Summary: This is an advent sermon.
Imagine with me, if you would. You are an employee at a store. The store has had an incredible year; profits are through the roof. The store is having the best year ever. The CEO of the company announces a visit for next week. You are thrilled because you are going to get the recognition you deserve for all the hard work you have done. There is a buzz among all the employees. “This is great!” everyone exclaims. However, the manager and assistant managers don’t see as happy as everyone else does. They are constantly whispering with each other. It is obvious that they are not excited about the impending visit of the CEO. Then two days before the visit, you find out why the management is not excited. They have not followed company procedures. The CEO is sure to find out about this, and the management is scared. The good news of the CEO’s visit for you and your fellow employees is rotten news for the store manager and assistants.
Isaiah tells of a similar situation in Isaiah 61. Turn with me to that passage.
This prophecy was fulfilled with Jesus. In Luke 4:18, 19, Jesus quotes the first verse and half of the second. At the time, he was in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. After reading the passage, he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” You will notice that he stopped short of the part where it says, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” The day of vengeance has yet to come. Jesus ushered in a new era. He showed up on the scene and turned things upside down. He brought in the “year of the Lord’s favor.” The “year of the Lord’s favor” is not to be taken as a literal 365-day year, but rather as the time in which God rewards those who follow him. This is the time when the Good News would be preached to the poor. It is also the time when freedom will be proclaimed to the captives and prisoners would be released from the darkness. Jesus came to do that. And as his followers, we are commanded to do that as well.
That doesn’t mean we go bust people out of jail, or send files inside a cake to someone in prison. This is talking about spiritual captivity and darkness. There are people who are so engulfed in the darkness of sin that they cannot see their hand in front of their face.
We were on vacation, when I was a young teenager, in the Black Hills of South Dakota near Mount Rushmore. We decided to go to a cave and take a tour. The tour guide took a group of us into this large open room in the cave. They had put in electric lights and the room was well lit. The tour guide told of the explorers who used to crawl around the caves exploring and mapping the caves with little or no light. The tour guide said, “To give you an idea of what it was like for those men exploring this cave, I am going to turn off the light.” When he did, it was black inside that cave. I mean black. I held my hand right in front of my face and I could see not see it. I had it right in front of my nose. That kind of darkness is eerie. Many people are afraid of the dark because they see shadows or something. There were no shadows in this cave when the lights were out. Everyone was quite relieved when the tour guide turned the lights on and we could see again.
Jesus came to proclaim the release from darkness. I was very glad to be released from the darkness of that cave. It was only dark for maybe a couple minutes, but it was very lonely even though there were several people standing very near me. Jesus came to offer light to people caught in the darkness of sin. Jesus offers that even today. The offer is there as long as it is still the “year of the Lord’s favor.”
Verse 3 continues the same theme as verse 1. Jesus offers “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of the spirit of despair.” Again Jesus turns everything upside down. Those who belong to Jesus need not despair. This is not saying that we will not face difficulty or trials in our life, but he is with us to comfort us and see us through it.
During the time of Isaiah, the people practiced a ritual of putting ashes on their heads when they were in mourning. I not quite sure why they chose to put ashes on their heads, but that was their custom. We may be better able to relate to that last phrase, “a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” What we wear often tells about our mood. When we go to a funeral, we often wear black. Black, typically, is a color of clothing is serious and somber. We don’t see too may people who wear Hawaiian shirts to funerals. What Jesus does is take our black clothes of mourning and give us clothes of praise.