, sexual harassment, anti-immigrant sentiment, and more. The list has grown long enough that many of us have grown weary trying to respond. Yet, the need remains. The call for justice continues to ring out.
Monica Coleman notes that the prophet not only picks up on the physical repression experienced by the exiles, “but also of the nihilism and despair that typify the disenfranchised.” She reminds those who work of justice not to “be so preoccupied with systems and structures that we forget to encourage and inspire the hearts of those ground down by social oppression” [Proclaiming God’s Transforming Justice, pp. 22-23]. Here is that weariness that numbs everyone, or so it seems, to the realities of our time.
Yet, there is good news. The prophet proclaims that “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being will exult in my God.” Why? Because God “clothes me with the garments of salvation.” This is a word of promise on the part of God to bring salvation, that is healing and wholeness to the land. The season of Advent is understood to be a season of waiting. The word that keeps coming is “be patient.” God will be faithful. God will pour out favor on the land. To returning exiles there is a mixture of feelings. There is relief at their liberation, but also a sense of concern about the ruined landscape that they find upon their return. The prophet tells them not to worry, salvation will come.
Advent has a way of tempering expectations (at least in principle). There is this now/not yet sense of reality. We see signs of change, but not its fullness. We will have to wait for the Parousia, the coming of the realm of God in its fullness, to see the full flowering of justice in the land. But, when that happens, praise will spring up from the nations. While the message of Advent is a counsel of patience, that doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do. The exiles didn’t just return home to Palestine and sit and wait for walls and Temple to miraculously rise from the land. They understood that they would play a role in this experience of divine blessing. That would be true for us as well. God is faithful to the covenant promises, but that covenant calls forth from us a response that leads to justice.
Picture 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 11, 2017]. 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.