Old Testament Lectionary

Advent 3 – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

This well-known passage immediately presents us with a question which is not easy to answer – just who is ‘me’? Who exactly has been anointed by the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord? The obvious answer seems to be the prophet, but a closer look at the language makes this a bit less certain. In fact there are several allusions which suggest that it might be more complicated than that. First of all the term ‘anointed’ is a royal term. So is the speaker a new King David, coming as promised in Is 11 to bring healing to a divided nation, and to rule with equity and justice? Or could it be God’s Servant from Is 42 – 53 who is coming to bring justice and care to the broken? Or maybe the reference to the Day of Jubilee from Lev 25 indicates that someone will be sent by the Spirit to sort out the economic imbalance within society – a financial as well as spiritual fix? Or does it all point to Jesus, who in Lk 5 quotes this passage as the manifesto for his ministry?

All of this points to a second question, which is much easier to answer – When? What is the context for this prophecy? The answer is almost certainly post-exilic Judah, a time and a place riddled with disappointment. Yes, they had been sent back to their homeland from exile, but things were very far from the glowing outcomes promised by earlier prophets. They may have rebuilt the city and the Temple, but they had signally failed to rebuild society, with its justice and respect and its economic stability. They may not have been prisoners any longer in Babylon, but they certainly felt trapped in their disappointment at the way things had turned out.

So the third question is this: what exactly was it that whoever had been anointed was coming to do? Interestingly the language is predominantly that of restoration of self-image. The current imprisonment, no doubt within living memory of the nation’s physical imprisonment in exile, had served to make the people feel miserable, ashamed and despairing. It is these feelings that the deliverer addresses, swapping comfort for mourning, beauty instead of dowdiness, joy for grief, and praise for despair.

Our nation might well be thought to be in a similar position as we approach the end of 2020, a year which will go down in history as one of the worst we can remember. We have been imprisoned by Covid, humiliated by Brexit, ruled by those who are generally considered to be at best incompetent and at worst thoroughly corrupt, riddled with shame at what our nation has become, and with fear about what it will become. Many people have been heard to say that they have become ashamed of being British, and whatever political views you may hold, it seems clear that no good is going to come from the downright lies which convinced people into isolationist policies four years ago. So what does Isaiah say to 2020 Britain?

The answer, I believe is threefold – wait, hope and praise. If the people were disappointed in the immediate aftermath of the return from exile, that was nothing to what was to come, as the nation was to be ruled over the next few centuries by one world power after another, and Jewish fortunes continued to decline. It was to be at least 400 years before Jesus the Messiah stood up in the Nazareth Synagogue and claimed these words for his own, and two thousand years on we are still waiting for their complete fulfilment. God lives in a completely different timescale from ours, the Psalmist tells in (90:4), and my goodness don’t we know it? The cry ‘How long, O Lord?’ is a frequent one in Scripture, and probably in our own lives too. Waiting in the darkness, in the words of Maggi Dawn’s song, is not an easy skill to cultivate, but actually we have little option. Keeping hope alive is not based on evidence: it is based solely on what God has said, and what we choose as an act of will to believe.

Waiting, hoping, but how do we pass the time while we’re doing those? It is interesting that although the fulfilment of the prophet’s words was not to come in the foreseeable future, the response is immediate. Verse 10 begins a song of praise which reads as though the promises of the first bit of the chapter have already come true. God has reclothed me, he has beautified me, new things are beginning to grow. That is faith in action, praising God for what he has said will happen before it does happen, as though it has happened. I love these words from Morning Prayer during the Kingdom Season:

Blessed are you, Sovereign God,
ruler and judge of all;
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In the darkness of the age that is passing away,
may the glory of your kingdom
which the saints enjoy
surround our steps as we journey on.
May we reflect the light of your glory this day
and so be made ready to come into your presence.
Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

Blessed be God for ever.

‘The darkness of the age that is passing away’ is a powerful symbol. We might still feel shoulder deep in the muck of 2020, and we may yet sink deeper still, but to praise God for what he has promised, and to wait and hope for its fulfilment, is deep spirituality indeed.

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