The passage read this morning from the prophet Isaiah comes to us from a period in the history of the people of Israel as they are preparing to return from their period of exile. The events that led to the downfall of the nation and the enslavement of the people left the people with a sense of hopelessness and despair. The prophecy given by Isaiah as recorded for us in this passage is part of God’s communication through the prophet meant to bring encouragement and hope to a new generation. The people have suffered humiliation and separation from their homeland and no doubt lost family and friends; but now there is hope for the future.
Times in the life of a nation and a people, times in the life of individuals and families that are harsh or destructive can shake the very foundation of everything we believe in. In these times, we can find ourselves either drawing closer to one another, seeking solace in our relationship with God or we can find ourselves pulled apart, feeling disconnected with the world we felt could not be shaken.
We have been fortunate. While events in the world have shaken the foundation of many people in many lands, we have remained relatively unscathed both financially and socially. Yes, we have experienced many changes in our lives and not all have been good or welcomed but we have not suffered the great disruption experienced by the people of Israel in the time when this prophecy was first uttered. But we have been able to identify to some degree with the pain and suffering such a disruption can cause as we listened to the story told by the Syrian family now living in Kemptville whom we helped to start a new life.
The people of God in the time of the prophet Isaiah had suffered a great disruption in their family, social and national life. They had experienced pain and separation; they had experienced a loss of liberty, even imprisonment. But a time had come and was being announced through the prophet that would lead to a restoration to the land they knew and the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Through the prophet the people were given a word of comfort and healing and hope.
It seems that the history of the world has ever been one of peace and upheaval, of joy and sorrow, of gain and loss, of belief and disbelief, of pride and humility, of imprisonment and of release.
It is worth noting as we ponder this passage and the message given to the people in that day that there never comes a time when God does not seek to renew the hope of the people. No matter what may befall the people, no matter how events in the world may affect them, God speaks through the prophets and ever offers a message of hope, a message of good news, a message of healing and freedom, a message of comfort and joy.
Later in the history of the people – as the writings of the prophet Isaiah were read in a new generation – Jesus would stand in the temple and open the sacred Scriptures and read again the words of the prophet. And while the words spoken very much related to the time of the restoration of the people from their exile, Jesus also saw the relevance of those words to the people of that time and place as he found people who were spiritually – if not physically – in a place of exile, broken-hearted, captive, in a prison of sorts, mourning, searching for meaning and hope in the midst of a life caught between the demands of their religious leaders and the law of a foreign occupier. And as he spoke those words to the people that day, he finished by declaring that today these words of the prophet had been fulfilled in the hearing of the people.
We can only imagine the impact of Jesus’ words on the people of that day. As they cast their eyes around or pondered their situation in life, I am sure that many of them were anxiously hoping that indeed these words were fulfilled but I am sure a lot of them were wondering how.
Jesus’ ministry among the people over the coming years would show both in word and deed how the words of the prophet were coming to fulfilment. He brought good news to those who were humble because the humble could hear his words; he brought healing to the broken-hearted finding the place in them where they were torn or bleeding; he released people trapped in prisons of physical and emotional pain and suffering; and he brought comfort to all who mourned by sharing in their grief and offering a peace that went beyond anything the world had ever known.
But there’s another element to the prophecy and one that is only revealed after the earthly life of Jesus. In the prophecy it is mentioned that those who are in mourning will be given garlands instead of ashes; oil of gladness instead of mourners’ tears and they will be called trees of righteousness planted by the Lord.
In a veiled way, the prophet saw the people who would come from exile as people who would be given a gift of joy, of freedom and of hope by God. They would be like trees that stood tall revealing a relationship with God once again strong in faith and love and hope and a desire to live as the people of God.
As we ponder the message of God to the prophet Isaiah and Jesus declaration that the words of the prophet were fulfilled in that day and time, we begin to recognize that this message of God was laying the foundation for what was to be the mission of the church. God’s people were to give themselves – as Jesus showed them – to announce good news to all who would have ears to hear; to bring healing to those whose hearts had been broken in any way; to speak words of freedom to any who felt bound physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually and to bring comfort to any who mourned.
The buildings we occupy today, the ways in which we worship, the activities we engage in together exist so that we can be part of the mission of God which is to bring a message of hope, peace, love and healing to the people of this world. There is to be intentionality about our life as there was in the life of the prophet Isaiah and the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We are to live as people upon whom the spirit of God has come and to understand that we have been anointed by God to be trees of righteousness.
May we commit ourselves to this mission and so continue to be part of God’s reconciling mission of hope and healing in a world that experiences so much pain and suffering and separation.