Since September 2012, I have been living in Denver, CO, but the week after Christmas I was honored to be asked to preach at my home church of Mosaic Birmingham. Here’s the audio and text of my sermon—although I strayed from the manuscript in several places.
Brett, a slave of King Jesus by the mercy of God,
To the church of God called Mosaic in Birmingham,
Greetings from the church in Denver,
and grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Brett Davis and I was a part of Mosaic for about four years. I’ve been living in Denver for the last few months, where I work at a Christian school and just went on staff at a church. I told Kris that I’d making my way back to Birmingham to visit for Christmas, and somehow I got suckered into, well, this.
And anytime that I get to preach, man, do I count it as an amazing opportunity.
What an honor. What a privilege. But, good grief, what a terror. Because—
Anytime I get up to preach, I have to keep confessing that I have nothing to say.
Anytime I get up, I have to keep repenting of performance—of me trying to come up with something life-changing to say.
Anytime I get up to preach,
or better anytime any of us get up or lay down,
or come or go,
or work or rest,
or run and play,
or laugh ourselves silly,
or eat or sleep,
or cry and despair and can’t make it another day,
or hug or dance or kiss or serve others,
or hope or dream,
Anytime I get up to preach or anytime any of us do much of anything,
all we’ve got is dependence. All we’ve got is desperate dependence
on the Spirit of the crucified, risen and reigning Jesus
to make himself known, to forgive, to comfort, to heal,
to give us life, to raise the dead, to speak.
So let’s take a minute to orient ourselves on this God and ask him to speak:
you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word:
Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
MAP OF ISAIAH
I’m not sure how many teachings and preachings I heard out of the book of Isaiah growing up. Quite a number, I’ll wager. I mean, of all ancient Israel’s prophets, Isaiah has left us the largest body of written text and probably the largest legacy. Sixty-six chapters spanning over two centuries. A sermon on a Isaiah is tapping into something huge. It’s like calling your kid into the backyard and trying to play catch with a meteor.
It’s hard to know even where to begin. The historical figure of Isaiah (who appears in 2 Kings 19-20) spoke into a national crises and got to see God rescue both those around him and the city of Jerusalem.
But far beyond just the circumstances of his history, the prophetic voice of Isaiah echoes throughout Israel centuries. His voice reaches from the near-disaster of Assyria conquering Jerusalem (around 700BC) to the how-could-this-happen national catastrophe of Babylon destroying Jerusalem and the temple of Yahweh (around 586BC) to the decades of despairing exile that followed and then even further to the days when Israelites were returning, rebuilding and resettling under the kingdom of Persia (around 500BC give or take a few decades). This is a prophetic voice that spans over 200 years.
Imagine a figure like Abraham Lincoln. An iconic, recognizable sort of figure who spoke into the near-disaster of the United States crumbling. Then imagine his voice somehow continuing. Lincoln giving us a way to think about 9/11. Then Lincoln encouraging us through the collapse of Western civilization. Then Lincoln promising us that God will rebuild the world on the other side.
That’s kind of what the book of Isaiah is like.
Minus the bits about Lincoln.
When I’m wanting to engage or study or meditate on the book of Isaiah, I can sometimes feel a little lost. A little like I need a map. We don’t have time for the Google maps satellite survey of Isaiah today. What we have time for is the equivalent of drawing a map on the back of a napkin. And it might look something like this:
Isaiah 1-39 = Jerusalem rescued… but then judged (700s BC)
Isaiah 40-55 = Jerusalem destroyed… but then restored (600s BC)
Isaiah 56-66 = Jerusalem gives way to New Jerusalem (500s BC)
And our text today is from chapters 61 and 62, so you can see where it fits in the overall picture. There’s been a lot going on up to now:
Through chapters 1-39, the people of Israel have experienced the mercy of Yahweh. They deserved catastrophe—they brought disaster on themselves. But God gives them grace.
Then—as a culture, as a people—they taste the depths of despair. Everything they knew, all they held sacred, all their confidence, all their security, all their purpose—gone. Their entire worldview—shattered. Again, this is the fruit of their own choices—they have to eat what they themselves have grown. They’ve got home-brewed death that they’ve got to drink to the last drop.
But from Isaiah 40 onward,
after everything has collapsed,
after everything has fallen apart,
after despair has reigned,
after hopelessness has had its day,
… a voice of hope begins to speak.
THE ANOINTED VOICE
It’s a voice of comfort that you can see begin at the beginning of chapter 40—a voice that insists that things aren’t always going to be like this—and it’s message swells and shifts and moves and flows like a symphony through chapters 40-60 until we find these words at the beginning of chapter 61:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
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 will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
This is the beginning of chapter 61. A voice anointed with the Spirit of God bringing more good news.
