In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Advent is about (among other things) anticipation. Traditionally, depending on your liturgical framework, this is often represented by themes such as Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. It’s celebrated as the weeks leading up to Christmas because, in Jesus, we see the fulfillment of the anticipation of the Israelites as they waited and hoped for the Messiah. And at the same time, we anticipate the second coming of Christ. We anticipate the fullness of the kingdom when He comes again.
So, in other words, in observing Advent, those two aspects anticipation of Christ – past and future – come together for us each year.
Now over the past several months, we’ve been doing a survey of the Old Testament. We’ve been going through Genesis slower than is probably, strictly speaking, necessary to give us an overview of the O.T. (but there are a lot of establishing/foundation-laying themes in Genesis). But I believe it’s important to have an understanding of the Old Testament because 1) it’s often neglected, and 2) we want to have an understanding of how the entire biblical story speaks. Today’s passage is one of those passages that’s particularly helpful in tying the Old and New Testaments together or, to put it differently, our passage today gives us a sense of the overarching work of God in human history
Looking at our passage today, we can see the following movement (more or less).
- vv. 1-4: A proclamation of the restoration of Israel. The speaker announces “Good News” to the poor, broken-hearted, and prisoners. This good news is because of or characterized by healing, freedom/release, vengeance (ie. God wins?), comfort, joy, praise, rebuilding of the city (of God)
- vv. 8-9: These verses give us the ground for the trustworthiness of the proclamations or promises above – that is, the character (the faithfulness) of God.
- vv. 10-11: Finally, we see the result, the fruit, of the sure promises of God for deliverance – namely joy, specifically joy in the goodness and faithfulness of God.
As well as being an important book, Isaiah is also a somewhat complicated book – inasmuch as scholars disagree on issues of when it was written, by whom, in how many parts, etc. We won’t get into this, but generally speaking, it’s worth noting that, as we know, the prophecies of the book of Isaiah were delivered during a time of extreme duress for the Israelites. They had lost their nation and had therefore lost their sense of identity as the people of God.
Passages such as this were a promise and source of comfort for the Israelites during this time, essentially letting them know that, despite their circumstances and even though they couldn’t see or understand it, God was still with them and promised to restore them according to the covenants spoken to Abraham, Moses, and David.
Historically (i.e. eventually, in history), the Israelites were returned to their homeland and the temple of God which had been destroyed was rebuilt. So there was a sense in which Israel understood these promises to have been fulfilled. But there was also a distinct understanding that the fullness of the promise had not been realized. This is the reason why, in the intertestamental period (b/w the OT and NT) there were numerous people who were thought to be the Messiah that is spoken of in Isaiah.
Now let’s fast forward to Luke chapter 4. After his testing in the wilderness (the temptations by Satan), Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads this same passage from Isaiah 61. Luke ch. 4:16-21
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 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. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus is making a pretty huge claim here. In referencing this passage in Isaiah, Jesus is making the claim that the restoration of the people of Israel, by which we should understand the restoration the people of God, will be fulfilled in Himself. As we know, this fulfillment is both historical and eschatological. The promise is fulfilled in Jesus’ death on the cross, but we also await the full fulfillment in the eschaton – the last days.
The final section of our passage suggests the prophet’s response to these realities. In spite of the fact that the people of God have been exiled and oppressed, the reality that God is still working, will work, and will bring about redemption and victory for His people is a cause for great joy. Because of the assurance of God’s deliverance, there is joy.
Some have noted that the distinction between Happiness and Joy is that Happiness is temporary (i e. sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re not), whereas joy is something that’s always present (for the people of God). This is helpful, but I think it’s incomplete. Part of the problem is that the bible doesn’t go out of its way to make a sharp distinction between happiness and joy. There’s certainly an extent to which they overlap.
Christmas is one of those times where we’re supposed to be happy. For some of us, there’s so much pressure to be happy that it’s stressful and we become miserable. In that stress, it’s really easy to lose sight of why we’re supposed to be happy. Exacerbating the problem is that, I think, our society as a whole places an awful lot of emphasis on happiness. e. “Do whatever makes you happy.” Happiness has become a virtue in its own right and yet I don’t think we really know what that means. For some, it has a vague sense of satisfaction or comfort. For some, when we say “happiness”, we really don’t mean anything more profound than “fun.” So we spend all of our time, energy, and money trying to entertain ourselves but we don’t have any real sense of fulfillment or peace, much less joy.
In the book, Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life, various authors consider the topic of joy and human flourishing – what does that mean and how do we find it. In it, N.T. Wright suggests that Happiness is because of a thing; Joy is because of something beyond – something eternal. Charles Mathewes notes that joy has both immanent and transcendental aspects.
In other words, both Wright and Mathewes are suggesting that joy has something to do with what is beyond the here and now. And we are not only speaking of the temporal aspects (i.e. present vs. future). In some sense we are speaking of realities – the difference between what is real and what is really real.
While we are able to find happiness because of our present circumstance, joy comes with a recognition that there is (at least, but) much more than this present circumstance. Happiness might result from what we have or experience in the here and now, joy results from knowing that there is much more than what we can see with our eyes or touch with our hands.
Now there’s much more to be said about a theology of joy, but I want to return to a consideration of this third part of the word in Isaiah. Notice the imagery that the prophet uses in this passage:
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations.
The prophet seems to be saying, something along the lines of, the people of God will be known/covered in/characterized by joy. Within the context of this passage, the people of God will be characterized by the joy that results from knowing that God will fulfill his promises. That, in spite of the hardships and disappointments we all suffer, in the midst of the waiting and the longing, though everything seems dark and we cannot see the light, God will prove Himself faithful.
Now the Israelites heard this passage and were able to look forward – if they had faith enough to do so – to what God would do. Our hope is greater because it is not just looking forward; it is looking backward – on what Christ has already done. When we look backward, it is not just with remembrance, not simply because Jesus was a demonstration of God’s love and faithfulness, it is with joy because Jesus was the completion of God’s love and faithfulness.
So What Now…?
So for us, who sit on the other side of history, our celebration of Advent is different than the expectation of the Israelites for the Messiah. We are not only looking forward to what God will do (there is that as we look forward to the final consummation, Christ’s second coming). Our celebration is one of joy because we also celebrate the work that Christ has already done, and that in that completed work, we are able to go forth with joy – to work, walk, and worship with joy.
So, people of God, I pray that this knowledge and remembrance of the faithfulness of God, the eschatological hope and promise that is fulfilled in Christ, the assurance that we will see God’s glory and that we can make it known now fill us with joy.