Do please turn to Isaiah 61.
For quite a few years now in these sessions in the run up to Easter we've been working our way, chapter by chapter, through the prophecy of Isaiah. This evening is historic because this series will take us to the end of the book. God willing, we will finally arrive at chapter 66 on 18 March. Probably, like painting the Forth Bridge, we ought to start again at the beginning as soon as we finish. However, we're not there yet, and this evening it's chapter 61.
We'll get into that in a moment, but first let me ask you a personal question. What is it that you are finding hard about life at the moment?
Because life is hard in many ways, isn't it? It isn't all hard. There's a lot to enjoy. There's a lot of fun to be had. Sometimes things go the way we want them to, and that can be exciting. And, of course, life does go in phases. For many of us, if not all, there are good times, when we feel on top of life, and we're getting what we want.
But let's face it, even in the good times, things never seem to be exactly the way that we want them to be. There's always something that threatens to spoil the fun. And there are bad times too. And those bad times can be very bad – very dark. And those dark times can be very long.
What is more, being a Christian does not vaccinate us against bad times. Faithful Christian living does protect us against a great deal of hardship that we might otherwise inflict on ourselves. But it brings with it other hardships that we wouldn't otherwise have to face. And in any case, even if we are Christians, we are not always faithful, so we do end up going through self-inflicted hardship, as well as the unavoidable bad times.
I have been a member of this church now for more than twelve years. That is quite long enough to see beneath the surface of our lives to what goes on underneath. The bad times that some people go through are obvious. Other people face challenges and struggles that most people are quite unaware of. Life isn't all hard. But in certain ways it is hard for every one of us.
So let me ask you again: What is it that you are finding hard about life at the moment?
You see, here is a chapter written for people described in these terms: poor; broken-hearted; captives; prisoners; all who mourn; those who grieve; those with a spirit of despair.
I hope, for your sake, that you did identify at least one hard thing about your life. Because if you didn't, this chapter is not for you. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all, because this is one of those passages of scripture that is so marvellous that it makes me want to give up trying to communicate it before I begin. I cannot possibly do justice to it. You are going to have to soak it up for yourself. But maybe I can at least give you some useful pointers to get you going – like a waiter explaining what's on the menu. It's up to you to eat it and digest it. I can't do that for you.
You will see that my two simple headings are these: first, the work of the Messiah; and secondly, the joy of God's people. So:
First, THE WORK OF THE MESSIAH
Look at the start of verse 1 to begin with:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me…
Now, who is speaking here? Who is the 'me'? One answer to that is that he is the Messiah. Messiah means literally 'the anointed one', that is to say, the one anointed by God. 'The Lord has anointed me,' he says. And we're not talking so much about physical oil on the head here as about the anointing of God's Spirit. The Messiah is the one who has God's Spirit. Which is precisely what he says: 'The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me'.
That reminds me of the old advert for Milky Bars that those of a certain age will remember. The Milky Bar Kid, in all his cowboy gear, was the personification of the Milky Bar. He used to shout 'The Milky Bars are on me,' and he would be immediately surrounded by screaming children and he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply that he would dish out left, right and centre.
I hope that's not an irreverent illustration. But the Messiah is the one who personifies God's Spirit and from whom all the blessings of God's Spirit flow to those who come to him.
So, who is speaking here? The Messiah. But that raises the obvious question, 'Who is this Messiah?' And the answer is: this Messiah is Jesus. How can we be so sure? Because Jesus said so.
We heard earlier what happened when Jesus at the start of his ministry went to the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town. He let the cat out of the bag, thereby setting the cat among the pigeons. In other words, he caused quite a stir by telling them who he was. This is how Luke tells it (in Luke 4). In the synagogue…
[Jesus] stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor … [and he read on]. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'
Jesus picks out this very passage and says, 'That is me'. So who is this Messiah? Jesus is. God gave the prophet Isaiah words to speak that belong in the mouth of Jesus the Messiah.
