Believe it or not, I don’t really have much experience at all in preaching. Yeah, I’ve spoken and “preached” at some things, but I’ve still never offered the preached proclamation at a Sunday worship service. It’s an area I’ve wanted to grow in for a while.
To that end, I took a preaching class last semester for my seminary program. It was a powerful course that changed my whole relationship to both the Bible and the act of preaching. Each of us wrote and presented a sermon on an assigned text. The sermons were recorded, and I’m offering mine here today. It opens with some brief words on the context I had in mind when preparing this.
Special thanks also to an old friend, J. Chord Barnes of ASERWorks Media, for fixing some audio issues in the original recording and remastering it for me. Check him out at the link above.
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
5 Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
8 For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
Prayer for Illumination:
God, we all come to this text from different places, but we’re all in need of your comforting, encouraging word. We live in the tension between ages and often don’t know what to do with that. We live disillusioned lives, weighed down by every care and disappointment. We live in an increasingly jaded and disenchanted age where your presence and your promises become less and less immediately self-evident. As you did for your people then, do for us today: Come. Speak a word of grace and comfort to us that we may continue to walk in your ways.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer, in whose my name we pray, as one God, now and forever, Amen.
Isaiah: Three Parts
Most scholars tell us that the book of Isaiah is separated into three very distinct parts. The first part consists of a series of historical episode in which God, through his prophet offers warnings to his people and their leaders about the judgment, struggle, and strife in store for them, should they not live lives of justice and righteousness. Well, they don’t change their ways, so the judgment and strife comes in the form of conquest and Exile at the hands of foreign rulers. The second part of the book is believed to be written to the people while they are in the midst of this. This middle section has some of the most beautiful and sweeping words of encouragement, comfort, and promise in the entire Bible. God gives his people profound promises for blessing and deliverance. He promises them a return to their land, a rebuilt temple, a re-gathered people, and a new beginning of God’s people in and for the rest of the world.
And sure enough, God delivers on these promises. The Persians come in and conquer the Babylonians, allowing the Israelites to return and rebuild their community. Technically, the full promises and blessings of God have been secured and given to the people. And yet…it’s still not quite right. They are no longer in Exile, and yet most Israelites still live scattered around the world. They have their freedom and deliverance, yet every nation around them wants to destroy them. The land is there’s, yet they have to get permission from a Persian monarch any time they want to do anything. They rebuild the temple, and yet those that remember the former temple weep and mourn because this new one is a mere shadow of what the former one was.
God delivered on his promises, and yet it wasn’t quite as glimmering as it had seemed when he first promised it. God had given his people all the blessing, but they weren’t experiencing it.
Perhaps you can relate. You come to seminary as an obedient response to God’s call. You graduate and the call to a church never comes. Or maybe it does, and the church either doesn’t survive long or the ministry is simply destroying you inside. God promised intimacy with him if you would but put yourself under his means of grace, and yet no matter how many hours you spend in prayer and how many chapters of Scripture you read, your doubts still haunt you and only grow louder. You experience a freedom from sin that has dogged you for years, but after some time, you feel the temptations rising within you once again.
We Need a Word
I believe we need now what God’s people needed then. In the midst of their disillusionment and disappointment, even in the midst of God technically delivering on his promises, they—and we—need a word from God. And the third part of the book of Isaiah is that word that God offers his people. And it’s chapter 60 through 62 that are the crown of this section—the hinge around which the rest of this section turns. And the center piece of those verses is our text today, specifically the opening verses. And so let’s listen to what God has to say to us today in this chapter. To do so, we’ll look at three postures God takes towards his people in this chapter: God Amongst His People, God Over His People, and God Ahead of His People.
GOD TO HIS PEOPLE
God Amongst His People
In the opening lines of this chapter, we hear a voice break into the pain and tension of our disillusionment, and put forward a vision for God’s people and his world. There have been many opinions as to who this voice is, but one this is clear: this voice comes from God’s human agent in this world. The person through whom God’s Presence and Intention is made known to his people. This voice is God among His People.
