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Joy to the World, the Lord Has Come

Joy to the World

A few years ago, in late 2014, I spent some months in Germany and attended a German school. I made friends with two young Muslim doctors, one from Afghanistan, and the other from Syria. They were the only other students in my class who could speak English. One morning, before class, my Afghanistan friend and I were sitting on the steps chatting. My Syrian friend walked up and greeted us; he looked very distraught. I asked him how he was. He replied, “Robert, ISIS has destroyed my entire city; nothing of it is left. I grew up there, I studied medicine there, and it’s all gone!”

 

What does one say to someone like that? I tried to show as much concern as I could, knowing full well that my words fell hopelessly short of comforting someone who lost so much of his history and identity.

 

In some ways, though not identical, my friend’s story is similar to the prophet Isaiah’s poem in Isaiah 61:1–4. The Babylonians defeated the Ancient Israelites, who were taken as captives and lived in exile for many years. Much of their city, Jerusalem, and its holy temple were destroyed. Like my friend, they too lost their history and identity. Living far from their homeland, they felt a deep sense of despair and hopelessness. But Isaiah writes this magnificent message to give these exiles comfort and hope. He proclaims a time when the Messiah will come and restore their land, rebuild their temple, and bring in a new season of peace and prosperity.

 

Fast-forward about 700 years, just after Jesus had suffered grueling temptation from Satan in the Wilderness. Jesus finds himself in his hometown, Nazareth—As you might remember, ISIS would mark Syrian Christian homes with the Arabic letter ن (Nūn), the first letter of Nazarene, to target Christians for persecution. Jesus was a Nazarene, hence the ن. News about all that Jesus had done in Capernaum had reached all the surrounding towns and villages, including Nazareth, so the town was abuzz with the arrival of Jesus. Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, and all eyes are fixated on him. What is he going to do now? The scroll of Isaiah is handed to him, and he reads from chapter 61.

 

The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18–19).

 

He rolled up the scroll, sat down, and then proclaimed, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:10–21)

 

We are in the Christmas Season where we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. And this is a truly special celebration of the incarnation of Christ, that is, God becomes man. And the other celebration which we celebrate in a few months from now is Easter, the death and Resurrection of Christ. But as much as I love the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, there are those two points, “Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary,” and then there is “was crucified, died, and was buried… on the third day he rose again.” But what about the stuff in the middle?

 

Christmas is about the miracle of miracles, that the baby in a manger is God himself. But that’s where it starts, and then it leads into the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He comes to those of us who are hopeless, discouraged, and broken. He comes to restore his people and bring them hope everlasting; he comes to bring good news to the poor and proclaim freedom to the captives and to open the eyes of the blind.

 

In Luke 2, an angel appears to the shepherds who were watching over their sheep in the night. The angel appeared, not to kings and princes, but to the lowest of the low—shepherds. And the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause boundless joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (verses 10b–11).

 

Two things to note here.

 

The first is that the angel brought a message not of God’s anger but of joy. The very essence of Christian faith is Joy, not rules. Before Jesus is even born, the angel proclaims joy to the world! If you don’t believe me, read Paul’s letter to the Philippians; the theme of joy is unmistakable.

 

Second, the angel identifies the baby in the manger as the Messiah, the very same person identified in Isaiah’s prophetic poem some 700 years ago. The Messiah has come, the Lord has come!

 

Jesus, standing in the synagogue with Isaiah’s scroll in his hand, defines his life’s ministry, to help those in trouble, those in bondage, those with broken hearts, and those who feel forsaken.

 

God is not against us; don’t fear; don’t lose heart! He has come to bear our guilt and despair and replace it with joy unspeakable and filled with glory. He has a purposeful anointing to proclaim the good news, comfort those who mourn, and bring hope. I want to touch on those three areas of Jesus’s anointing.


Anointed to Proclaim the Good News

Although Isaiah is the one who is writing, the words are from the Messiah. We know it’s the Messiah because of the word מָשַׁח (mashach), meaning “anointed.” Yes, kings and priests were also anointed in the Old Testament, but they were anointed with oil. Men anoint only with oil, but God anoints with the Holy Spirit, so here we have someone who supersedes earthly kings and priests. We see this when the Holy Spirit descends at Jesus’s baptism as a dove. Incidentally, John the Baptist proclaims in Matthew 3:11 that he baptizes with water for repentance, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Messiah is no ordinary man!

 

He proclaims, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1). Some translate עֲנָוִ֗ים (anawim) as the poor, but the semantic range is quite wide; it may also mean “the humble” or people in a state of woe and dejection.

 

This Messiah creates a new people by his Spirit-empowered proclamation, and Isaiah explains the goal of the Messiah’s anointing with seven purposes.

 

To Proclaim Good News to the Poor.

To Bind Up the Brokenhearted.

To Proclaim Freedom for the Captives.

To Release from Darkness for the Prisoners.

To Proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor and the Day of Vengeance of Our God.

To Comfort All Who Mourn.

To Provide for Those Who Grieve in Zion.

 

Notice the pattern and emphasis on proclamation and action.

 

One of my pet peeves in contemporary Christianity is the expression “advancing the kingdom of God.” Although God’s kingdom is yet to be fully consummated, it’s already here. However, like the Messiah, we are called to proclaim and demonstrate his kingdom to others. And here we see exactly what it is the Messiah proclaims and demonstrates. Jesus confirms this when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah.

 

Anointed to Comfort

Jesus also confirms that he is the very person who will bring in the Lord’s favor, not a literal year but a time of God’s grace and salvation. In Isaiah’s context, it was salvation from Babylonian captivity. But now that the Messiah is here, he interprets the prophecy for us. Salvation is holistic; it’s redemption from the social and political powers of the age and the demonic forces that have enslaved humanity to the power of Sin. Jesus comes into our world and proclaims God’s grace and redemption, inviting us to repentance and faith so that we may share in the kingdom of God and eternal life. This is the year of the Lord’s favor; it is here, now!

