My dear friends in Christ,
Today is January 24th. 24 days ago we celebrated the New Year. We watched the ball drop, we celebrated with family and friends. Many people also use the New Year as an opportunity to make New Year’s resolutions. I’d like to conduct a little informal survey. Here’s the first question: Who made a New Year’s resolution? Okay. Who has broken one or all of them already? Final question: who didn’t make a New Year’s resolution because you knew you wouldn’t keep them?
Why do people make New Year’s resolutions? Because we want change, change that will be good for us physically, or change that will positively affect our relationships. The problem is, we’re not that good at changing. I tell myself I’m going to exercise regularly. I start walking every day, and for a few weeks I do great. Then the schedule gets tight and I only walk 3 days that week. Before I know it, I’m back to my old habit of not exercising because I don’t have the time. That’s our nature!
Isaiah 61:1-6 provides us with a glimpse of God’s New Year’s resolutions and how he carried them out through his promised Messiah. Let’s take a closer look and see how successful he was in keeping his resolutions.
Listen to the first verse of our text: "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" (Isaiah 61:1). According to this, what is God’s first resolution? To anoint someone to preach good news to the poor. Who is God talking about? Do these words refer to Isaiah? Could be. The LORD had chosen Isaiah to share his Word. Unfortunately, the majority of Isaiah’s message would not be good news. He brought news about the coming judgment, when enemy nations would attack Judah and carry the inhabitants off to Babylon.
Whom had the LORD anointed to preach good news to the poor? Our gospel reading has the answer. Jesus had arrived in his hometown, Nazareth. On the Sabbath Day he went to the synagogue, and the leaders invited him to read the Scripture and comment on what he had read. The reading for that day was the first three verses of our text. After he finished them, he rolled up the scroll, handed it to the attendant, and said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). Jesus is the one. We heard how the LORD anointed him with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, when the Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. We heard that the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and gave him strength to fight off those temptations. As Jesus began his public ministry, he carried out God’s first resolution—“to preach good news to the poor.”
Wherever Jesus went, he brought good news. He told the people that he was God’s promised Messiah. He had come to rescue them. When the people heard him, the Bible says, "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips" (Luke 4:22).
Wouldn’t it be nice to get some good news this week? The past week has been pretty rough as we look around the globe. Britain announced that its terror alert is the highest ever and they expect terrorist attacks at any time. The death tolls for Haiti keep rising—200,000 dead, with burials in mass graves. On the home front—stories of overblown bonuses to bank officials, shootings in the workplace, economic doom and gloom. It would be nice to get some good news. God’s first resolution addresses our need. He sent Jesus to bring good news. Let’s take a look at the rest of God’s resolutions and see what good news he has to share.
God’s resolution #2: "He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1) What kinds of things break our hearts? My boyfriend broke up with me. My spouse divorced me. My husband died. When those things happen, sometimes it literally feels as though our hearts are broken. They hurt. Jesus knows that hurt. The people of his hometown tried to throw him off a cliff. The Pharisees looked for ways to trap him and finally had him arrested. His own disciples ran away and deserted him in his greatest need. Jesus knows. He came to fix it. The psalmist put it like this: "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18).
God’s resolution #3: “He has sent me…to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). In the old days of coal mining one man held a very important job. Very early in the morning he descended into the mine to check for methane gas before any of the other miners went down. He carried a safety lamp into each of the tunnels and shafts to make sure there were no deadly gases. If the safety lamp so much as flickered, he would have to run for his life because it meant that he was being exposed to the gas and could be overtaken by the fumes. After checking everywhere, he climbed up to the surface where all the miners gathered waiting for him to announce that it was safe for them to go down. Jesus has done that for us. When he died on the cross, he entered the darkness of death. He went where we deserved to go because of our sins, and has come back with the announcement, “It is safe to enter through.” He knows that it's safe for us because he's checked it out personally.
Resolution #4: “He has sent me…to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). There’s some good and bad news in this resolution. The “year of the LORD’s favor” referred to the special Year of Jubilee that the Israelites were to celebrate. On that day they set slaves free, and the land anyone had inherited from their family would be restored to them. Jesus came to bring freedom from sin. That’s why he died on the cross, wasn’t it? Now God looks at you and me with favor. He’s pleased that we belong to him. Jesus doesn’t forget about the other message, either. To anyone who rejects him and his message, one day those people will face “the day of vengeance of our God”—God’s judgment over sin. Jesus’ message is good news because it is the clear and unchanging message of law and gospel, sin and grace.
God’s resolution #5: “He has sent me…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:2-3). In ancient times, people smeared ashes on their heads as a way to let everyone know that they were mourning, kind of like people wear black to funerals today. They would weep and wail, and the shouts and cries could be heard throughout the streets. Just like today, mourning carried with it the darkness of despair. Do you recognize Jesus’ description? Does it cover the way you feel? If you haven’t experienced grief yet, someday you will. The tears that come without warning, the painful recognition of a favorite shirt or tool that won’t be used again, the dark sheet of depression that enfolds us without warning and threatens to smother us with despair.
Jesus knows our tears. He knows how grief tears at our lives and threatens to unravel everything. He stood in the room with mom and dad as they mourned the death of their young daughter. He comforted a widow whose son had died. He cried with Mary and Martha while Lazarus’ lifeless body rested in a tomb. He came to make a difference.
Instead of ashes he sets a beautiful crown on our heads that reminds us of his victory over death. He said in Revelation 2:10, "Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life."
In the place of mourning, he offers us the oil of gladness—the picture is of the oil a wedding couple would use on their wedding day, an aromatic mixture that signified the tremendous joy they shared. Our gladness comes from the aroma of life Jesus offers.
Instead of depression’s black shroud, he envelops us in a “garment of praise.” John saw those garments in Revelation 7. "After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands…. ‘they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’" (Revelation 7:9,14). We are washed and clean, ready to praise Jesus for his incredible work as the LORD’s anointed.
God made his resolutions and kept them through Jesus. His resolutions bring some lasting results in our lives. Verse 3 concludes, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:1-3). In Houston, TX, and all over the south, live oaks dominate the landscape. They are evergreens, and even though they shed their leaves they are always green. Their majestic trunks bear the evidence of hundreds of years of growth. Their massive arms provide shade from the scorching sun and home for birds and squirrels. Life flourishes around the live oaks.
That’s the picture of people who receive the benefits of God’s New Year’s resolutions. He plants us and guarantees that we will last a long time—an eternity. Notice who gets all the credit? Isaiah said that the LORD plants us “for the display of his splendor.” Do you want to see the glory of God’s grace and mercy? Take a long, hard look in the mirror. The person you see in that mirror doesn’t deserve anything from him except his punishment. We don’t want to do what he says, we don’t care. Then Jesus came and changed all that. He died for us. He rescued us. He saved us! He did it because he loved us. We are “for the display of his splendor,” the splendor of his grace!
We will never make and keep perfect New Year’s resolutions. Good thing the LORD is way better at it than we are. Celebrate that today, throughout this year, and into eternity! Amen.
To God alone the glory! Pastor Jon Brohn