For What?: A Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-3

By: Antipas Harris
Monday, March 7th, 2011

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Isaiah 61:1-3

Often we think of the Spirit and the anointing of God in privatized categories with little concern for the everyday experience of the collective human family. We like to soak in prayer like Theresa of Avila. We like to come together to sing. We feel good when we do these things because we have come to believe that this is what a good Spirit-filled Christian is suppose to do. Although these are essential practices for the Christian. But there is much more!

Popular ministers often teach that giving money and service to a ministry merits miracles and material blessings. Church as usual is more concerned with building buildings and ministry empires than leading people in social action, advocating for social justice and community transformation. This is a problem!

Status quo religion implies that joining churches, paying tithes and offerings, giving to world missions and planning short-term mission trips are the best ways to invest into the Kingdom of God on earth. Many of us plan to graduate from seminary and go be the next preacher on the world-stage, a great evangelist with thousands of people listening to us talk.

But, I believe that more and more young ministers are discovering that God did not call us for name-brand ministry.  We are not called to make our names great, lest we be lifted up in the pride of many and fall into snares of the evil one.

In a sense, we are called to be invisible! This type of invisibility does not make us popular but it makes the Word of God through us popular. It does not plaster our names across billboard or in neon lights but it evidences a divine work through us in transforming people and communities.

Old Testament scholar J.J.M. Roberts says that Isaiah is a composite work. It is the product of several different prophets who ministered in different periods in the history of Israel. It is common that scholars distinguish between three main sections in the book. Chapters 1-39 are attributed to Isaiah, the 8th century B.C.E. Judean prophet.Chapters 40-55 are attributed to an unknown prophet who lived in Babylon during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C.E.

Then, chapters 56-66 make up the third section of the book. This section is attributed to another unknown prophet or prophets who lived in Judah after the return from Babylonian exile in 539 B.C.E. We call this prophet or these prophets—post-exilic prophets.

Some scholars suggest that Isaiah 60-62 comprise the core of the third section in Isaiah (56-66). The essential message of these chapters is that the God employs the renewing work of the Holy Spirit to transform the historical mayhem of the day to bring community restoration and vindication of the people of God. In essence, God anoints the minister with the power of the Holy Spirit to lead in the Hebrew people’s urban community transformation.

The time period is post-exilic. Dennis Bratcher points out that they had much to be discouraged about in that 100 years following the return from Babylonian captivity. Even those who had returned were still incarcerated by the prisons of their minds. Like many people today, they were free but not free.

Although they had a lot of time on their side, they could not seem to win for loosing. For generations, poverty was a spell that they just could not seem to break. Wounds from their past were not yet healed. Their cities lay desolate. They had opportunity right before their eyes but they could not seem to reach it. The people were ashamed of where they lived. They could not believe that life had dealt such a low blow. Sounds familiar?

Like them, some people today believed in God; but, God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. They believed that somewhere out there, there is a God who hears and answers prayers for some people. They believed that somewhere out there, there is a God that is able to do some things. But, the confines of current reality seems to distanced that God from their own experiences.

But in this third section of Isaiah, there are a few nuggets for our inspiration.

1. God raises up a prophet, a minister endowed with the Holy Spirit and anointed to bring a Word that transforms poverty into prosperity; a Word that restores broken hearts; a Word that unleashes the cage of incarcerated dreams and visions; a Word that gives perspective for vision and leadership within the discombobulated realities of post-exilic Jerusalem.

In Isaiah, love and service for the post-exilic Hebrew people were priority to the prophet. Equipping the people to rebuild waste places and regaining beauty for ashes were more important to the prophet than building his own ministry.

I want us to understand that our divine callings are validated by divine our willingness to submit to the Spirit that has anointed us. Scholars are unclear as to who is the actual prophet speaking in Isaiah 61 but what we do know is that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. Surrounded by broken communities and fear; beauty trampled into ashes; years of hard labor smashed in a little time.

