Today, on this third Sunday of Advent, I would like to turn our attention to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah. First, I would like to put it in the context in which it was originally written, but then I would like to look at how Jesus used this passage according to Luke. We did not read that passage this morning, but I think it is critical to a Christian understanding of this passage.
While Sabbath is not specifically mentioned, it is alluded to in this Isaiah passage. To begin, let’s look at the concept of Sabbath found in the Scriptures. We are first introduced to this concept in Genesis chapter two where we are told “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from al the work that he had done in creation.” (Gen 2: 3) Initially, God set one day in seven aside for a special kind of rest, but by the time we get to Moses you will see that there is much more to this notion of Sabbath. In the ten commandments we are told “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work- you, your son or your daughter, your male of female slave, your livestock or the alien resident in your towns…” (Exodus 20: 8-10) Sabbath is not just about you resting, it is about you not putting material desires ahead of the needs of your family, employees, livestock, or even the person that follows different customs than you which resides among you. Sabbath is beginning to take on a meaning strongly associated with love your neighbor. One of the ways we love our neighbor is to respect their need for rest, family time, and time to worship. In the book of Leviticus, after the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered the promised land Sabbath is further expanded. Additionally, every seventh year was a Sabbath year, where the land could rest, an early God ordained conservation program. Finally, after seven weeks (sets of seven) years, i.e. every 50 years, there was to be a Jubilee year when debts were forgiven, indentured servants were released and people who had lost their ancestral homes because of financial reasons, got their land back. (Lev 25). This was all part of a complicated system designed to have the community treat each other and the rest of God’s creation, fairly and compassionately and help alleviate generational poverty.
Fast forward to Isaiah 61. This passage was probably written shortly after Cyrus the Persian gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem. It is the first light after a very long period of destruction and despair. In 721 BC, the Assyrians had wiped out the ten northern kingdoms of Israel, if they were not killed, they were deported to parts unknown. About a hundred and fifty years later, the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and any Levites living in that area were attacked twice by Babylon. The first time those living outside of Jerusalem were deported and shortly afterward, there was a three year siege on the walled city of Jerusalem. When it fell, many who had not starved to death were deported to Babylon; the city and the temple were completely wiped out, and a small handful of the old, sick, and poor made their way back to Egypt. Jeremiah the prophet went with them. Now a handful have begun to make their way back to Jerusalem from Babylon, to the land they believed God had given to them though his covenant with Abraham and Jacob. The prophet is saying that God has anointed him to bring Good News to the oppressed and the broken hearted. Who are the oppressed and broken hearted? The Jews that had been carried away from their homeland into a foreign land. What is described in Isaiah 61 as the year of the Lord’s favor looks a whole lot like the description of the Jubilee year in Leviticus. But what about that “vengeance” passage? How can “the day of vengeance of our God” be good news? They are not expecting God’s vengeance to be upon them, but upon those who have sacked their cities, driven them from their homeland, and treated them like slaves. God is seen as the just and righteous judge who will make a fair judgement in their favor and against their enemies.
We are going to fast forward again this time to the first century, in a town called Nazareth, in Galilee, a region north of Jerusalem that would have been part of the area overtaken by the Assyrians. The whole area both Jerusalem and Galilee are now under Roman occupation. Jesus has just been baptized by John, spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, and the first place he goes is back to Galilee where he grew up. He makes it to Nazareth, his hometown, and he goes to the synagogue on the sabbath. It is not surprising that someone offers to let him be the reader that day and they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus turns to the passage we read this morning and reads, “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.” So far so good. They even look favorably upon him when he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” They are not catching what he is saying. Not yet.
What is Jesus saying? He is identifying himself as the “anointed one”. In Hebrew the word is Messiah, in Greek it is Christ. He is proclaiming that it is not the prophet, but himself that the scripture points to as the bearer of good news. His job is to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to proclaim the Day of the Lord. His childhood friends and neighbors eventually reject him we they realize he is including Gentiles in his Good News and some of them they may fall under God’s judgement.
So how does this apply to us today? Jesus clearly identified himself and his ministry with that described in Isaiah 61. As Christians, we claim to be part of the Body of Christ. If that is true, then Isaiah 61 holds true for us as well. COVID has put us in a place of exile. We are no longer able to worship in the manner that is both familiar and comforting to us. I also think we need to look at who we are as a church and begin to re-evaluate what that means. How do we live into our identity as the Body of Christ in a place of exile, while maintaining hope that so much of what is currently being denied to us may soon be returned, because if we lose hope, if we say this is too hard and I’m done, there will be nothing to go back to. I don’t have all the answers, but I am certainly ready and willing to go on that journey with you and would ask that you join me as we persevere together in seeking God’s will at this time.