Comment (14th December 2008)

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-12

Isaiah’s prophecy prepares the way for the Lord, by telling what the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’, would do. The context indicates that the poor and captive and mourning were suffering injustice, which God hates; their release would herald the start of a new age of right living and of prosperity and blessing. The day of vengeance was the day their enemies would be dealt with and their release accomplished. Their sorrow would be turned into joy, their captivity into freedom, and their punishment into reward.

The Messiah would do all this. He would announce good news – of something that he was doing: he would be binding up the broken-hearted (‘blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’, Matthew 5:4); he would be releasing the prisoners and the captives (‘if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed’, John 8:36); he would turn grief and despair into joy and praise. They would then be ‘oaks of righteousness’ – a picture of sturdy and long lasting growth, not of wood but of goodness and right relationships resulting in a display not of acorns but of God’s splendour.

Isaiah sees God’s splendour displayed in the rebuilding of those places destroyed by the Babylonians when they took God’s people captive. He foresees fame and blessing for God’s people, with more rejoicing, righteousness and praise. St Paul sees God’s splendour displayed in us: ‘God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.’ (Ephesians 2:6)

What does all this mean for us?

Although the Bible teaches us very clearly that we must care for those who are not well off, this passage seems to me to be talking more about liberation from the captivity of sin. (Compare John 8:31-36.) Then, and then alone, can righteousness flourish. The transformation foretold in Isaiah 61 did not happen when the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 538 BC, nor could any time since then be described in these terms. That is why the disciples asked Jesus after his resurrection whether he was about to ‘restore the kingdom to Israel’ (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ reply indicates that the full blessing promised by Isaiah is still in the future. First comes release from sin, and the good news that through the Messiah we can be put completely right with God. When he comes again, he will make all things completely right. Our job is to prepare the way, by spreading the good news.

Questions:

1) How important should caring for the poor be to us?

2) What is good news this Christmas?