David A. Davis
December 17, 2017
When preparing to preach on a particular biblical passage, preachers like me often go and find other sermons that have been given on the text. When you have been doing this for a while, that would include looking at your own past sermons. Finding other sermons is lot easier now than it used be. Back in the day the search would be limited to the books of sermons on the shelf in the study. Now, of course, a pastor can spend a morning online and find tons of sermons. In this case, sermons on Isaiah 61.
Some look for sermons by notable preachers who have inspired before or important preachers in history. Others have their “go to” church websites to listen to friends and colleagues, folks who are slugging it out week in and week out. Sermons in “real time” as it were. Preachers have to figure out a way to have their own craving for good preaching met. Not much inspiration comes if the only voice you hear is your own.
The thing about Isaiah 61 is that Jesus preached on this passage. “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.” Jesus preached on that. Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recover of sight to the blind. The oppressed go free. Jesus preached on Isaiah 61. Luke writes about it in his gospel. Luke, the fourth chapter.
After Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days in the wilderness, Luke tells of Jesus, now filled with the power of the Spirit, returning to Galilee as reports about him spread through all the surrounding country. Jesus began to teach in the synagogues of Galilee and he was, according to Luke, being praised by everyone. Then he came to Nazareth, where we had been brought up. He came to teach in the synagogue in his home town. That’s when, that’s where he preached on this passage from Isaiah.
Jesus stood up. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled it and found the place where it was written, where this was written: “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.” Jesus rolled up the scroll. He gave it back to the attendant and sat down again. All the eyes of the people in the synagogue were fixed on him. People waiting, wondering, watching. And Jesus began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And that was all he said.
He didn’t preach that sermon in the Garden of Gethsemane at the Last Supper. He didn’t preach it then and say, “Tomorrow this scripture shall be fulfilled.” He didn’t preach the sermon at his trial before Pilate, or when the soldiers were taunting and abusing him, or when he was hanging there between the two thieves. He told them, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” not “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The Risen Jesus didn’t preach this sermon at the tomb when Mary held onto his feet, or along the Emmaus Road when he taught the two men all that was in the scripture, or when he cooked breakfast for the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or when he gave the Great Commission. The Risen Christ didn’t preach Isaiah 61 then and say, “Now, finally, at last, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
No. Jesus preached Isaiah right at the beginning of his ministry in Luke. He preached it before he healed Simon’s mother-in-law, before he touched the man with leprosy and healed him, before that paralyzed man was lowered through the roof and he healed him, before he called the tax collector and the rest of the twelve, before all the teaching, before all the miracles. Jesus and Isaiah 61. It was before the Sermon on the Plain, before the parables, before the lost sheep and the lost coin and the Prodigal Son and Zacchaeus and the widow with two copper coins. Before all of that, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah, sat down, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But the sermon didn’t end there.
The sermon was his life. Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. The oppressed go free. Comfort to those who mourn. Building and repairing from ruins. Loving justice. Exulting in God. Clothed with the garments of salvation. Covered with robes of righteousness. Righteousness and praise before all the nations. Jesus preached Isaiah 61 with this life. God’s glory revealed in him. Before God’s glory revealed in his death, before God’s glory revealed in his resurrection, before God’s glory revealed in the Lamb upon the throne, God’s glory is revealed in his life, in his touch, in his teaching, in his healing, in his preaching. God’s glory revealed in his flesh.
There is a certain timelessness to the last few chapters of Isaiah. The prophet is preaching to the people of God who had, in every possible way, failed to live up to the expectations and hopes of better and more faith-filled days. Rebuilding and restoring and refreshing religious life and ritual practice and community cohesion was all a failure. Division and rejection of the other and passing judgment and splintering and separation carried the day. The faith being touted and professed was not the faith being lived and practiced.
