A sermon by Rod Benson
Many years ago, a Bible teacher from the Plymouth Brethren movement named Harold Paisley, the brother of the fiery Irish Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Ian Paisley, said to me that in any congregation or gathering of God’s people there will be some who are struggling with grief, or guilt, or despair, or self-doubt, or another common ailment of the human spirit.
And it is the responsibility of the preacher in such situations to bring comfort and encouragement through ministry of the word of God. I have often thought of those wise words as I prepared to preach, and they are on my heart as I speak to you today.
Life is often hard. For some of us, the journey threatens to overwhelm, and we lose heart, and we hit a wall, and we are on the point of giving up and giving in.
God’s people in Isaiah’s time were in just such a place, as a community and probably also as individuals. They were descendants of Abraham; they had giants of the faith, and national giants, like Moses and David, Solomon and Hezekiah and Josiah to look up to, to inspire them to press on.
But God seems to have forsaken them. God has left the building. Jerusalem is in ruins, their faith is in crisis, their national pride in tatters, their regional security under threat. Their hope is at a very low ebb. Cruel people survey the desolation and despair and speak of the once-glorious city as “Zion, for whom no one cares” (Jer 30:17) – not even God.
But Israel’s God is the living God. Israel’s God is the Almighty Creator. He is the God of hope, the God of second chances, the one who is able to delete the indelible, heal the incurable, and achieve the impossible.
When Jesus began his public ministry in the small town of Nazareth, in the northern region of Galilee, far from the centre of pomp and power, he quoted these verses from Isaiah 61:1-2 (Lk 4:16-21).
Jesus, and the salvation he brings, and the union with God he assures, was the answer to the problems of his day. Not political zealotry and the violent overthrow of Rome; not introspective asceticism and turning one’s back on the world; but deep engagement with an itinerant teacher-healer, a humble man who claims to be the living embodiment of the eternal God, who keeps referring to his imminent suffering and death, and to resurrection.
Jesus was the answer to the problems of Isaiah’s day too. And Jesus is the answer to the problems of your world today: “Jesus, the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8). Things will not go on forever as they are today. Eventually something is bound to snap; one straw too many will fall on the proverbial camel’s back; the centre cannot hold.
One day soon, God will step back into history in a real and personal and unmistakable way, a moment which the Bible describes as “the day of vengeance of our God” (v. 2b), but also the time when God will “comfort all who mourn” (v. 2c), and release prisoners from the darkness, and free those held in various kinds of chains, and bind up the broken-hearted, and announce good news to the poor, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour, a jubilee year, and dispensing divine vengeance on the enemies of the Lord (vv. 1, 2a).
God does all this through his Son, our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate reconciler, redeemer and ruler of the universe.
The one who is speaking in Isaiah 61:1-6 is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God. Biblical scholar Barry Webb says,
By reading from this passage in the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus assumed the mantle of the anointed preacher of Isaiah’s vision and announced that the final great era of grace had dawned.
Do you long for things to be different? I do. Do you long for God to step in and restore your fortunes, and reorder the whole broken human community, and renew the natural world so sapped and scarred by greed and determined irreverence for nature?
The day is near. The promise will be fulfilled. The moment will arrive. I can almost hear his footfall on the threshold of the door.
The message of the great prophecy of the book of Isaiah can be summarised in three themes:
- Chapters 1-37: the King who reigns in Zion (e.g. 6:1-5; and a future aspect, 11:1, 10);
- Chapters 38-55: the King who serves and suffers (especially 52:13-53:12);
- Chapters 56-66: the King who comes as conqueror (e.g. 63:1-6; 61: 10-11).
That’s the big picture. But I want you to notice two extraordinary and heart-warming things about 61:3: what this gracious, glorious conquering King gives to his people; and what they become as a result.
First, what does the Messiah King give to his desolate and dejected people? He comforts them. He dries their tears. He lifts their spirits. He transforms their outlook. He brings them joy (cf Jas 1:2-3).
