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Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In this third Sunday of Advent we return to Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). This passage is at the heart of the message of that part of the book of Isaiah. Some would argue it is placed at the centre of those late chapters which come from the period just after the end of the exile. It is clear from v. 4 with reference to building up Ďthe ancient ruinsí and repairing Ďthe ruined citiesí that the people still look forward to rebuilding Jerusalem and Judah. Hope is high. This passage, along with the rest of Isaiah 60-62, stands closest in all Third Isaiah to the words of Second Isaiah, with its hopeful view of the near future. The people have not yet struck the disappointment that lay behind the reading in Advent 1 (Isa 64:1-9).

It is interesting that our lectionary introduces a passage about the disappointment of hope at the beginning of Advent and then goes back to passages that are in fact earlier and where hope is more vigorously expressed. The lectionary, in effect, reminds us early in Advent that the hope we have may not work out as we would see it; the events of life can dash it on the rocks. Nevertheless, by going back to earlier, more hopeful passages, the lectionary also says that when our hope does not eventuate as we might expect, that does not mean that hope itself is in vain, given the one upon whom our hope is grounded.

The passage begins with someone (the prophet?) speaking of their commissioning by God. Initially this has all the language and marks of a royal or priestly ascent with the gift of the spirit and anointing (v. 1). But two things make us pause and consider. Some of this language is familiar from earlier passages in Isaiah. The granting of Godís spirit was mentioned in the first of the so-called Suffering Servant songs (Isa 42:1-4). The speaker in Isaiah 61 takes on the role of the servant, who was both a model for Israel in exile, and one whose suffering brought with it the redemption of his people (esp. Isa 52:13-53:12).

The servant in 42:1 was to bring justice to the nations. Establishing justice was also a royal quality (e.g. Ps 72:1-2). But as the proclamation in Isa 61:1-4 continues the ones to whom justice is brought turn out to be the oppressed, the broken-hearted, captives, prisoners, mourners, the faint in spirit. Beyond the work of kings, who were to protect the rights of the poor etc., this spirit-gifted, anointed one raises them from their oppressed condition to new heights of wholeness, liberty, comfort, and praise. Luke associates these verses with the beginning of Jesusí ministry (Luke 4:16-20). They also remind us of the beatitudes in terms of the blessings on the poor etc. (Luke 6:20-23; Matt 5:2-11). This newly liberated and comforted group will be the ones in whom Godís glory is evident and who will rebuild what was destroyed.

The upheaval inherent in Godís hopeful reign is stressed further in the section omitted from todayís reading (vv. 5-7). The people of exile, who slaved and worked for strangers, who struggled to make a crust, and who felt abandoned by their God, now will receive that of which they could have only dreamt. Strangers will serve them, they will have prosperity, and the old promise of the Ďpriestly kingdom and holy nationí (Exod 19:6) will become a reality.

The basis of this reversal is outlined in vv. 8-11. Every genuine hope is founded on the Lordís love of justice (v. 8). It is that which overturns the harshest oppression, the darkest dungeon, and the pain of mourning. That justice is seen in action first and foremost in the relation of God to his own people. These are the ones whom he raises from the deepest despair. And all who see them will recognise that Ďthey are a people whom the Lord has blessedí (v. 9). This blessing is the outworking of the Lordís justice, and the restoration of relationship is its result.

This in turn fosters unhindered, unrestrained praise of God (vv. 10-11). It is as if the speakerís whole being cannot help but tremble with praise (v. 10a). Moreover, the speaker is fully aware that what is happening is not of his own doing or initiative. He trembles with praise because God has clothed him with salvation and righteousness. Again images of royalty are evoked in the ceremony of robing. The image then changes to one of sheer joy as the speaker imagines himself like the bridegroom or bride, decked out in the very best garments and jewellery.

Finally, another, different image is evoked to portray the fulfilment of the peopleís hope. Just as a small seed springs forth from the bare ground, so the Lord brings forth in his people righteousness and praise (v. 11).

The passage stresses a couple of important points about hope when read in the context of Advent. Hope is founded on the Lordís love of justice which overthrows oppressive structures, regimes, and conditions in life, to bring wholeness, joy and praise. Our hope is also based on the Lordís prior action of justice in blessing and granting growth and development. Our hope ultimately falls back onto the one in whom we have hope. It is God who is our hope, the very ground of that hope, and the end of it. In this context the lectionary goes beyond the texts it presents, reminding us of the contingent nature of our hope, but the certainty of the one in whom we have our hope.

Psalm 126

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