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Monday 20 September 2021


This is perhaps a familiar passage to you - even if you’ve never read it in the book of Isaiah, you may recall Jesus reading it in the synagogue in Nazareth, at the start of his ministry as recorded in Luke’s gospel. This poem looks forward to a massive reversal of fortunes, brought about by the power of God. Social and power arrangements will be reordered. Those who are now abused and oppressed will find themselves in a situation of well-being, joy, security and prosperity.


Isaiah 61 1:11

This is perhaps a familiar passage to you - even if you’ve never read it in the book of Isaiah, you may recall Jesus reading it in the synagogue in Nazareth, at the start of his ministry as recorded in Luke’s gospel. This poem looks forward to a massive reversal of fortunes, brought about by the power of God. Social and power arrangements will be reordered. Those who are now abused and oppressed will find themselves in a situation of well-being, joy, security and prosperity.

In the first four verses, the speaker (we don’t know who the speaker is) announces that they have been given a special vocation by God. This special calling is to do with the renewal of community. The work is authorised and inspired by God’s own Spirit; the speaker is anointed, chosen and empowered by God; and the work is to bring the gospel, the good news. The Hebrew word for “proclaim” here is the same as the one we noted in the passage from Isaiah 40 which we looked at last week. It’s related to the Greek word “evangel” which is to do with bringing a message of good news. The good news that God wants to bring about is delivered by human agent who will work for transformation in the community.

The specific good news in this passage is that Jerusalem, the beloved city which had been left in ruins by the Babylonians, will be rebuilt. The exiles hoped for a full restoration of Jerusalem, not just so that they could safely make their home there once again, but also so that Jerusalem would be a renowned and powerful symbol. In verse 4 we can see that it’s not the speaker who is going to do the rebuilding. “They” (whoever they are) will build up and repair the ruined city.

If we want to know who is going to do this we need to look at the bits between the first part of verse 1 and verse 4. In those intervening verses we can see that the speaker knows where to find the workers, the energy and the passion for this rebuilding project. The workers seem to be the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners and those who mourn. So those who are going to bring about the transformation are the ones who have been defeated, marginalised, and rendered powerless, either by economic pressures within the community or by the economic policies of foreign powers. However they have ended up there, “they”, the restorers, are the ones who have ended up in captivity or who are powerless because they have debts they cannot pay. These pressures have led to hopelessness, powerlessness and despair.

It’s the job of the speaker, driven by the Spirit, to give good news to these defeated people and to bring them back to power and constructive action. The gospel here is not an airy-fairy pious, religious thing, but it’s a concrete intervention into economic life that will break a poisonous cycle.The phrase “proclaim liberty” is the same term that is used in the Torah to signal the cancellation of dents and the rehabilitation of the poor. Many scholars think that the “year of the LORD’s favour” refers to the jubilee year when disadvantaged and indebted people are restored to full rights and power in the community. In this rebuilt city there will be no permanent underclass, and those who have been restored will be identified by their gladness and praise.

In verses 8-9 God speaks, and lays out what God loves and what God hates. God loves justice but hates oppression. God hates the economic oppression that has led to Israel’s exiled state, but God loves what the chosen one will do to transform this. God loves turning the social order upside down and reordering life according to God’s priorities. So God will compensate those who have suffered. And God will make an everlasting covenant with them. These powerless, on-the-edge people are the recipients of God’s special love and attention, not just for a short time but for all time! You couldn’t get a more stark contrast between verse 1 and verse 9. Fortunes are completely transformed because of God’s great love and desire for all marginalised people, and because of the action of a human being who intervenes in a concrete way into economic and social affairs.

In verses 10-11 the anointed one speaks again, celebrating what is about to happen. This person is excited about their mission from God because they know that they will be equipped for it. God gives them the clothing of salvation and righteousness. Filled with the Spirit, the speaker is eager and ready for action. And all the nations will see the transformation and will know that God has done it.

This is a great passage for Advent. It gives us hope that a real, lasting public transformation is possible and in view. It tells us that the transformation God wills for the world will be made possible through concrete human action. And let’s not forget that Jesus claims this passage for himself. Jesus is the one who will liberate the defeated. It’s no wonder that those who benefitted from this systemic injustice were angry at Jesus’s radical and subversive words. And in the footsteps of Jesus, we are now the human agents God calls to bring about justice and transformation in the world.

For further reflection…

  • Read through this passage again slowly. You might also like to read through the passage in Luke 4 where Jesus reads from this part of the scroll of Isaiah. What words or phrases stand out for you?
  • Who do you think are the oppressed, defeated, brokenhearted and captive people today?
  • What is good news for you today?
  • How do you respond to the idea that the people who have been marginalised and oppressed are called to actively bring about community transformation?
  • If you are honest with yourself, do you think you are part of the problem or part of the solution? Are there any occasions when you are aware that you are ignoring the call of the Spirit or thwarting the Spirit’s work?
  • Can you think of any situations in history or contemporary life in which dramatic transformation has occurred thanks to the prophetic and strenuous activity of a particular person or group of people?
  • In what ways might God be calling you to be human agent of change in the world today?