Advent 3 • Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11 • December 11, 2011
by William Wrede
Behold Your Salvation
The Season of Advent presents unique challenges not only for the preacher but for the congregation as well. While shorter than Lent, the pastor and the people may find the challenges of Advent to be significant. How do you schedule special programs prepared by the day school, Sunday school, choir, and everything else during the month of December? By now, the Third Sunday in Advent, the pastor might welcome an opportunity to not preach. Yet this Sunday presents the preacher with a precious opportunity to aid the hearer, who is also a bit weary, to rejoice and “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation” (Zec 9:9, used in the Collect of the Day).
Earlier, the prophet Isaiah writes, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Is 40:1–2, read the previous Sunday). Now, this Sunday, the words of the one bringing this comfort give us a clearer understanding of both the need for this comfort and the certain truth that the Messiah delivers the very gifts he promised.
In the first verse (61:1), the one anointed for this purpose comes to bind the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to those held in captivity, and throw open the gates of the prison so that none would be held any longer. Comfort indeed becomes not just possible, not just a promise waiting for fulfillment, but becomes the “vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (61:2). This message comes with certainty because it comes from God.
Beginning with Thanksgiving and continuing through at least Christmas, much of what individuals and congregations do could quite possibly be accomplished by hitting “auto pilot” or by writing the same events and activities onto the current year’s calendar. Traditions can easily dictate what happens when, where, and how. Our desire is to produce a flawless, meaningful, holy season. Verse 3 might seem sorely out of place when we are trying so hard to plan and strive to accomplish every task ourselves. Now might not be the time we are most inclined to seek help. The anointed one comes offering to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He propels us far beyond the personal “to do” list. He offers to take our ashes and replace them with a beautiful headdress. Mourning turns to gladness. The weary spirit is replaced with gladness. These are gifts to be received; we are incapable of producing them on our own.
The people of God are not destroyed but restored. God did not break the promise he made to Abraham but fulfilled it. As much as the people deserved death and destruction, God showed mercy. This gift not only preserves a people on this earth but guarantees life eternal. Having been clothed by him, having been covered in his righteousness (v. 10), we are as beautiful as a bridegroom, a priest, or a bride.
Now called “oaks of righteousness,” the people of God, his church, become the fertile seedbed for new growth. The destruction described in verse 4 is complete devastation, absolute death. The preacher here has the opportunity to show the sinner’s depravity. This is not the burning off of dross to leave pure silver. This is not the burning of worthless brush on a slash pile. Our works, our best efforts, our good intentions, do not make us strong, nor do we become ideal soil for new growth ourselves. Even the most well intended work on our part cannot withstand the heat of God’s judgment. When we are found so in need, so utterly helpless, the hand of God brings salvation and causes righteousness and praise to sprout.
The Third Sunday in Advent is not a time to purge the church of programs and traditions in an effort to cleanse his temple. Rather, this is a prime opportunity for the preacher to proclaim boldly and clearly the message of salvation to weary sinners. While many hope to do their best to craft a Christmas that is memorable and flawless, God comes with His message of perfection through his Son. At a time of year when the landscape surrounding most churches is bleak and hostile to life, the message of Isaiah 61 brings hope not for spring blossoms but for spirits made alive in the message of salvation as we prepare to celebrate his coming at Christmas.