So when we see it that way, what do we see? We see that God comes among his people into the depths of their own hurt and despair. He is not coming to his people and saying, “I have come to enact a vision of good news to this sub-group if economically disadvantaged people over there”. He does say that elsewhere, but here, he is speaking to his people. Having just returned from Exile, they are the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, and those imprisoned to everything around them. God is speaking to them and saying he has good news. He meets them in their mourning disillusionment and binds their broken hearts, giving them a garland of victory instead of the ashes of lament.
And so, when experiencing the tension of life in between what God has done and what he is yet to do, the first thing God does is become present to us in that tension.
God Over His People
From this place of amongst his people, God then declares truths over them. He descends to where they are and from that vantage point, he tells them the reality in which they move and live. He says they are oaks of righteousness, displays of his glory, the repairers of that which is broken, the recipients of God’s favor among the peoples. He proclaims over them their identities as priests of the Lord and ministers of their God. He sees their past and even their current sin and pain and he declares over them that their shame and dishonor is no more, and instead they have everlasting joy.
As an old pastor of mine used to say, these are truths not to be achieved, but rather things to be believed. God meets his people in the depths of their frustration and tells them what objective reality is, no matter their current experience of it (or lack thereof). God meets us and whispers what is most true of us still, even when everything is screaming at us something different.
God Ahead of His People
God makes us promises. We try to move into those promises and they disappoint. We don’t see God around us or in the world and we wonder where he is and who we are in relation to him. He comes among us in the midst of that and then speaks over us what is most true about us and the world. But he does more.
He tells us that these promises are not the endgame. There are bigger things that God is accomplishing in and through and for us, and these promises are the means to that greater end, and not the end itself. In this text, after speaking to us from amongst and over us, he goes on ahead of us and tells us what things of eternal weight God is preparing us for, and preparing for us.
He tells us he loves justice and hates wrong doing. He says he will undo all injustice and enfold us into an everlasting, eternal covenant. He speaks of a world in which all peoples will know and proclaim their blessing in God. He speaks of the garments of salvation and robes of righteousness he wishes to dress his people in. He says he is preparing his people as a bride preparing for her bridegroom.
He speaks of what is in store for his people who live in this tension of reality with endurance. For those that live under the sheer weight of human existence and life, God meets us, speaks our identity over us, and tells us that there is yet still more. This is not all there is, but all of it serves a purpose to bring us ever closer to a more beautiful reality.
Two voices become one
One of the most interesting things about this chapter is how it’s bookended. Did you notice at the end how you have the line that starts out, “For I the Lord love justice…”, and then just a few lines later it says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord…” There’s no warning of this switch and who’s talking. You see here, and even at the beginning of the chapter, there’s this seamless bringing together of the divine and human voice. The prophetic voice becomes God’s and God’s voice becomes the prophet’s.
God’s people received these words all those years ago after their disappointing homecoming. Perhaps it was enough for them at the time, but as time went on, so much change and disillusionment continued to occur. The land, the temple, and nation God had promised them continued to face assaults from every side. As time went on, they began to look back on this text and wonder, “could there be more?” As time went on, this text began to carry the weight of impending promise; an anticipation of something, or someone, to come.
And years later, the divine and human voice become one, and this divine prophetic voice goes to his hometown of Nazareth, opens up a scroll of the book of Isaiah, reads the opening lines of this chapter, rolls the scroll back up, sits down, and says to everyone, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And in so doing, Jesus of Nazareth establishes himself as the one this word from God is speaking of the entire time. He declares to us and them that he is the God found within these words.
Jesus is God Amongst Us
Jesus shows himself to be the God among us. In the midst of our frustration and disillusionment, God himself breaks into this world in Jesus and descends all the way down to the depths of our reality—all the way down—down to death itself. He sees how this world is not yet what it will be, and he enters into the deepest depths of that tension and brings it into the divine experience. He comes amongst us into our death and sin and failure and comes out the other side—killed in shame and raised in glory.
Jesus is God Over Us
Jesus comes and dies on the cross, tasting our sin and disillusionment, and in his Resurrection overcomes and conquers it. From this vantage point as our victor and King, Jesus is the God over us, who now declares what is most true about us. He tells us we are oaks of righteousness and displays of God’s glory. We are minister and priests of our God.