But that is not enough. We are still left asking, 'Who is this Messiah Jesus? What is he about? Where does he fit into the scheme of things? What does he do?'
That's what this Isaiah 61 goes on to talk about. But we'll get the full implications of what is said here better of we fit this into the pattern of Isaiah's prophecy overall. So I want to take some time this evening to get a bit of an overview of Isaiah.
Now the single most important thing to remember about the whole book of Isaiah is that it is what Motyer calls 'a messianic panorama on a grand scale'. That is, the whole book is really one big portrait of the Messiah.
In fact it is a triple portrait, to be more precise. It is a massive portrait of one Messiah from three different perspectives. Each one it seems comes from a different phase of Isaiah's long, fifty year ministry as a prophet.
Isaiah lived in the Eighth Century BC, in the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah. He saw empires falling and rising, and he saw Kings of Judah come and go.
He saw King Ahaz fail to act on the promise that God gave him when Judah was threatened by the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria to the north. Instead of trusting God, Ahaz subjected himself and Judah to Assyria, the superpower of that time – like a mouse asking a cat to help it against another cat. Judah was never an independent nation again.
Later, the Assyrian Empire wiped out the northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahaz was just one in a long line of failed Kings of Judah. But God gave Isaiah a vision of a perfect and eternal King who he would send – the Messiah. And that perfect King is the focus of the first 37 chapters of Isaiah. One example - 9.6-7:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.
Time moved on from Ahaz to the reign of Hezekiah his son. And Hezekiah struggled for independence, and though he was not idolatrous like his father, he too failed to trust God's promise of deliverance. In the end he sought an alliance with the rising power of Babylon, and Isaiah warned Hezekiah that eventually Babylon would crush Judah and take its people into exile.
More than 100 years later, that was exactly what happened. By that time Babylon had taken over from Assyria as the superpower. God showed Isaiah those future events. But he also showed more.
Isaiah saw beyond the failed faith of Hezekiah and Judah and saw one called the Servant who would suffer and die for the sins of God's people, bearing the guilt and punishment in their place. He would bring an end to the exile. He would be the Saviour of God's people – not just from Israel, but from all over the world. And that perfect Servant is the focus of chapters 38 – 55. One example – 53.4-5:
Surely he [the Servant, that is] took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
And then Isaiah's perspective shifts again, and he sees way beyond his own day to the time after the end of the Babylonian exile. The Israelites are back in Jerusalem again. But they are still sinful. They are still dominated by superpower empires and under pressure from the alien world that surrounds them. And they are inadequate to the challenge. They cannot take the pressure. And they continue to sin and they continue to fail.
But again Isaiah is shown beyond the darkness of their failure to the light of God's Messiah. And he sees visions of a perfect Conqueror. And this conquering Messiah will come and rescue God's people – not just from Israel but from all over the world. And he will destroy evil and evil powers once and for all.
That perfect conqueror is the focus of chapters 56 – 66. And one example of Isaiah's vision of him is this passage – chapter 61.
So put it all together and Isaiah has an astounding three-dimensional vision of one coming Messiah who will be the eternal King and Lord, the suffering Servant and Saviour, and the invincible Conqueror and Deliverer.
So when Jesus says in the Nazareth synagogue, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,' he is effectively saying that everything that Isaiah says about the Messiah is fulfilled in him. He is the King and the Servant and the Conqueror.
What, then, is the Messiah going to do according to Isaiah 61? What is his work going to be?
In two words, it is going to be proclamation and transformation. He is going to announce that he had come to set his people free. Then he is going set them free. 61.1-3:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour 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 gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Proclamation and transformation get rolled into one in those marvellous verses, which are like the Messiah's manifesto. If he needs one, this is Jesus's mission statement. This is what he came for.
You were thinking earlier on about the things in your life that you find tough.
Are you, I wonder, broken-hearted? What is it that causes cracks and fractures deep within you? Is it the way that other people have hurt you? Is it profound disappointment about the way your life has turned out? Is it deep shame about the way that you have turned out – the hurt and damage that you have caused other people? Or even more to the point, is it the way that you have failed God.