The poor are going to rejoice.
The brokenhearted will be bandaged.
The captives will be sprung from their cells.
The mourning will be comforted.
Everyone, everywhere in Israel who is desperate and hurting will be comforted.
And they’re all going to be put on display like giant trees.
We heard this echoed again in our passage today. From verse 11 onward:
(61:11) For as the soil makes the sprout come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations.
(62:1) For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet,
till her vindication shines out like the dawn,
her salvation like a blazing torch.
(62:2) The nations will see your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
According to the voice speaking in chapter 61,
God is going to restore, God is going to heal,
God is going to rename, God is going to make new,
This is the torch that God is going to use to pierce the world’s darkness.
This is how God is going make himself known to the world.
blah, blah, blah…
Isn’t that wonderful?
God’s going to restore and heal…
Great, great, great, Brett.
I know this is Sunday and this is a sermon and maybe these are the sorts of things we hear all the time. But the crazy thing about this is that this voice actually believes that God is going to it.
That God really is there. That God really does heal.
That God really does restore. That God really does give life to the dead.
That’s why our passage starts the way it does:
(61:10) I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.
That phrase translated as “I delight greatly” is actually the verb “rejoice” used twice.
It’s the Hebrew way of saying, “I’m stoked.” But what’s this voice so amped up about?
For he [God] has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
God is acting so rightly (that is, God is “righteous”) and is giving such absolute, unquestionable deliverance (or “salvation”) that this anointed voice of comfort is absolutely giddy.
What God has planned for the once great Jerusalem that now lies in ash,
for all the broken-hearted who are lost in confusion
for all the hopeless sitting in the ruins of despair…
…it’s like a feast, it’s like a festival, it’s like a wedding.
That’s the image that voice uses—he says that he’s been dressed by God for a wedding. And it’s the sort of thing that’s too good to be true and most of the time we let ourselves dare to dream it even on Sundays:
(62:5) As a young man marries a young woman,
so will your Builder marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
so will your God rejoice over you.
This voice actually believes that this is going to happen—that God and those who are willing are going to be reunited. That heaven and earth will be one. That “your Builder will marry you.”
This voice has got just enough insane faith to saunter into a crowded funeral home with the corpse and the casket in full view and promptly tell everyone to put on their tuxes and best dancing shoes.
You were dressed for a wake but it’s time for a wedding.
You were ready for a funeral but it’s time for a feast.
That’s what this voice says.
That’s what this voice says God is like.
That’s what this voice insists is actually going to happen.
Now turn with me to Luke chapter four. Because like so many things in life, what matters isn’t just what is being said but also who is saying it:
(Luke 4:16-21) He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind to set the oppressed free to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Whatever kind of hope and courage these words gave in the sixth century BC to those devastated by Babylon, it was only a fraction of their deepest meaning. Because centuries later, in the backwater town of Bethlehem a young couple gave birth to a son named Emmanuel.
The Voice of God became flesh.
So Jesus reads the scroll and says, I’m the one
who proclaims good news,
who makes the poor rejoice,
who bandages the brokenhearted,
who springs captives from their cells,
who comforts the mourning,
who forgives sinners,
and who raises the dead.
I’m the one who plants great trees to make God known.
And I’ll do it by dying on one.
So if I could ground us in anything today, I would want to remind us three things:
First, we need to be reminded who the Voice is.
the voice proclaiming good news,
the voice giddy with joy about what God has got planned,
the voice promising the grand wedding of heaven and earth,
knows every angle of the bad news,
knows intimately what it feels like to be forsaken,
and knows what the funeral home is like—from the inside of a casket.
Second, we need to hear the Voice’s message.
The brilliant, we-hear-it-all-the-time, too-good-to-be-true news that I get to announce today is that Jesus’ voice raises the dead. Really—he’s alive today, ruling and reigning over the entire world and one day his kingship will be seen and recognized by all. Our king’s voice raises the dead. And this is brilliant, unbelievably good news.
But the terrifying side of this news is that Jesus’s voice raises only the dead.
We need to remember that Jesus has nothing to proclaim to you unless you’re poor. Unless you’re brokenhearted. Unless you’re captive. Unless you’re mourning. Unless you’re a sinner.
Today—and everyday we live—we’re challenged and invited and commanded and welcomed to admit our need. To open our hands, confess that we’re desperate and needy and completely falling apart—and then have the Voice sing life into us.