Garlands for Ashes: Isaiah 61:1-11

Will Fitzgerald
December 14, 2008

Today’s teaching will be less of a teaching and more of an “acting.” So, get ready—I’m going to ask some of you to play a part.

But first, I want to ask if there were any thoughts anyone would like to share coming out of my call last week to consider repentance and grace, as we listened to the voice of John the Baptist calling us to repent and prepare the way of the Lord. I gave you a list of nine sets of questions. And I’m not asking anyone to reveal their answers, but instead asking whether there was any working of the Spirit that you would find helpful to share or that you think would be helpful to the fellowship.

[time of sharing]

This morning, I would like us to look at Isaiah 61, this wonderful passage that Jesus quotes in his sermon at his home town of Nazareth, as recording in Luke 4. Isaiah wrote:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, 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.

Luke records:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

And so it is that we see that word “gospel” again: the good news, the glad tidings that Jesus brought in his words, and in his life, death and resurrection. And we see to whom the good news is brought: Isaiah says the good news is for anyone who is feeling oppressed, or broken-hearted; to anyone feeling or actually captive or imprisoned; to anyone that mourns. Luke adds that the sightless will receive sight, and the captives are called “the bruised ones,” which is a striking image.

So, after our questions calling us to repentance last week, it good to have some good news. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel captive to the desires and cravings I constantly feel. To say this is not to say that our desires for sex, food, money, rest, fairness, power, safety are are bad in and of themselves (although I would be lying if I said the church has not taught this at times). No, I mean the wrong seeking of these things—in excess, or with the wrong people or things or in the wrong way. I carry around the extra weight—literally, you understand; this is no metaphor—of my bad choices and desires. But the Servant, the Lord Jesus himself, calls out: this is the year of the Lord’s favor for me, and for you.

Of course, it’s not just our own choices that bring us to grief, but also the choices made by others and the way things are—disease, war, decay. We might mourn because our bad choices brought us to where we are. But we might mourn because of the way our bodies are made: a cancer, migraines…these things are not our fault, but they are our disabilities. And we might mourn because of the bad choices others might have made—their betrayals and anger and selfishness impinge upon our joy. We can’t really escape this sad fact of living.

Except. “The acceptable year of the Lord” is being preached, and we have opportunities to turn our sadness into joy. The passage that was most striking to me this week in the Isaiah reading is that the Spirit of the Lord is on Jesus:

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. (v 4)

We sit in ashes, repenting of our sins, or the victim of the faults of others or of our own bodies. We mourn the loss of relationships, of our youth, of our health. We wear the clothing of a “faint spirit,” too week to rise up and live.

But God provides a garland, a crown of beauty in place of our ashes, and oil to make our face shine, and clothes that shout out rather than hide our weakness, and:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels (61:10).

And, so I think we need to act this out to remind us that God is proclaiming right now that this year ahead we are, we will be, acceptable to him, so we can see beyond the words the images this word of the Lord has for us.

[act out play]

So, this week: meditate on the acceptable year of the Lord.