This morning I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church and we looked at the start of Isaiah 61.
Isaiah 61:1 – 7
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach 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, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness 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 splendour. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. 5 Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. 6 And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. 7 Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in their land, and everlasting joy will be theirs.
Life can be unfair. We all suffer misfortune at times. Some are bad managers of our finances. Some folk just are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for whatever reason people fall on hard times, get into debt and other troubles.
When the Jewish people were preparing to come into the promised land, God through the prophet Moses gave them instructions on how to live.
One of the things God put into the plan was the Year of Jubilee which would happen every 50 years when outstanding debts would be cancelled and slaves would be set free and land returned to its original owner. You can read about it in Leviticus 25:8-55 . The idea was to restore equality amongst the people. But you could imagine that if this happened nowadays, bankers and other lenders would be very reluctant to lend money if they knew the jubilee was coming and their loans would have to be written off.
I am not sure if there are any records to prove that the Jewish people actually kept to the Year of Jubilee as it would be of more advantage to the poor and oppressed than to the rich and the powerful.
In our reading from Isaiah comes a prophecy about what God will do for his people. In fact when Jesus started his ministry he is recorded in Luke 4:16 – 21 as reading this passage from Isaiah when he visited the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. When he finished the reading Jesus added in Luke 4:21 “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
You could say that this passage is Jesus’ mission statement and as followers of Jesus commissioned to do what he did, it should be our mission as well.
It seems to me that there are two main groups of people to whom we are to minister:
■ The broken hearted and those who mourn
■ The captives and the prisoners.
People can be broken hearted over many things, not just the end of a love affair as the famous soul singer Jimmy Ruffin sang many years ago:
“What becomes of the brokenhearted,
Who has love that’s now departed,
I know I’ve got to find, Some kind of peace of mind, help me, please”
People can be broken hearted when their football team doesn’t win the game. Last night on Facebook someone had written about our local team Dagenham and Redbridge: “Heartbreak for the Daggers as a late Kemar Roofe free kick earns Oxford the three points”.
Or when that project you’ve invested so much time, effort and money in comes to nothing.
Or maybe the political party you’ve worked so hard for in the elections gets thrown out of office.
Being broken hearted is very much like mourning.
We can mourn over many things. Usually we think it is about the loss of a loved one, be it spouse, parent, brother or sister, child, grandchild or good friend and so on.
But what about the sensation of loss we feel when we are made redundant? Some people’s sense of who they are is given by what they do. So to loose your job is a major trauma.
I was in that place in 1996 when after nearly 23 years with Barclays Bank I was made redundant. Aged 42 with Gaynor and four young sons to support. Its not only the pay packet that’s gone but your sense of who you are, the camaraderie of the work place and your sense of fulfilment.
We can mourn the loss of our health.
I realise that I was in mourning after I was told in July 2013 that I had prostate cancer. Suddenly I am ill, even though I didn’t have any symptoms at that point.
If I wasn’t a Christian I do not know what I would have done. But, thank God, I had many people who supported me in pray and upheld me as I went through the treatment and indeed I knew that God was with me as I went through this particular “valley of the shadow of death”.
How people cope with these sorts of problems without God in their lives, I do not know. They do get desperate and clutch at straws to save them. Anything from wacky pseudo scientific cures to faith healers and witchcraft.
You can mourn over your loss of independence whether that was through illness, accident or advancing age. This can be particularly hard if you have always been a doer. We saw this with my mum when over a period of just a few months she became housebound and then bedbound and finally went into a nursing home. She was not a happy bunny.
People can mourn over the loss of possessions. Often it will be items of sentimental value ie family jewellery or something given as a special gift or present. The loss of these items can effect some people seriously.
When we talk about prisoners we normally think of people who are incarcerated for having committed a crime and been through the court system. Of course is certain countries you can find yourself in prison for being a Christian or for wanting a democratic government.
Our passage refers to “release from darkness for the prisoners”. Often prisoners were kept below ground level where it was cold, damp and dark.
But I think our passage refers to other types of prisoners.
People can be held captive by their sins or misdeeds. Whilst the Bible tells us that we all will face judgement for what we have done: Hebrews 4;13 “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”, some people seems to suffer for their sins in this life.
We can think of alcoholics and drug abusers who have ruined their bodies because of their addictions. Or what about the man or woman who has an affair wrecking their own marriage and the lives of other people in the process.
Being involved in witchcraft and black magic can imprison us, as can consulting mediums and spiritists. Which is why the Bible tells us to not do these things.
Sometime ago I conduct the funeral for a man in his early thirties. His problems started at age 14 when he played with a ouija board. Whatever he got in contact with so frightened him and affected his mind that he stayed in his bedroom for the next three months. He had long term mental health issues and eventually he took to the streets, living rough and taking drugs.
Addictions can hold us prisoner. Anything can be addictive, not just drink, drugs, gambling and pornography. What about shopping? We hear about shopaholics. We have someone in our street who had been a shopaholic. She lied, cheated and stole from her friends and neighbours and even obtained a bank loan by impersonating one of her neighbours.
The words we say can imprison us. People swear that they will never forgive that person for what they have done. Unforgiveness can be a terrible gaoler keeping you locked in for years and years, torturing you with constant reminders as to what they did and why you can’t forgive them.
Someone once said that unforgiveness is letting your enemy live rent free in your head!
We can chain ourselves up by words such as “I will never forgive myself” or “I’ll never be any good”, “I can never do that”.
Words have a great power over us for good or evil.
So what are we to do?
We are to do what Jesus did. We have the power of the Holy Spirit in us, if we are believers, and so we can act with Jesus’ authority to bring forgiveness and healing as well as love and grace to people.
We are to quote Isaiah 61:3 “ to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. “
Some we have to set free from the powers of darkness, by casting out demons. For others we have to break the power of curses that are over them to set them free.
We should certainly pray for people and support them.
When someone is set free by the power of the Holy Spirit the transformation is truly amazing.
Our passage from Isaiah talks about people being restored “ They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour. “
Lives are transformed so that people who were restricted in their spiritual growth as if they were bonsai trees, now grow tall and strong and beautiful.
So I think that it is a challenge for us all to take this on board as our job description as disciples of Jesus, to bring good news to the poor, to comfort those who mourn and to set the prisoners free.