Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Martin Luther once said, “What inexpressible grace it is that God speaks with us through His Word and speaks with us so graciously as to proclaim and offer his blessed peace and eternal kingdom through it. Oh Lord, why are we not proud and arrogant and why do we not boast of hearing God speak with us so cordially and in such a friendly manner about eternal peace, life and salvation? Oh shame on you, you miserable wretched unbelief!”
What is Luther wrestling with here? Is it not his own sinful flesh that so often takes the Word of God for granted? Is this not also our own struggle? Our sinful flesh has deaf ears and blind eyes – and they willfully want to remain so! Even when the revealing light of the Savior shines off it’s pages, and the powerful trumpet blast of God’s Kingdom rings out from the Words – would prefer to remain deaf and blind and not sing out, ring out and Rejoice in the Word! When it reveals our Savior and rejuvenates our souls.
Part 1. Reveals our Savior
This struggle that Luther talks about, was no different during the time of Isaiah. During Isaiah’s ministry Jerusalem wavered back and forth between following the Lord and chasing after the pagan gods of their neighbors.
A good question to ask is why. Why did they waver? Why didn’t they sing out and ring out and rejoice when Isaiah proclaimed and prophesied salvation to them saying, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Well, they probably would’ve said, “Who is broken hearted? Why do we need freedom? Who is being taken captive and who needs release?”
And from an earthly perspective they were right! It was the northern tribes that had been taken into captivity, not Judah, not Jerusalem! Jerusalem still stood. And it would stand for about a century more! A savior? A savior from what?
I mean, to put you in the shoes of those living in Isaiah’s time; what if I were to say to you today, “Rejoice! Your home will be rebuilt and all your possessions will be returned to you! Oh and you’ll be let out of jail as well! You don’t need to cry anymore!” You might look at me like I’m nuts. You might say, “I still have a house, it was standing when I pulled out of the driveway this morning. And obviously, I’m here, I’m not in jail! And who’s crying!? Why should I be rejoicing?
Indeed, these words might sound crazy Isaiah’s words, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor 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 joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” They might sound crazy to ears that itch for only what they want to hear. That say, “come on! Give me something practical, I want real tangible advice. They might appear crazy to eyes that are only focused on the world around them. They might not cause a soul to sing if that soul only ever looks outward and never inward. That is, one that says, “yea ok, I’m a sinner, but I’m not a rapist, I’m not a racist, I’m not a murderer. On the contrary, I’m a red blooded, church-going, God fearing, Israelite – and don’t you worry about me, I have my spiritual house perfectly in order.”
On the outside, we might appear fine, to have everything in order perhaps even holy. But we know, that nothing good exists in our hearts and minds. Despite appearances we are in prison. A prison doesn’t always have concrete walls. Sometimes the prison was we are in are of our own design. We are convicted by our own tongues when we lie or slander. We are held hostage by our own tempers that often rise so quickly we hardly have time to diffuse a situation. We have been con-men who talk a good game to friends or family – but they don’t know the reality of our lives at home with the spouse and kids. Oh wretched miserable unbelief. That would cause a sinner to look at these words and not rejoice in these beautiful words of Isaiah and not see what he reveals to us here. He reveals the year of the Lord’s favor and so he reveals the Savior. The year of the Lord’s favor was the year of Jubilee. Every 50 years the Jews would celebrate the Year of Jubilee. In that year all lands would return to their original owners; every person who had sold himself into indentured servanthood would be released; if you were in prison for insurmountable debt you were let loose. And that year of profound mercy, forgiveness and grace revealed the work of the Messiah.
As we heard in the gospel reading this morning, this is the bombshell that Jesus drops! The last line he reads before he says, “today these words are fulfilled in your hearing!” And that is music to the ears of those who’ve heard nothing but mourning and guilt over sin. These words are a revealing light to the eyes that look out with longing from sin’s prison. They cause the crushed spirit to rejoice! The prison walls are broken, the Savior is revealed and the soul rejoices. The son the savior sets you free.
Part 2. Rejuvenate the soul
So Isaiah’s prophecy, when he reveals the solution to sin’s prison to the souls broken walls, when he points 700 years ahead to the great promise of God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – that a savior from sin would come! It didn’t matter when you lived in the OT. It didn’t matter what was going on politically, or economically. Despite all appearances! What mattered was what was going on spiritually, in the souls of God’s people.
This whole reading from Isaiah today had an immediate fulfilment in OT history. About 100 years after Isaiah died, Jerusalem and all Judah were taken captive by the Empire of Babylon. Then Isaiah’s imagery the imprisonment, mourning, broken heartedness and mourning were not abstract, but they were concrete – right before their eyes. But perhaps you know the story, 70 years after their initial exile – by the hand of God a new king came to power. That king issued a new decree that freed God’s people. They were free to go home.
Imagine how this prophecy of Isaiah, then already 170 years old would’ve resonated with them! They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities.
Their tears were dried, their hearts were mended – they were set free from exile. Imagine them on that 900 mile march from Babylon back to Jerusalem! They weren’t chained as they were when they came. They were free, free to rebuild their homes and country but most importantly the Temple of their God. This promise of God made by Isaiah 170 years earlier must have rejuvenated their souls and built their spirits up – as they rejoiced over God’s Word to them, another promise – made and kept.
And still 3000 years later, these words have meaning for us. Whether he knew it at the time he wrote it or not, what the Prophet Isaiah does is put New Testament truths in Old Testament verbiage. Rejoice that the Word of God is living and active in this way! That it refreshes and rejuvenates all God’s people of all time!
As we spoke of earlier, we too were chained to the wall of our sins in a prison of our own making. The only way to escape prison is to serve the sentence. Someone must pay either you – or one sent from heaven to take your place. As Jesus said 2000 years ago to those in Nazareth, “today these words are fulfilled in your hearing!” That is exactly what he came to do. To walk up Golgotha, to be nailed to a tree and by his death – set the imprisoned free, dry the eyes of those crushed by guilt and rejuvenate the spirit of the oppressed by the weight of their sins. He came to keep God’s eternal, living and active promise to his people to set them free.
And what a powerful promise that is! It is one that we can continually return to time and time again. It’s a fountain that never runs dry from which we can sink our roots into and drink from. Isaiah says, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” This promise of God doesn’t make us weak saplings, but a grove of mighty oaks planted for the display of God’s Glory, Jesus Glory! That when the Devil tries to tie a chain around us and drag us back, and up root us – we can stay firmly planted in God’s Promise.
What does that look like? A grove of mighty oaks planted for the Lord’s Glory? Isaiah tells us, “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.”
But I’m not a priest or a minister of God!? Are you not? This is nothing other than the Christian wife forgiving her husband. The son forgiving the father and the daughter forgiving the mother. This is the brother or sister in Jesus not taking God’s Word of promise for granted. But forgiving each other from the heart.
This is exhibiting what forgiveness looks like to the world around us. The Christian in the work place who had their reputation or name ran through the mud – yet they don’t retaliate. They don’t seek a confrontation – but out of the blue and even though their abuser didn’t deserve it – they forgive. Just as Jesus forgave them.
This is what Rejoicing in the Word looks like! Not taking it for granted or being apathetic toward it, because everything appears to be fine – but seeing your liberator, your promised Savior, revealed. Knowing that you have been set free from prison, brought back from the exile of sin – you are free. And that message causes the forgiven soul, the freed soul to sing out and ring out and rejoice in the Word of God that reveals that Savior and rejuvenates the soul.