Opening The Old Testament
God Returning: Advent Reflections on Isaiah 61
Despite a ramshackle temple, despite a struggling economy, despite the lack of a stable infrastructure, the call of justice rings out from the 10th century to the 5th and beyond. Whoever this "me" is in Isaiah 61:1, whether the prophet himself or some other unnamed coming one, the call of this person is the same: justice for all. Hence, the famous following lines describing just what this spirit-filled one is about to do. "God has sent me to announce news to the oppressed."
The verb used here, "to announce news," (basar) had originally a neutral meaning. In 1 Samuel 4:17 the verb is used to announce very bad news to the high priest Eli that his sons have been killed in battle and that the sacred Ark of the Covenant has been captured by the Philistines. Yet, surely in Isaiah 61, the verb can only mean the announcement of very good news, especially for the oppressed, the captives, the broken-hearted, the prisoners, and all those who mourn. Little wonder that Luke 4 makes this very passage the text on which Jesus preaches his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. And little wonder that when his fellow Nazarenes hear the sermon they threaten Jesus with death. All prophets who come proclaiming justice are forever risking life and limb. Little wonder that later in his ministry Jesus will lament that Jerusalem is "forever stoning the prophets and killing those" who would speak the truth.
So again we can see in this famous passage just what and whom we await this Advent. We are not waiting for something and someone we do not know, something or someone we do not anticipate. The one to come is in every sense of the word returning to us. And that one comes with justice, for God always sends persons who announce justice. The question always is for us: will we hear this time?
Listen now to the substance of the sermon of this anointed one:
I YHWH love justice;
I hate thieving offerings! (61:8)
The last clause is not easy to translate, but the essence appears to be that all traditional offerings to YHWH, however well arranged and performed, however rich and sweet-smelling, are always in danger of being, in fact, theft. This idea, too, like the ancient call for justice itself, has a long history. Amos's stinging words float to mind:
I hate, I loathe your festivals;
I do not delight in your worship assemblies.
Though you offer me both burnt and grain offerings,
I will not accept them!
The offerings of perfectly fattened animals, I refuse to look at.
Remove from me the noise of your hymns;
I will not listen to the melodies of your harps!
Instead, let justice roll on like waters,
And righteousness like a perennial stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
Isaiah 1:12-17, some 300 years before Isaiah 61, has the same concern. At this season when our churches are festooned with stars and camels and bearded wise men, when special services dot our worshipping weeks, when the choir is tuned for praise, when the preacher gives special attention to the sermon, we must never forget that the one we await is the one we have already known. Above all, he is bringing the call to justice once again; we have heard that divine voice before, in Nathan and Elijah and Amos and I-Isaiah and Hosea and Micah and Jeremiah and II-Isaiah and now in III-Isaiah.
It is not more worship that this anointed one wants; it is justice, always justice and again he says, justice. Can we hear him, this time, at last, finally?
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.