The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
-from Isaiah 61
Your Bible has one book of Isaiah in it, but it’s actually a trilogy. We get the first forty chapters from an actual 8th-century prophet named Isaiah in the kingdom of Judah.
Ok, I know this is old hat for some of you, but others find this confusing, so here’s a quick recap. Saul was the first king of Israel. He was terrible, and God put David on the throne in his place. David was also terrible sometimes, but he kept coming back and seeking forgiveness and trying again, which made all the difference in the world.
David’s son was king Solomon, he of the great wisdom and the 700 wives, which always seems a little contradictory. One spouse is quite enough for most folks. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, promised to take advantage of people and promptly lost more than half of the country in a civil war.
Now we have two countries: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south, and both alike in idolatry. God sent great and mighty prophets to both nations, reminding the people of their covenant responsibility to do little things like ensure justice for the poor and keep the Sabbath holy and not build idols on every single hilltop.
This is when the first part of the book of Isaiah was written. A few weeks ago, we looked at the story of Isaiah being called as a prophet. He sees God in the temple and realizes that he’s unworthy, but the angel of God purified Isaiah by touching his lips with a coal from the temple altar.
That’s backward, remember? Up until this point, people have had to purify themselves before coming into God’s presence. Here, though, for the first time we see the presence of God making people holy.
Isaiah is the first one to start talking about this reversal. Prior to him, it was all about making a perfectly sacred space in which it was safe to be in the presence of the holy. Everything was focused on the center of the community, on putting all the impurity outside the walls of the camp so that it didn’t interfere with God’s presence in the heart of the temple.
But here’s the thing that happened in Isaiah’s time, and maybe it won’t sound all that unfamiliar to you as well: people would spend their week as they pleased, cheating customers and spreading lies and turning orphans out onto the street and whatnot.
Then they’d perform all the right rituals, and prest-o change-o, they were clean again! They’d go to the temple and worship, and then head back out for another week of violating the covenant.
That’s the problem with this idea of making one sacred space, in a temple, and making everyone be up to snuff before they can enter. It can be a powerful way of showing respect, but it can also devalue everywhere else. Because if only the temple is sacred, then who cares what you do anywhere else?
So Isaiah has this vision of holiness flowing out of the temple and transforming the world. It’s not confined to the Holy of Holies in the temple. It’s loose in the streets. And so it matters what you do in the temple, sure, but it also matters what you do in the marketplace, and what you do in your kitchen, and what you do in the field.
God cares about all of it, and moreover, holiness is transferrable. I’m sure you’ve seen this in practice. One person who is centered in God’s presence can help ground a whole group. The wholeness that we find in our deepest worship is a power that can transform the world.
Keep this in mind when we get to Luke, in January, and this Jesus guy starts touching sick people and unclean people and even dead people and healing them rather than being defiled himself. Jesus personifies what Isaiah is dreaming of.
Back to Isaiah, though. He shares a two-part message that’s common to the prophets.
Part 1: worshiping the God of Israel will transform everything about you, if you do it right. If it doesn’t, then you’re probably committing idolatry instead.
Stop that- stop worshiping little things that don’t deserve it, and start seeking the Great Redeemer. Following the terms of the covenant, when it comes to caring for others and living with integrity, goes hand-in-hand with true worship.
Part 2: if people don’t follow the covenant and do their part to build a righteous society, then that society is going to crumble from the inside out. It may look like it’s falling to external threats, but the real problem is idolatry and unkindness and injustice at the core.
Everything else is just a symptom. A society can’t be strong if it preys on the weak.
If Isaiah were a talk radio host, he probably wouldn’t have gained many listeners. This isn’t a popular message.
So I said that the book of Isaiah is really a trilogy. The first part of the book is all of this- Isaiah warning that judgment will come if the people continue to reject the terms of their covenant with God, and him begging the people to return to true and transformative worship.
The people don’t listen to Isaiah, though. Their society continued to crumble and they were eventually overrun by the Babylonian Empire. This brings us to the second part of the book of Isaiah, in which someone associated with Isaiah – maybe one of his students – started writing to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon.
These people were grieving hard. They’d lost loved ones in the war. They’d seen their fields burnt, their houses leveled, their temple destroyed. And here they were in a strange land, alone and powerless and scared.
The book changes tone, here. The next twenty chapters are almost exclusively about God’s promise to restore them, to give them a reason to hope. It starts with a phrase that the choir sometimes sings during Advent: comfort, comfort, ye my people.
There’s a delicate balance at work here. When the people are happy in their kingdom, Isaiah berates them in sometimes surprisingly negative terms over their lack of faithfulness. But when they’re down and out in Babylon, the operative words are mercy and love.
The Babylonian Exile of the Jewish people was a real historical event, but these are also two slices of what it means to be human. When we’re on top of the world and possibly not paying as much attention as we should to the needs of those around us, then we need to be reminded of our covenant community responsibilities. To use the technical theological term: we may need a firm kick in the rear to help us reprioritize and refocus.