This is an at-risk situation. Conditions are not good. It was a good time for the Spirit of the Lord to come upon the prophet. The prophet brings the hope that the people needed. No president or politician could do it. But the Spirit of the Lord comes upon the prophet to inspire the people and to declare beauty is coming out of ashes.

2. This Word from God came at a time when the people felt that they were forgotten, unloved and abandoned. This Word communicated that God still loves and favors the abandoned. To borrow from the words of James Cone, “God is a God of the oppressed.” This means that God favors the outcast to show God’s glory among and through them.

The same Word that spoke order in the middle of tohu va bohu in Genesis 1 is the same Word that filled the mouth of the prophet. There is something incredible that happens when the Spirit of God shows up.

  • The Spirit brings a Word to solve problems;
  • The Spirit brings a Word to undo predicaments and heal pains;
  • The Spirit comes with a Word that transforms lives and communities;
  • The Spirit comes with a Word to resolve and restoration;
  • The Spirit comes with a Word to change and challenge;
  • The Spirit comes with a Word to rescue and reveal God’s power;
  • The Spirit comes with a vision and provision;
  • The Spirit brings a Word of hope and help.

3. Sisters and brothers, it is important for our purposes today to highlight the fact that the author of the third period represented in Isaiah is ambiguous. This means that the prophet in Isaiah 61 is ambiguous. I would even venture to say that the prophet is anonymous.

Isn’t is striking that the anointed prophet who’s account Jesus quotes in his inaugural message in Luke 4:18 is an anonymous prophet?

It is striking that this section of Isaiah that this important part of the Bible leaves us scratching our heads trying to figure out who is this prophet. What is the prophet’s real name? Is this another Isaiah or some other name altogether?

This ambiguousness reminds me of Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man. Ellison considers himself the Invisible Man. Locating race relations in postwar America within the discussion of French existentialism; Ellison seeks for his own meaning of individual existence in a seemingly meaningless universe. Ellison locates the tension of race relations in similar conditions: invisibility and blindness. His point is that black people fail to achieve recognition for all the work they did in the development of American civilization.

I agree with Ellison’s analysis but I think that an implied message in Isaiah is that our identity is not as valuable as God’s identity. All we need to know is that the Spirit of the Lord is at work.

There are notable names in history. Yet, we must not be mistaken. God’s Spirit is moving in our world beyond the names we recognize. There are millions of nameless women and minorities who worked their fingers to the bones and even died for justice, so that their children could have a better life, so that people could eat, so that people could have the right to vote, so that our people could have a right to quality education.

I want to submit to you that those people’s names are like the anonymous prophet. We don’t know their names but the Spirit of the Lord was upon them and used them in profound ways. We may not know their names but we experience evidence that God used them. They lived the words of that ole song,

“May the works I’ve have done, speak for me! When I am resting in my grave and there aint nothing else that can be said, May the service, I give speak for me.”

I know! I know! Martin Luther King, Jr. was right in that famous sermon called “Drum Major Instinct.” From babies until adulthood, all of us have a deep desire to be praised and affirmed. We have a need to be recognized, to feel important.

But, Sisters and brothers, in God’s eyes all of God’s children are on the world-stage alongside history’s recognizable names. Yet, without recognition or acknowledgement many of us identify with the unknown trailblazers. While we enjoy the fruit of their unrelenting fights and courageous bloodshed, they remain invisible or we just fail to acknowledge them.

Similarly to Ellison, we feel that those we help are blind to our extended hand. With feelings of depreciation, we close the blinds of our world and wonder what can we do to make our lives sublime and leave our footprints in the sands of time? How can we gain recognition for our hard work? How can we make our names known? How can we be the next recognizable name? If this is not possible, why did God call me to ministry?

King says that we need to keep the need to be first and important. But we need to be first and foremost in the love and service.

What does this passage in Isaiah have to do with us today?

1. That same Spirit of the Lord that is upon the anonymous Hebrew prophet and upon our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is upon us because that Spirit has anointed us for a reason.