The prophet’s encouragement, the prophet’s word, the prophet’s hope, the prophet’s “good news” comes to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners. The prophet’s “good news” is promise that life shall again flourish even from the ruins, that repair shall come to the cities, that righteousness shall rise among the nations. The prophet’s “good news” is that amid all that life-crushing devastation, even then, even now, God is faithful. God of the everlasting covenant is faithful. Amid the timeless failure of God’s people to live up to the expectation of better and more faith-filled days, and the chronic inevitability of our sinfulness, and the episodic chaos of life, God is faithful…still.
Cynthia Jarvis, pastor at the Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and once a pastor here at Nassau, puts it this way. Cindy writes, “the God who can build up ancient ruins is also the God who can redeem the ruin a prodigal son believes he has made of his life, the God who shall raise up the former devastations is also the God who means to pick up a daughter’s broken parts, the God who shall repair the ruined cities and the devastations of many generations is also the God who can repair even the ruined nation that has forgotten its way in the world.”
The prophet’s “good news” is that God’s transforming and redeeming faithfulness is revealed in the flesh of our lives. God’s glory revealed in Him, in his flesh, and thus, the hope, the promise, the yearning that God’s glory would be revealed in ours. Jesus didn’t wait until the end of his life, the end of the gospel, to preach Isaiah 61. That’s because God’s glory isn’t just about the promised life to come, it’s about life here and now. It’s about good news and comfort and repair and justice and righteousness and praise… now. In your life and in mine and in the world.
I told you all a few weeks ago to come to our Wee Christmas celebration that first Wednesday of December. You missed quite the production and proclamation. As I told the story of the birth of Jesus the second time, all the children had parts and were in costume: angels, shepherds, animals, Magi. It just so happened with the numbers that we had four or five Marys and one Joseph. Each of the Mary’s were carrying a baby doll Jesus. You will understand the decorum that allowed for the Mary’s to be “carrying the child” in the form of a doll in arms while on the way with Joseph to Bethlehem. After Joseph found them a spot for the night back in the barn, and after all the animals came to gathered round to welcome Mary and Joseph to their stable (animals being kids with horse, cow, sheep, and pig masks), the time came for Mary to deliver her child and lay him in the manger.
Now I did invite the Marys to all put their baby doll Jesuses in the manger. I did not, however, imply Jesus should be tossed into the manger with the same vigor of tossing a t-shirt at the end of the day in the dirty clothes basket. Jesus (all four or five of them) was hurled into the manger with a significant amount of force that frankly left Joseph looking rather bewildered. The result was that Jesus dolls were strewn in that manger every which way; piled in, hanging out, with no concern at all for what might be cute and cuddily. That manger was teeming with flesh. There was flesh everywhere. Humanity just spilling out of the manger.
Upon further review, that pageant image from Wee Christmas, is an apt theological metaphor for the manger, for the Incarnation, for God with us. God in Christ come all the way down. Humanity just spilling out of the manger. Because God’s glory is revealed not just in Christ’s holiness, in his divinity. God’s glory is also revealed in his flesh: in his healing touch, in his tears, in his embrace of the sinner, his welcome of the stranger, his care for the sick, his daring, boundary-crossing love, his challenge to the rich, his threat to the powerful, his frustration with the pious, his concern for the poor, his undivided attention to the broken. Good news and comfort and repair and justice and righteousness and praise with his life. The prophet’s “good news” is God’s glory revealed in Him. The prophet’s promise is that if God’s glory is revealed in Him, then God’s glory can be revealed in us, as we live for Him, as we serve Him, as we learn from Him.
There is a certain timelessness to the last few chapters of Isaiah and the promise and call for good news and comfort and repair and justice and righteousness and praise. A timeless resonance when it comes to our lives, to our community, to the nation, to the world. A timelessness relevant to the brokenness of our humanity. Here’s the prophet’s call, the prophet’s challenge, the prophet’s inspiring, convicting call upon our hearts and our lives: Isaiah 61 in one hand and the world in the other. You and I, we’ve got to start preaching. Preaching with our lives. Preaching, living, working for, telling, shouting, praying about, serving, doing, the “good news.”
“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.”
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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