3rd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

St Barbara’s; 17.12.2023

Rev Jeremy Bevan

I wonder what you made of that reading from the prophet Isaiah? It sounds like good news, doesn’t it? Binding up the broken-hearted, good news for the poor?

But if you were here last week, you’ve heard it all before. Dan spoke to us of the promise in Isaiah 40 of the kingdom yet to come for the downcast exiles of Judah in Babylon. The words of Isaiah 61 probably date from a generation or two after those exiles returned from Babylon. But things back home were still very far from OK – not the glorious reality people had hoped for. Having to proclaim the good news again is to admit it’s not yet reality. So another prophet in Isaiah’s mould proclaims liberty amid continuing oppression, hope instead of the grief and faint-spirited despair under which people and society are breaking down and needing good news as never before.

But if Isaiah 61 is just a re-run of chapter 40, why trust that things will be different just because another prophet says so? Are there really any guarantees there will be ‘lift-off’ this time? Easy to give in to a gloomy fatalism that says “Why bother listening? Nothing changed last time. Nothing will this time. It’s just the same old, same old.” Perhaps we know that feeling too? With a General Election looming, a survey this week suggests that the number
of people who bother to vote in this country goes on falling: why bother? Or as the cynical slogan has it: if voting changed anything, it would be banned.

The words of Isaiah 61 are worth bothering with, I’d suggest, for three reasons. Firstly, they show us a God determined to go on calling us back to what is life-giving – to join with God in fulfilling those long-term divine purposes. It can feel sometimes as if the joy and expectation of Advent here in church just fallaway as we walk out through those foyer doors – because ‘real life’ out there is hard work. But however hard it may be, God never stops trying, takes the risk. That’s why, long after the Spirit came upon a prophet to proclaim the good news in Isaiah 61, God’s Spirit came upon Mary; and then on her son, proclaiming that he was now the embodiment of the Spirit, the strong, life-bringing Spirit of the Lord, and determined to mend things, and push back the darkness. Our God never gives up, however tough life out there is for us.

Secondly, these words show God encouraging us. There’s nothing quite like someone making a fuss of you to lift your spirits: think of Cinderella, ever-popular as pantomime at Christmas. Isaiah 61 describes how God (not a fairy godmother) will – as it were – clothe the people with finery, give them an eye-catching crown for their heads: the best wardrobe makeover ever. I wonder when someone last helped you get dressed for an occasion? Moss Brothers, Reading 1986: before my wedding, I went there to pick up the morning suit I’d hired. One of the staff helped me into my topcoat. I looked in a mirror – and began to feel worthy of the big day. So today, before we head out through those doors into a life that’s far from as it should be, why not let’s pause a moment and imagine God the tailor/the
dressmaker there. Making the final adjustments to that crown, brushing away a loose thread: we’re ready. If you’re on the verge of despair today, how might picturing God at your side, helping you put on that fine “mantle of praise” Isaiah 61 speaks of, revive you?

Thirdly, God is far-sighted. The people of Judah will become “oaks of righteousness”, planted by God to demonstrate godly character, character that binds up the broken hearts, proclaims God’s favour, brings hope to the despairing. Let’s pause for a moment and think
about all the stages of an oak’s life: acorn, sapling, mature tree. Which of those do you most feel like right now? Whichever it is, you are God’s planting. God saw your potential – and has watered you for God’s purposes ever since: to be a blessing to others, to bring life and flourishing, even if you feel like a frail sapling. What I love about that “oaks of righteousness” image is how true it is to nature: a mature oak can be home to nearly 300 species of wildlife: it nurtures life, it helps life flourish, as we are called to do.

Our far-sighted God is not just a planter, but is a builder too. Jerusalem appears to have been a sad, neglected place for many years after the exiles returned from Babylon. But once again God sees what can be, how those anointed by God can ‘build back better’. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am a truly rubbish DIYer. If you ever need an odd job done about the house, ask anybody but your curate. But perhaps Isaiah has in mind here not just the literal fabric of a city, but its social fabric. When God’s people bring release, hope, and the year of the Lord’s favour to the streets, things renew. And what they build, lasts. And that work needs all sorts of people, as the book of Nehemiah shows. It’s probably from a time not long after Isaiah 61 was written, and shows everyone playing a part in rebuilding Jerusalem: goldsmiths, priests, perfumers, daughters, rulers, neighbours, temple staff, merchants.

I wonder what pulled them together? Perhaps it was a sense that a determined God had got their backs; thar an encouraging God was beautifying their lives with the splendour of God’s character; while a far-sighted God was trusting them with the divine purposes, long-term?

D, E, F, G: determined, encouraging, far-sighted God. Let’s pause for a minute or so and reflect, first in silence and then in a closing prayer, on the difference this might make to our lives this week.
Closing prayer: Lord our God, send your Spirit on us today: lighten our darkness, and through us, the darkness of our world. As we await again the coming of the Light of the World, would your hope shine before us with dazzling light this day, this week. Amen.