But when we’re experiencing exile, then what we need is to be reminded of the love that surrounds us, the promises that hold us, the hope that guides us. The people sitting by the rivers of Babylon didn’t need to be reminded of their sin. They needed to be reminded of the grace that was greater than all their sin.
But what about when the world is not so obvious? Most of us don’t wake up in the morning with such a clear sense of whether we’re oppressing people or being oppressed, whether we’re really following the terms of the covenant or not, whether we’re worshiping the true God or idols we made up.
Everything seems more complicated than that simple dichotomy. Morality is a murky business. We’re doing the best we can, but it sure would be a whole lot easier if some prophet would show up to tell us what’s what.
So, I said that the book of Isaiah is a trilogy. The first part is for the powerful people of the kingdom of Judah, who thought they could worship in the temple and then go out and treat people however they liked. The second part is for the people in exile, who were afraid that this was the end of their community and desperately needed to be reminded of God’s love and care.
The third part is a short part, but it’s the part that interests me the most. It’s just the last few chapters of the book, but it packs a wallop for me both because the writing is inspired and because the circumstances it’s addressed to feel so familiar to me.
Third Isaiah is written after the exile is over. The hated Babylonian Empire has fallen to the Persians, and the Jewish people have been allowed to go home after spending a generation abroad.
But when they get there, they don’t recognize what they see. These children have been fed stories of the glories of Jerusalem, but when they arrive, it’s just a pile of stones. There’s no golden palace, no magnificent temple, no great schools, no marketplaces.
They have these beautiful stories in their heads, passed on to them by ancestors who remembered Jerusalem at its most beautiful, but they’re looking at a pile of rubble.
So, they start rebuilding. What else do you do?
But squabbles break out. Jephthah doesn’t mix the mortar right. Susanna uses dishonest scales at her lentil booth. Asher won’t take his turn guarding the city wall.
Deborah’s a little too friendly with the Samaritans, if you know what I mean. Caleb spreads stories all over town, and at least half of them aren’t even true. Zipporah can’t be trusted to stir the soup without sampling a bowl’s worth.
They had this holy vision of a glowing city on a hill, but the city turned out to be populated by people, and you know how people are.
How is this messy city supposed to be the holy city of God? It’s nothing at all like the stories we were sold. It’s a wreck. There’s nothing glorious about it.
First Isaiah wrote to people who were citizens of the Kingdom of Judah, people who were taking advantage of others and then going to the temple as though they had clean hands.
Second Isaiah wrote to people who were in exile, people who felt hopeless and needed to be reminded of God’s faithfulness.
Third Isaiah, though: he’s writing to people who are just muddling along as best they can.
Both the sins of Judah and the exile in Babylon are history to them. They’re here in Jerusalem trying to build something that makes sense while being haunted by these weighty stories of covenants and majesty and corruption and banishment and grace- but how can those stories possibly connect to the day-to-day struggle of keeping Zipporah away from the soup and helping Jephthah lay stones?
I feel like this is my life, and I’m comforted by the mere fact that the prophets had something to say to me. I’m glad for people who see holy visions of glowing cities, but I also find myself wanting to know who in this glowing city is programming the traffic lights, and who is organizing the Christmas parade.
So I love that today’s passage was written not to the citizens of Judah who were worshipping idols and oppressing the poor, nor to the exiles who were grieving, but rather to the new generation who were doing their best to build something out of the rubble.
Because this Gospel, it is good tidings to the poor. And this Gospel, it is liberty to the captives. But it’s also to console those who mourn in Zion.
It’s for us. It’s to console those who look at the heroin epidemic in our area It’s to comfort those who despair over racism in our country. It’s for all of us who were raised on stories of the glorious kingdom of God but who look around and have trouble seeing it.
They shall rebuild the old ruins,
They shall raise up the former desolations,
And they shall repair the ruined cities,
The desolations of many generations.
Look how many metaphors are used here to describe the rebirth of the land. Give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning. We’re compared to a nervous couple preparing for a wedding, trying to make sure that they look their best.
We’re compared to a garden, which looks like bare ground but brings up a harvest.
All of these are images of hope. We stand amid the rubble, and there is so much left to rebuild, and we have these glorious stories of heroes of the faith, but we’re surrounded by people who are just human and fallible like ourselves.
But it’s us, in all our weaknesses, in all our brokenness, who find that the ashes of mourning are taken away and beauty is given instead.
This is the secret of Christmas, if you don’t mind me telling it a few weeks early: it’s for the dirty shepherds and the busy hosts and the wise men and the mothers and the fathers and the little drummer boys, and maybe even for the angels.
This hope isn’t for the perfect people of the legends of our past.
It’s for us. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we’re here to proclaim good news, and it’s every bit as unexpected today as it was for Caleb and Susanna back in Jerusalem.
One of my favorite Christmas poems is The Risk of Birth, by Madeleine L’Engle. I love it because it’s about the messiness of human life, and what it means to invite love into it. As we enter our time of waiting worship, hear her words:
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.