Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-11
Once again, we are given an opportunity to hold space for grief, lament, and mourning in this Advent season, this week through the prophet Isaiah.
But we must also point to the promise of restoration in this text with special attention to from whom and through whom tangible healing, repair, and hope will come.
Spirit of the Lord upon me
Last week the prophet Joel revealed to Judah how it is that we can return to God with our whole hearts and be rewarded with the Spirit of God. This week the preacher can focus in on our purpose as those who have received the Spirit of God. For the gift of the Spirit is not for the sake of individual salvation alone. It is for the sake of partnership in the work God wills in and for the whole of creation. The Spirit of God falls upon flesh for concrete acts in the world.
Our pericope is grounded in what many scholars call “Trito” or “Third-Isaiah.” This selection of chapters (56-66) is associated with Israel’s return from geographical exile (described in chapters 40-55). Its concern is that orthopraxy be established upon the people’s return. Israel has a chance upon physical return to rebuild a city and society that will not repeat the injustices of the past that led to exile.
But who will be the architect of this new way of being?
First of all, God’s word is the architect. God is the chief (arkhi) builder (tektōn) of just ways of being. This designing word endures through Isaiah as generations at various levels of attention to the plan pass away. Throughout Isaiah, God’s designing word is active through prophets and seeking response through prophets and people. The design requires builders, engineers, laborers, and materials to manifest itself. Architects cannot complete their vision on their own.
This enduring plan and Planner is the source of Hope. Hope then is not merely an intellectual nor spiritual exercise. Hope is a way of being and becoming designed by God’s word.
The advent of something new
Who are those particular sort of people partnering with God’s designing word to reconstruct Israel?
Not the CEOs and internet moguls. Not the celebrities and politicians.
Rather, Isaiah proclaims that it will be the poor, the brokenhearted, the former captive and incarcerated, and mourners who will “repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (verse 4). Why is this so? Perhaps those on the receiving end of injustice and greed can envision an alternative way of being as a society. These partners can collaborate with God’s designing word and not coerce the course back to a familiar repletion of the conditions which led to destruction in the first place. Perhaps God knows that a society built from below is more just and beautiful than one built from on high with false promises of trickle-down justice and hope. Perhaps these are the people who will collaborate with God in reconstruction rather than serve false gods of greed, money, power.
Jesus as example
The author of Luke saw Isaiah’s vision for the spirit-filled servant in Isaiah 61 as fulfilled through Jesus (Luke 4:16-21). For this reason, pieces of this text are read in the synagogue before Jesus preaches his first hometown sermon. Jesus is empowered by the Spirit of the Lord in order to live out a particular mission: bringing Good News to the poor (not the rich); binding up the brokenhearted; proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to prisoners (what is the distinction between the two?); and providing all that is necessary for those who mourn to be strengthened in spirit.
But proclamation is not the end. There is purpose to the Spirit’s restoring work of particular souls. The arc of Luke-Acts reinforces this aim of Isaiah 61 over time. The Word of God acts in the world. The Spirit of God comes to initiate a repair of society from the inside out, from the bottom rung to the top. And the ones called to partner in rebuilding are those who suffered in the former regime (economically, judicially, physically, and spiritually). This is what the Spirit of God does.
What difference does it make to see Jesus as the one who fulfills this prophecy? From the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, with the sung thesis of Jesus’ life and mission erupting from a pregnant Mary overshadowed by the same Spirit, this connection to Isaiah is made. The story of Advent is the story about the lengths and depths God goes to restore God’s image in us and to heal creation by establishing “God’s intended reign” from unexpected places and persons.1 It is important to remind the church that this story arc moves beyond purely spiritual implications. Rooted in the prophetic voice of Isaiah, Jesus and the apostles proclaim the message of Isaiah 61 through practical, physical acts as well as through spoken words.2
God’s word impacts the world still through Spirit-filled servants willing to labor in the world for God’s designing word to have its way in us and through us.
A lingering question
2020 has been a year of exile, a year of the crumbling of familiar infrastructure. If and when there is a return to our buildings, schools, families, etc., who should we trust to partner with God in the rebuilding of a more just church, country, world?
- Frederick W. Schmidt, “Preaching Advent: A Theocentric Approach in an Anxious World,” Journal for Preachers 41, no. 1 (2017): 4.
- Caleb C. Afulike, “Luke’s Portrayal of the Social Dimension in the Ministry of Jesus and the Apostles (Luke-Acts) According to Isaiah’s Message of Social Justice in Chapters 61:1-2 and 58:6,” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 17, no. 2 (2018): 41–54.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Spirit of the Lord God,
You bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the prisoners. You comfort all who mourn, and shower your people with the oil of gladness instead of mourning; a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. We will greatly rejoice in the Lord, our whole being shall exult in God, for the sake of the one who brought righteousness to life, Jesus Christ our salvation. Amen.
Choose something like a star, Randall Thompson