The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives, And freedom to prisoners; To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, To grant those who mourn in Zion, Giving them a garland instead of ashes, The oil of gladness instead of mourning, The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
The Favorable Year
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
The New Year, so close in time, always makes this Old Testament lesson kind of sing. It speaks about the favorable year of the Lord. I kind of hope, each year, that as it begins it will be that year - or at least that sort of year. I hope it will be a year marked by good things, good health, good friends, and prosperity of all sorts. That is, of course, what everybody wants. I also hope that it will be the year that our Lord returns - and that we will see it with joy and meet our Lord in the air, as Scriptures describes it, and begin eternal life and put all of the sorrows of earth aside. That would make it a very favorable year!
That isn't the meaning of the text, or of that phrase in the text, however. Nevertheless, it is a thrilling text, and very encouraging, even when you don't know precisely what it is about. This morning I hope to unwrap the meaning a little bit for you. Our theme is, the favorable year.
The first thing to note about this text is that it is the text for the first Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany is the season of the year in which we celebrate the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is the season of the visit by the Wise Men. It is the season of the changing water into wine at the Wedding of Cana, of the first visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve, of cleansing the leper who trusted Jesus could heal if He wanted, and of the healing the servant of the centurion who understood that Jesus could command sickness like a soldier, from a distance, this is the season of the miracles which allow the glory of His divine nature to shine through the veil of His humanity. That is why He is depicted in such striking terms and with such a powerful proclamation in this prophecy.
Our Old Testament Lesson is another of Isaiah's Servant passages. It is not about the prophet. The words may sound like the prophet is speaking about himself, but he is not. The Servant is speaking through him. We know that this is so because the One speaking possesses the qualities already attributed to the Servant of the Lord, and He says that He will do things that we have already heard assigned to the work of the Servant. What is being described here is beyond Isaiah. This is about Jesus. Filled with the Spirit. Anointed by the Lord, the Chosen One. He is the One sent to bring liberty and judgment.
The prophecy is talking about salvation from sin and death. The captivity spoken of in Isaiah is not the physical or political captivity of the Old Testament nation, but the captivity of us all in sin. Since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, we are all slaves of sin. Our nature has been twisted by the fall so that we do not understand or love what is good. We cannot control ourselves but stumble into sins and do those things that we would rather not do.
Have you ever said to yourself, "Why did I do that?" Have you ever spoken a word that hurt another that you did not intend to speak? Have you ever gone ahead and done something that you promised yourself you would not do? That is a consequence of our captivity in sin. We cannot help ourselves. Paul writes about it Romans, chapter 7, "For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish." Even as Christians, our flesh is sold into sin. When we were unbelievers, there was no good thing in us. But even now we Christians are, when flying under our own power, helpless against sin and temptation.
The bondage Isaiah speaks of is hell. That is the bondage from which Jesus came to proclaim our freedom. Those are the chains with which every one who sins is bound. And Jesus has come to proclaim freedom. He has come to proclaim release. And He has come to do more than simply proclaim it, He has come to win it and deliver it to us. He has done that by taking our sins, and dying our death on the cross. Then, in the preaching of forgiveness and resurrection and life, in other words, the Gospel, Jesus proclaims liberty to captives and freedom to those who are held in bondage, and the favorable year of the Lord.
The image of the favorable year is a prophetic symbol. Time in prophecy is usually symbolic - and this is not a standard "year," just as the day of the Lord is not usually just one day. So here, the favorable year is not meant to be a specific year, like 2009, but the time when God finally resolves our problems and stoops down to rescue us and accepts us into His good pleasure.
In other words, it is the day of our rescue and salvation. What day is that? It is Good Friday. That was the day that Jesus rescued us from our sins and set us free from death and hell. He set us free by taking our place, by bearing our sins, by dying under the wrath of God, and by giving us His righteousness in which to hide. Good Friday is the day of our salvation. It is the day He said, "It is finished!"
On the other hand, the day of our Baptism is the day of our salvation. On that day, God called by name and claimed us personally and individually as His own. That, too, was the day that Jesus rescued us from sin and death and set us free from hell. It may sound schizophrenic to talk about two different days and say that each one was that day, but it is true! We are connected through the mystical union by our Baptism with the death and the resurrection of Christ, so the day of our baptism is, in a very real sense, Good Friday, the day when He took our sins and gave us life.
The favorable year of the Lord is today. Now is the time that God is proclaiming liberty and release. If you miss His call today, there may be no other day, as the unexpected death of the 16 year old son of John Travolta, for a current example, makes so clear. Now our Lord calls to you to bring you out of sin and death and destruction, and holds forth life everlasting! Today, before the final day comes and we shall be all done with this life and this world and with wrestling with sin and grace. The favorable year is always today, since the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, because never have a whole year to deal with, just today, just this moment. All we have is right now.
