Summary: Prophesies in Isaiah 61 look forward to Jesus, John talks about him indirectly. We should always be pointing at Jesus
When does Christmas start?
When does Christmas start? Is it when the first adverts appear on TV? Immediately after bonfire night? The start of Advent? The 1st of December?
For us Christmas starts in June, because that’s usually when our main holiday is, and we’re looking for a vineyard to buy some English wine as Christmas presents.
Oh, but I’m asking the wrong question really, aren’t I? - Because that’s PREPARATION for Christmas, that’s not Christmas itself. Christmas really starts on December 25th as we try to time the singing of “O Come all ye faithful” to just after midnight, so we can sing the Christmas day verse.
We are in the season of Advent, at the start of the church year. It is described as a season of expectant waiting and preparation, not just for the coming birth of Christ, but for the year ahead and also for the return of Jesus at the second coming. Both our readings today have that sense of looking ahead, but they are not necessarily looking at the same things.
Let’s look at the reading from Isaiah first. The Israelites have been through a lot. They have been defeated and exiled from their country. Eventually, 70 year later they are allowed back.
Chapters 60 and 61 look forward to a better future now that they have repented of their sins. Once again they can take their place as firstborn among the nations. Once again they can become priests to the world, and to be a blessing to all nations. All the peoples of the world will see this and acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.
It’s just what a defeated people need to hear. Their God is on their side and has great plans for them.
The year of the Lord’s favour (verse 2) relates to the laws of jubilee in Leviticus 25, when slaves were freed and land returned to its original owners. Things are set back the way they ‘should be’. Justice will prevail, the Lord will have vengeance against His enemies (Isaiah 1:24).
Jesus is speaking
The first verse of our reading starts “The Spirit of the Lord is on me”, so we have to ask who the 'me' is. It is likely that the original readers of Isaiah saw this as Israel personified, but with the benefit of hindsight and a few additional centuries, we know differently.
Jesus uses these verses to announce Himself in Luke (4:19-20), so these verses look forward to the Messiah, and beyond.
Jesus, too, promises justice in the parable of the persistent widow he says:
Luke 18:7-8a And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?
I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.
So there is no conflict between Jesus and this passage.
But remember vengeance is not our job, that is Gods exclusive domain as Paul reminds us in Romans 12:19:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.
Isaiah – a distant future
While the Isaiah reading looks forward to the distant future and the far distant future, pointing to Jesus, the Messiah, and events that have not happened even in our time, the reading from John looks to the very immediate future.
John the Baptist
John, Jesus’ cousin, was sent by God to identify Jesus to the people. He is by any standard a very strange man. He lives in the desert, wears camel hair clothes and eats locusts and wild honey. Collecting that must have had its dangers.
He starts a ministry of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Now you might think that someone who lives in such a strange way, and begins a new religious ceremony might be shunned by most of the population.
This is not the case for John, many people are coming to hear him and to receive his baptism in the Jordan River. Too many in fact, for the religious leaders of the day. They want to know what he’s up to, and probably more specifically, whether he is a threat to the established order.
So a delegation is assembled and sent out into the desert to find out who he was. They confront him while he is baptizing.
“Are you the Messiah?”
“No, I’m not the Messiah”, there’s no hesitation, he knows what he’s about, but as yet is giving nothing away. The Jews were expecting a Messiah (or Christ, if you’re a Greek) to come and rule over them, to free them from the oppression of the Romans, and return Israel to glorious independence – the sort of thing that Isaiah was talking about.