Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.
8 I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. 9 Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.
10 I surely rejoice in the LORD; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown, and like a bride adorned in jewelry. 11 As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations. (CEB)
These verses from Isaiah express themes of mission, righteousness, and salvation. Of course, my first questions are about what those words mean and how we, as the church, are to apply them. Sometimes, the definitions we assume don’t quite jive with what the Scriptures say. We like to narrow things, pare them down to Cliff’s Notes, so we can get the gist without having to dig deep or think too much. Honestly, it’s easier that way. It’s simpler not to have to wrestle with hard truths. If we can get the basics figured out, then we can assume we’re all set.
The problem with this kind of faith—I’ll call it lazy faith—is that we miss out on the life-giving richness the Scriptures offer to us, and the way it can shape and reshape our lives and our community.
Let’s take the idea of salvation as an example. What is salvation? Most people think it’s getting into heaven. It’s about making the cut. I think most of us are fairly comfortable with our level of commitment and aren’t too concerned about not making it in to heaven. I mean, if there’s any question on judgment day, we’ll just plead “Jesus” and God will let us in.
Yet, we conveniently overlook the words of Jesus in Matthew 7, “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong,’” (7:18-23 CEB), and Luke 6:46, where Jesus asks a simple question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?” (CEB).
There is, undoubtedly, an ethical component to salvation. That ethical component is found throughout the Scriptures. Every place where judgment is mentioned in the New Testament, we’re told that we’ll be judged according to what we’ve done, said, or failed to do. Not once do the Scriptures say that we’ll be judged according to what we believed. There is a tension between belief and action. Our belief in God had better inform our behavior and, more importantly, result in behavior that’s consistent with God’s understanding of right and wrong.
Revelation 14:13 tells us that our “deeds follow” us when we die. Yet, the prevailing notion among Protestant Christians since Martin Luther is that works, deeds, actions, words we speak—however we may want to describe the ethics of how we live—don’t have any bearing on whether we’re saved or not. That’s why Luther wanted to throw the book of James out of the Bible. Luther preached salvation by faith alone. But the only place the phrase “faith alone” is found in the entire Bible is James 2:24, where James tells us, “So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone,” (CEB). One of my professors used to say, “Faith alone and fifty-cents will get you a cup of coffee in the coffee shop of you-know-where.”
I think the price of coffee has gone up a bit since then.
It is God’s grace that saves us—God’s extension of love, mercy, and forgiveness to us, God’s incredible desire to be with us—but how we live, our ethics, matter to God. To think otherwise is to ignore what God tells us over and again. Verse 8 of our text tells us that God loves justice and hates robbery and dishonesty. What God loves and despises about our behavior matters.
To tack in another direction, the word salvation is something that’s difficult to nail down. It’s one of those churchy-religious words that we use but don’t quite get. We struggle with what it means. It may be helpful to know that saved also means healed. The forms of the Greek word σώζω (sodzo) which are often translated in our Bibles as “save” and “saved” are, in different places, also translated as “heal” and “healed.” The Greek word for salvation, σωτηρία (soteria), can mean deliverance or preservation from impending physical death, as well as salvation in the sense of a mystical future reality (which is that whole Heaven and Hell thing).
So, the essence of salvation, or being saved, is healing. The disease from which we are healed, so to speak, is sin and sinfulness: our penchant for choosing and doing things God doesn’t like. Salvation means that our “bent to sinning,” as Charles Wesley called it (c.f. Love Divine, All Loves Excelling) will be healed because of what God has done—and is doing—for us. While salvation is ultimately something God accomplishes, and wants to accomplish for us, we have a part to play. That’s why Paul told us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (c.f. Philippians 2:12).
Another aspect of salvation that we Christians often overlook is that it’s meant to be, in part, a quality of life that we experience here, now, which reflects God’s desires for our community. In Isaiah 61, salvation is good news. It’s justice instead of oppression, healing of the brokenhearted, liberty for the captives, release of the prisoners, and a proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor and vindication. It’s comfort and providence for those who mourn. Garlands instead of ashes. Praise instead of discouragement.
This all points to community as God desires. The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, which was every fiftieth year. It’s when slaves and indentured servants were set free. Property sold had to be returned to the ancestral owners, and everyone had to return home to their family property. It was supposed to be a complete reset of the Israelite economy, and it was meant to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor in ways that led to injustice and disparity. The word liberty here means more than freedom. In the context of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, it’s a complete socioeconomic reconfiguration. It was God’s reset button on the kind of wealth accumulation that led to oppression and injustice in Israelite society which led to a destruction of God-intended community.
Salvation is described as a restored city and an abundant garden. This isn’t a vision of pie in the sky after we die. While Christian theology does speak of a future reality of salvation, the Christian community is supposed to look like a reflection of that future reality in the present. We’re invited to participate in salvation-style living right now. Jubilee is what Jesus came to proclaim. That was his mission, and it’s the mission of those who follow him.
Remember when Jesus visited his hometown synagogue in Nazareth? “The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it,’” (Luke 4:17-21 CEB).
Jesus came to make every year a year of the Lord’s favor. His good news is that we can live out salvation even in a world that’s still broken. We can. And we do it by living our mission in our community.
That brings us to another term we need to re-examine. What is mission? First, it might help to dispel a common incorrect understanding of mission. Mission isn’t only something that goes out from the church, whether it’s money or people sent as missionaries for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners. Mission is also something that defines the church, in that we exist for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners.
Mission isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. It’s our identity. Throughout the Scriptures, God tells us over and over that God is deeply concerned for the least, the poor, the oppressed, the broken, the captive, the weak. Shouldn’t we reflect that concern, too? The church exists for mission. Church is not an end unto itself. If we think we’re here only for ourselves and what we can take away from the sermon to get us through the week, we’re severely missing the point of what Jesus came to do. We aren’t here to maintain a building, or run programs, or fellowship with like-minded individuals. We’re here to be the mission of the anointed one—the Messiah. Our building, our programs, and our fellowship should serve and support that mission.
But, when Christians only exist as people who are divided, who are judgmental, who fight amongst ourselves, who exclude others, we’ll fail to be the mission of Jesus Christ no matter how much money we throw at ministries, and no matter how many missionaries we send.
We’re here to live as Jesus Christ lived. Which means we’re here “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn,” (Isaiah 61:1-2 CEB). The church exists so that we can be the kind of missional force that transforms the world here and now by being a reflection of the Kingdom of God that’s coming.
When we do that, when we are that, the world will take notice. And the result will be joy. Not some superficial happiness, but deep and abiding joy; like wedding-day level stuff with brides and grooms dressed and ready. Our mission is righteousness. When our community faithfully lives as the mission of God, God causes transformation to happen all over the place. When mission is authentically lived, this stuff spreads. Good news is worth sharing and, when others see it, they know it’s worth emulating.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!