Each month, in our council meeting, we spend time at the beginning of the meeting to dwell in God’s Word. To be centered in it before conducting any business or addressing any of the practical aspects of the ministry of our churches.
Over these months, I have to say that I’ve grown more and more impressed with the way in which the leaders of our congregations are becoming theological thinkers. Noticing things in the texts. Wondering and asking questions. Drawing the connections to other aspects of God’s Word or to our own Lutheran theology.
Today, we’re going to spend some time digging into this text from Isaiah in a similar way. Asking questions. Noticing things in the text. And making connections to help deepen our understanding of God, of God’s ways, and, particularly, of Jesus. The Messiah.
We read today from Isaiah, chapter 61 in three parts. Here is the first, beginning in verse 1.
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;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
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. --Isaiah 61:1-4 (NRSV)
One of the first things we do when we read scripture is to consider who is speaking and what is the situation.
This reading comes from what is often considered Third Isaiah. Isaiah is believed to have been written in three different historical time periods. First Isaiah is generally considered written in the pre-exile period of Israel. The 8th century BCE. It brings harsh words to the people of Judah and Jerusalem - words of warning - to those who have become estranged from Yahweh. The prophet desperately and urgently calls out for the world to listen. To see their hypocrisy. To turn back to God. To seek the well-being of all.
We know that this call failed. Jerusalem fell. The people were captured by the Babylonians and spread far and wide across the empire. Separated from their families, the temple, their homeland. It is in this post-exile period where Second Isaiah was likely written. To give people hope. To convince them of God’s activity to free them from captivity. The efforts of this second writer, considered by some to have been a woman because of its many feminine images of God, do not convince many. It is hard to have hope when everything seems lost.
Then we come to Third Isaiah (56-66), the source of our text today. Written 2-3 generations later, after the ancestors of Judah’s exiles have begun to return home. And have found that the reality doesn’t live up to what they had hoped for. The reading begins with a dramatic self-introduction. Who the speaker is, we’re not sure. But, his or her identity is as important as the role to be played. To inform the community how it will survive and thrive. Words of consolation and encouragement in this new time of trial.