Maybe you are aware that, like Ahaz or Hezekiah in times of crisis, when the pressure has been on you have failed God. Maybe you've had the best intentions – but they have crumbled before your eyes. Your deepest wounds may be self-inflicted, they may have been inflicted by others – almost certainly some of both – but Jesus has come to bind up and heal those wounds. That's good news.
What is it that holds you captive and imprisoned in the darkness? What evil is there in your life that is too powerful for you to break free from? What ungodly relationship has you ensnared as surely as if the Babylonians had carted you off to a prison camp in the desert? What sinful pattern of behaviour has you chained in its dungeon? Jesus has come to set you free. That's good news.
What grief makes your life seem like so much dust and ashes? What is it that brings that buried anguish to the surface? Is it the memory of someone already dead? Is it the prospect of death in the future? Or does the state of the world and the condition of your own heart cause you to weep inwardly?
Jesus has come to bring about a transformation. Instead of grief and mourning and the ugliness of death he is bringing beauty and gladness and praise: a crown of beauty on the head; the oil of gladness anointing the face; a garment of praise wrapped all around. In other words, from top to toe grief will be transformed.
Now maybe you wonder, 'If Jesus has come to do all that, why hasn't it all happened yet?' And the answer is, 'Because we live between the first and second phrases of verse 2'.
It is a striking fact that when Jesus quoted this passage in Nazareth, he stopped short at the end of that first phrase. He said, 'to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.' He didn't go on to 'the day of vengeance of our God'.
Why? Surely because when he came the first time, he came to die. He came to save. He came to pour out his Spirit and set off the gospel like an explosion of good news around the world. The decisive battle with evil was won. But evil is not yet finished off. That day will come when Jesus returns as Judge.
There's more of that when we get to chapter 63. For now, we have the promise that Jesus gives, and we have the beginning of the transformation. It will be complete beyond the day of judgment. We live in the year of the Lord's favour, between the the first and final coming of Christ.
So what is the impact of this good news on God's people? The end of verse three onwards pictures the effect of the Messiah's work. And that brings me to my second and final heading:
Secondly, THE JOY OF GOD'S PEOPLE
There are four effects of the Messiah's work that are identified from the end of verse 3 through to verse 7.
First, those who are on the receiving end of the Messiah's ministry will be put right with God. That's what being righteous is really all about. The end of verse 3:
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour.
If you are a believer, then by God's grace you know God. You are forgiven and accepted by him, whatever your history. You have access to him as your heavenly Father. You are right with him. And the way you live will begin to reflect that relationship.
Secondly, God's people will be rebuilt. There may be times of apparent devestation, as over the last hundred years in the Western church. But the City of God will not be laid waste for ever. Verse 4:
They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devestated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devestated for generations.
However bad things seem to get, that is the promise for the church. It will be rebuilt, restored and renewed.
Thirdly, the church will grow. Those who are currently outside the church will come inside. Those who are alien to the faith will become believers – and they in their turn will become servants of the gospel and provide for the needs of the church. Verses 5-6:
Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations and in their riches you will boast.
Then fourthly, believers will rejoice in the eternal life which is their destiny. Verse 7:
Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in their land, and everlasting joy will be theirs.
So that's the impact of the Messiah's work. Those on the receiving end will be put right with God; the will be renewed when all seems lost; they will grow as more and more come to share their faith; and they will rejoice in their eternal inheritance.
Why will God do all this? For the sake of his righteousness, faithfulness and glory. That's what verse 8-9 say.
What then should our response be? If you can sum up the Messiah's work in the two words 'proclamation' and 'transformation', I think you can sum up our best reaction in two more words: 'joy' and 'patience'.
When we are finding life hard, then we need patience to hold on to the promise that Jesus gives us here. But even in the hard times, we can know the deepest joy, because the Messiah has come, and we live in the year of the Lord's favour.