That is particularly important because the Servant in the prophecy does not come only to proclaim the favorable year, but also the day of the vengeance of our God. Although He chooses to focus on the grace of God, our forgiveness and acceptance by God, which theologians call the "proper work" of God, there remains that 'alien work' -- the work of judgment of sinful men. That day is the Judgment day -- the day of the vengeance of our God.
Why vengeance? It is not vengeance over sin committed, although we have earned it. But Jesus has taken sin out of the way. The issue of life or death, of heaven or hell is not decided upon the basis of the quality of our works at all, but upon faith. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved. He who does not believe shall be condemned. It is that simple. By grace you believe, by willful stubbornness and by rejecting God with all your heart, you earn His vengeance.
What else could it be? He sent His Son for you. His Son lived a life of difficulty and temptation and poverty for you. He resisted all evil. He never sinned. He taught the truth. He opposed evil. He healed and loved and fed people. And we killed Him. It was part of His plan, but it was our sin and our captivity to sin that drove us to crucify the Lord of glory.
And He accepted it. He accepted the pains. He accepted the spitting in His face, the mocking, the punches when His head was covered, and the scourging. He accepted the nails in His hands and feet, and He bore our sins,. and the wrath of God against our sins, on the cross. Then He died the death that we, not He, had earned. And now, He comes proclaim to you forgiveness and the free gift of life everlasting and of resurrection from the grave.
And now, some choose to ignore it. Some want sleep in. For others, a football game is more important. Some cannot regularly give an hour for worship. Some people cannot deny themselves the twisted pleasures of sin for the sake of the treasures of life and salvation. There are those who choose not to believe, not to take this religion stuff too seriously, not to let the life and death of the very Son of God for our benefit go to their heads or change their lives or turn them from sins that they know are deadly and corrupting and evil. Sometimes, we stand among that crowd.
I know these words might sting some of you, but more likely than not, you kinda feel like I am preaching about others. But stop and ask yourself, how often do we have perfect attendance in worship even here. We did it last Sunday - but it was a while before that before we can find another Sunday on which all of us decided that Church and worship together was what we should do with our Sunday morning. And we are congregation of just twenty-some. We profess faith, and we are the children of God, and yet these truths haunt us. This is why we need a Savior. This is why we need forgiveness.
But what about those who reject Him outright? Has God not done just as much for them also? Is it not right to call their condemnation to the flames of hell vengeance for making light of such love and such gifts and so much poured out for them which they treat as unholy and cast into the dirt and walk away from with disdain? Yes. it is holy vengeance! And those who reject God and will not believe shall go to hell for all eternity and receive from the hand of God what Jesus has already borne for them, what their sins deserve.
But for us who believe, it is truly the favorable year! I mean, we'll take it. It sounds so wonderful in the prophecy, and it is!
Comfort for those who mourn in Zion. Mourning is always the word in prophecy for repentance. Forgiveness is our comfort. Your sins, even the ones I may have called to mind in this sermon have been forgiven! We receive a headdress of flowers instead of the ashes of repentance. The garland -- that is how our translation of the text translated it -- is the symbol of joy. Our garland is before us on the altar today. It both bears witness to our joy and delivers that joy to us. We eat the body of our Lord and drink His true blood - and with those precious gifts, we receive Him and our forgiveness into ourselves. If we confess our sins. He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The anointing of gladness instead of sorrow. Instead of guilt, security in the love of God. Praise instead of fear. That is what this prophecy means: the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. These speak of faith and thanksgiving instead of the depressing and oppressive fear of death and creeping certainty of the Judgment.
The prophecy also says that we will be called oaks of righteousness. We shall be known as righteous because He has made us righteous by declaring us forgiven, holy, and righteous, and because we shall become more outwardly righteous, by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us. This is true because God will work this righteousness in those who believe, and because it is only unbelief which fails to take sin seriously and has no interest in holiness.
And all that this Servant shall do, according to the prophecy, is the work of God. That also is the Gospel. God did what we needed because we could not. He made us part of His work of salvation because we could not save ourselves. God did it to His own glory -- and as those who receive of His grace we are to live to give Him glory. That, too, is part of reason we shall be called the Oaks of Righteousness.
To sum up, we are in that favorable year. We have seen much of this prophecy fulfilled, although not every bit prophecy is fulfilled to the utmost yet. We still await the consummation, the return of our Lord to bring us to eternal rest. As we wait, our Epistle lesson seems to eloquently sum up the final thoughts of our text: I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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