2. In the Isaiah passage today, the unknown prophet challenges us: The prophet says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because She has anointed me.” But the prophet never says who the “Me” is. It does not matter who the “me” is.

What matters is that the Spirit is doing the anointing. Sisters and brothers, we are not called for name brand ministries! That is selfishness and self-centeredness.

Walter Rauschenbusch helps us to understand that sin is not only rebellion to God but selfishness. We are not called to cure the blindness of the world that they might know its “me” who extended the hand.

3. Right now is a good time and the city where God has placed you is a good place for the gospel. Again, Walter Rauschenbusch teaches us that the gospel is not ideological. The word “gospel” means “good news.” The “good news” to the broken is restoration. The “good news” to the hurting is healing. The point here is that the gospel has a dominant social dynamic. Therefore, the Church has a divine responsibility within the social sphere. This means that urban poverty is a good place for the good news of Jesus Christ.

If we take Jesus and the Old Testament prophets seriously, we must note that the entire Bible is concerned with the poor and needy and socially disenfranchised.  Throughout the entire Bible, God provides hope and healing for suffering people. The earliest wealthy Christians liquidated their own wealth to help others who were in need not to build ministry empires.

Today, there are many beautiful church buildings built within the urban communities. Our challenge is not related to raising money to build more church buildings. Our challenge is related to rebuilding urban communities through the social dynamics of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We must jump-off of the political bandwagons and lead as prophets who the Spirit has anointed for divine transformation.

There are many social problems for which God is calling us. Right here in Hampton Roads,

  • We are surrounded by violence and hate;
  • Young people are dropping out of high school;
  • Undocumented residents are being abused every day;
  • Abortion rates are cutting the African American population in half by 2050;
  • We are experiencing genocide, infanticide and homicide at alarming rates;
  • Churches have little to say or do about the silent new sex slavery that is abusing and killing women by the millions around the world;
  • There remains institutionalized racism;
  • People are suffering from diseases;
  • There are too many broken families;
  • There is too much individualistic and personalistic ideology that cripples any real sense of community.
  • Too many people are victims of social debauchery;
  • The innocent of our society are beneficiaries of poor choices by those closest to them;
  • Rape is on all-time high.

And we ask ourselves, what is our purpose?

Well, I believe that for this reason, the Spirit of the Lord has come upon us.

  • We are anointed to lead in social action against human sex trafficking;
  • We are anointed to advocate for better health-care for people who need it;
  • We are anointed to educate people for the future;
  • We are anointed to help young people find their identity in Christ;
  • We are anointed to create jobs for the poor;
  • We are anointed to reduce high school dropout rates;
  • We are anointed to care for the elderly;
  • We are anointed to care for the mentally challenged;
  • We are anointed to speak out for those who cannot speak out for themselves;
  • We are anointed to cry aloud and spare no one(!);
  • We are anointed to put an end to abortion;
  • We are anointed to heal the broken hearted;
  • We are anointed to put an end to gang violence;
  • We are anointed to rebuild communities through the gospel of Jesus Christ;
  • We are anointed to pull prostitutes off the street and let them know there is another way;
  • We are anointed to help men and women who come out of prison to find jobs and rebuild their lives;
  • We are anointed to disciple young people from at-risk communities;
  • We are anointed to embrace and encourage the depressed;
  • We are anointed for Christian leadership to change the world;
  • We are anointed to help somebody!
  • We are anointed to bring glory to God!

In 1945, Alma Androzzo penned the words to the song, “If I can help somebody as I pass along; if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, If I can show somebody he is traveling wrong; Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian ought; If I can bring back beauty to a world up-wrought, If I can spread love’s message that the Master taught, Then my living shall not be in vain.”

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Are you anointed for this? I believe you are!

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Antipas Harris
This entry was posted by on Monday, March 7th, 2011 at 5:38 am and is filed under Biblical Studies, Church Ministry, Theology, Urban Renewal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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