 

But note the paradox. This day of favor is also a “day of vengeance of our God” for those forces that are in opposition to God and His divine will. If you find this paradox difficult, think of the ancient Israelites in Egypt. Moses comes along and saves the Hebrews from slavery, yet at the same time, it was a day of God’s vengeance for the Egyptians who oppressed his people. The rescue of God’s people always includes the judgment of his enemies, the oppressors and idolators.

 

All of this is a divine proclamation of God’s favor on the one hand and his vengeance on the other. Yet, there is also action. God comforts those who mourn, and those who endure suffering, whether physical or spiritual. There is a sense that the proclamations bring about comfort, but there is another sense whereby people will be truly comforted, both spiritually and physically. Jesus did this himself in person, and now works through the Holy Spirit in the church, affecting his people to share in his ministry.

 

Anointed to Bring Hope

Jesus takes these promises penned by Isaiah to a far greater level than anyone could have imagined. Yes, the ancient Jews suffered Babylonian captivity, but all of humanity suffers captivity to Satan, Sin, and Death (John 8:34). And yet, he said that if you know “the truth, you will be set free” (John 8:32). Jesus is that truth; he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

 

Jesus sets us free from this captivity by canceling our sins. So, though we were once prisoners to Sin, he lifts up our heads and gives us a crown of beauty and takes away our ashes of mourning and grieving, so that we may worship him in joyful freedom!

 

Isaiah says that those who grieve will be given the oil of joy instead of mourning. Oil in those days was enjoyed by the ancients as a part of enjoying the good life, but when mourning, they would rub themselves with ashes and put them on their head as a symbol of their grieving. This was a mourning ritual in ancient biblical times. But Jesus turns everything upside down; instead of mourning, grieving, and despair, Jesus comes with a crown of beauty, oil of joy, and a garment of praise.

 

Rebuild, Restore, and Renew

Can you hear the encouragement proclaimed by Isaiah’s prophecy, that those who grieve will be called “oaks of righteousness” planted by the Lord, because they exemplify righteous living and steadfast devotion to God, yet this righteousness is not our own, but the righteousness of Christ.

 

Have you ever considered the oak tree?

 

1.    It is of majestic size and form with sprawling branches that provide shade and shelter for a variety of wildlife.

2.    It bears fruits (acorns), which are a valuable food source for squirrels, birds, and deer.

3.    They are renowned for their longevity and resilience; some oak trees live for hundreds or even thousands of years. They can withstand harsh conditions and adapt to changing environments.

4.    With their broad canopy and deep, strong roots, they play a crucial role in forest ecosystems.

5.    The oak tree is also symbolized in many cultures as strength, wisdom, and longevity and is even referred to as sacred trees.

 

As magnificent as oak trees are, those who are said to be oaks of righteousness are planted not for their own glory but for the splendor of the Lord. The oaks of righteousness display the glory of God.

 

But remember, Isaiah’s readers were in Babylonian exile, while their city, Jerusalem, lay in ruins.

 

When I was studying architecture some 20 years ago, we had to sketch buildings in our city’s CBD. And while it was run down even then, I felt a profound sense of despair and sadness when I last drove through it a few months ago. I can’t imagine how the ancient Israelites would have felt when they finally returned from exile.

 

However, we are told of a radical transformation where the oaks of righteousness will rebuild the ancient ruins, restore the devastated places, and renew the ruined cities, and we see this in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, limited though it might be.

 

All that has been destroyed by sin and violence will one day be rebuilt, restored, and renewed. Although I like to think of this as a physical renewal in the new creation, it is most certainly also the mission of the church, the transformed community, to rebuild lives and societies to bring about physical and spiritual transformation.

 

God calls us, his church, into the very center of the ruins of this world, where there is suffering, sin, death, and despair, and to bring Jesus’s healing into the world, and a new culture of life and hope.

 

Without the anointed one, the Messiah, there is no proclamation of good news, no comfort for the suffering and grieving, and no hope. But the Messiah is here, the Lord has come; he is here among us. He is gathering to himself a community of oaks of righteousness! This is why he came into our world.

 

Jesus’s mission was to proclaim the good news, and he demonstrated it by healing the sick, opening deaf ears, and giving sight to the blind. Read the Gospels, and you will quickly discover that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 61.

 

Jesus did not simply announce the good news; he was bringing it in. Jesus brings in freedom, through his crucifixion and resurrection where all our sins are forgiven, and the power of Sin is defeated. We are no longer enslaved by Sin or our past and can now experience joy unspeakable if we welcome him into our lives. I’m not talking about a superficial joy where we tell people, “Don’t worry, be happy.” As Peter writes, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8).

 

Isaiah 61 demands a response from us. The first response is to worship the Messiah, for he has redeemed us, bestowed upon us his love and the riches of his grace, and given us a crown, the oil of joy, and rich garments of praise instead of despair. And he has made us oaks of righteousness. How could we not worship such a loving and generous God?

 

The second response is mission. The Lord has come into the world on a mission to redeem humanity. And as he transforms us, he calls us to be partners with him in his mission so that we too may proclaim the good news and liberty to the captives. And we are to demonstrate the good news by bringing comfort and hope to a world in despair. The Messiah has entrusted us with his mission, and what an honor that is.

 

Joy to the world, the Lord has come—this is the Christmas message!



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 *Image of Architecture, Graffiti, Abandoned; by AD_Images (Pixabay)

 

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