In place of the ashes of our personal defeats and unmet goals, Jesus bestows on us a “crown of beauty” – we share in the majesty, triumph and glory of God.
In place of sorrow and mourning, he anoints us with the “oil of joy” – we share, along with all creation, in celebrating his victory over the darkness, his rule, and his own joy.
In place of a “spirit of despair,” or heaviness of heart, Jesus offers us a “garment of praise,” preparing us for the worship of Almighty God, joining him in the festivity of new horizons, the joy of the eternal community in heaven.
As Augustus Montague Toplady, author of the classic hymn “Rock of Ages,” put it in another hymn,
Our Head already is in heaven,
And we shall soon be there.
Second, notice the promise at the end of verse 3: a glimpse of what awaits us as children of God; a sense of what we become through sanctification – our eternal purpose and delight:
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendour (cf Ps 1:1-3).
What if I were to say to you that this is the purpose for which Adam and Eve were created?
What if I were to say to you that the reason for the coming of Jesus into our world, the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God, was to restore the possibility of that divine purpose in our lives?
It is not hard to imagine that God’s intention, when he fashioned Adam’s form from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his body the breath of life, and placed him in that glorious, pristine, magnificent Garden of Eden, was for Adam, and his helpmeet Eve, to relate to each other, and tend and keep the Garden, in fellowship with their Creator, in an unprecedented mutual relation of love and trust, until they themselves were transformed through the obedience of righteousness into
a glorious and lofty paradisal tree of life and knowledge, yielding the fruit of righteousness and knowledge of God … Adam’s failure to enter into life and preserve the status of an “oak of righteousness” (Isa 61:3) derived not so much from a desire to “become like God” … [but] from the failure to become really like God by means of an inward, organic, transformative appropriation of godliness via holding onto God’s words.
Instead, through the diabolical intervention of the snake, and the autonomous exercise of free will, Adam and Eve chose to think and act independently of God, breaking that first precious unbroken fellowship they had enjoyed with God, and in doing so forfeited the opportunity to attain the unimaginably glorious transformative purpose God had in grace intended for them.
Their free choice to go their own way had the effect of severing the organic link between what they did and what they were, and between what they were and what they might have become. They settled for what they could see, and what they could imagine by themselves, rather than what God had envisioned, and what God had in store for them.
They would remain acorns, never attaining the potential of “oaks of righteousness” for the display of God’s splendour, severely limiting the expression of God’s glory in the world, and passing on that diminished purpose and depleted potential to their descendants.
I believe this is one fruitful way of understanding what occurred in the Garden of Eden on that fateful day, events that brought all of us to where we are today – having a veiled perception of the nature of God, and a far from perfect fellowship with God, and a semblance of godliness, in a despoiled and troubled world.
If Adam and Eve had been obedient to God, and had acted ethically, and had walked with God in his original transformative purpose for humankind, they
would not have become less human, just as soil does not become any less material by entering into the life of a seed that opens within it. But [they] would have become transhumanized – become more than [they were] – just as soil becomes more than it was, when it is transformed into a plant.
When God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), he was opening the door to our eternal salvation, and he was opening the door to our prospective transformation – restoring us to the possibility of his original purpose for creation, and for humankind, in his infinite wisdom, of slowly, lovingly, meticulously, and gloriously growing sons and daughters of Adam and Eve into a forest of “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, for the display of his splendour.”
And that, I believe, is what Peter has in mind when he speaks of the divine power of God at work in us, through “the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,” and the realisation of his “very great and precious promises, so that through them [we] may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3-4).
John has a similar thought in mind when he writes,
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Sermon 700 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Wednesday 2 November 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Leicester: IVP, 1996), pp. 235-236.
 Gregory Glazov, “Theosis, Judaism and Old Testament anthropology,” in Stephen Finlan & Vladimir Kharlamov, Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2006), p. 28.