And we are these things not merely because Jesus has said it is so, but because he has lived it on our behalf, called us his own, and has given us the full benefits of his life as our own. We are, as the apostle puts it, “hidden in Christ”. On real earth and soil, God accomplished on our behalf, in real and flesh and blood, all that was needed for these things to be true about our identities in Christ.
Jesus is God Ahead of Us
And yet there is still more. Jesus is not just God among us, and God over us, but he has gone ahead of us as the forerunner of our salvation. Life’s true endgame is now ours in Christ. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, all of those promises for eternal things are secured for us. Just as God said to the Israelites, Jesus says to us now: “your pain and disillusionment is not the final word. I have more for which I am preparing you.” He has secured for us the garments of salvation, our robe of righteousness, and our preparation as a bride for her bridegroom. We are his, and he is ours.
Application: Life with God
Now let’s step back a little. As beautiful as those truths are, it’s my belief that these words and these truths are things we are to return to over and over and over again in our lives. One of the commentaries I was looking at had this helpful perspective when it comes to the promises of God. He said that these promises are like a cup, and the promise isn’t necessarily “full-filled” until it is “filled-full”. Looking at it this way allows for a progressive nature to how God meets us in his promises.
He promises many glorious things. He delivers on those promises, and like the Israelites long ago, it feels like these promises aren’t quite as glimmering as the promise originally sounded. It’s because the cup was only filled up a little. It’s not done being filled. This is the cycle of life with God. We move forward in trust in him and he meets us in that. It can often seem disappointing, or we don’t really “feel it”. And so we go to this text and remind ourselves of his presence, our identity, and his eternal gifts for us. We rejoice in the cup of God’s promise being fulfilled a little bit more, but we feel fully how much more this cup has to go before its “filled-full”.
As we close, I want offer four brief ways we can live this out in our life.
First, we lament. Looking at this text, we see that God speaks the words first and foremost to poor, broken-hearted mourners. If we don’t lament the disappointment and frustration, we can never receive these words. It’s by fully occupying the depths of our disillusionment that we are able to meet the God who lives among us there.
Second, we lean. This entire text is about God’s presence and movement towards his people. It is all grace. It is all from God and toward us. This text is first and foremost about God and how he will deliver and bless his people.
And yet, of all the things God will deliver us from, he will never deliver us from dependency on him. Of all the ways he will bless us, he will never bless us with autonomy from him. This is another reason why we can become disillusioned. For all the ways we move into the promises of God, we are always kept weak and needy. Even in God giving us freedom and deliverance, we remain needing to lean on God and these promises. This is the blessing and the weight of our need for God gracious action to us.
In this entire text, in the Hebrew, there’s not a single imperative for the people of God. In light of their own frustration and pain, God does not come in with a bunch of commands for them. Instead he tells us all that he will do in and among his people. And yet, there is an implicit invitation to join him in this work. And to partake in this cycle of life with God, it is good news for us to join God in his work in the world.
In so doing, we take on the mantle of those that preach good news to the poor, bind the broken-hearted, proclaim the Lord’s favor. We live and move, love and serve as the priests and ministers of our God. And in this, we are freed ever more from our expectations and joined all the more to the identity of God in Christ and his work.
Lastly, we love. This entire chapter ends with a glorious song of thanksgiving to our God. It sees the work and vision of our God and it rejoices and exults. The last way that we partake in this cycle of life with God is by offering our unfettered praise and adoration for all that God has done for us in Christ. We offer our full selves and our worship, gratitude, praise and love to the God that has drawn near to us in the midst of our frustration with him, has accomplished for us what we could not do for ourselves, has proclaimed a new identity of righteousness and priesthood over us, and has secured for us eternal blessings for ourselves and this world. He enables and ennobles us as his people to love him and his world and loosens our grip from the expectation that can sour our enjoyment of him, his promise, his blessing, and his Spirit.
And if that’s not good news to us weary, poor souls, I don’t know what it is.
As you encounter the confusing tensions of life with God and one another, may you hear the good news of all that God has done among and for us in Christ, and may it strengthen and draw you ever closer to him. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.