This is our joy

You may want to read Isaiah 61 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 before you read this post.

Audio of this post is available.

Good news for the oppressed.
Comfort for the brokenhearted.
Liberty for the captives.
Release for the prisoners.
A garland instead of ashes.
Oil of gladness and a mantle of praise.
You will be called oaks of righteousness—

Like pearls on a string the promises roll from the prophet’s lips, and the oppressed lift up their heads, the brokenhearted dare to hope, and the captives imagine the prison doors flung wide open.

There have been years when I heard those words primarily as good news for others: for exiles far from home, for refugees and political prisoners, for slaves and sweatshop workers. This year, without hesitation, I join the ranks of those who long to hear a beautiful word amid the bad news, who crave a true word amid the lies, and who need a reliable word amid the broken promises of our own making.

“When life is good, our prayers for the kingdom get a little faint,” Cornelius Plantinga wrote a few years back, and I clipped his words from the magazine.

We whisper our prayers for the kingdom so that God can’t quite hear them. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray, and hope it won’t. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray, “but not right away.” When our own kingdom has had a good year we aren’t necessarily looking for God’s kingdom.

This year, our own kingdom has not had a good year. Confidently we had put block upon block, like children on the floor of the playroom, building a house, a city, a castle, and a tower, higher and higher, as if up was the only way things could go.

Now we sit on the floor and the playroom is a mess because the whole thing collapsed. We want to know who pulled the block from the foundation or who added the block that tipped the precarious balance—but we are also beginning to see that this wasn’t somebody else’s fault. One way or another, we all played along: this isn’t somebody else’s kingdom but our own, and it hasn’t had a good year.

Again we overhear the prophet’s words, and it’s like we are hearing them for the first time:

They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

“About whom does the prophet say this?” we ask, hoping that the promise is not just for a group of people long ago, but also for us and the devastations we are facing. The very fact that we ask with hope tells us that the promise has touched us; that the words of the prophet have become God’s word for us. We are willing to consider God’s alternative to the boom and bust cycles of our own kingdom. We are willing to trust the promise and look for the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10).

At the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus came to Nazareth and went to the synagogue (see Luke 4:16-21). He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled it and read,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. He said to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus teaches us how to read Isaiah. The words of the prophet are for us today, but not because our historical situation is comparable to that of Isaiah’s first audience or some such thing. The promise is for us because God will not rest until it is fulfilled for all of creation. Our own kingdom has not had a good year, but Jesus comes to proclaim the nearness of God’s reign and the year of the Lord’s favor.

We look around the playroom, and it’s a mess, blocks all over the place. It’s a rather discouraging view. Some of us are angry that we let it come to this. Others are disappointed that God didn’t somehow intervene more forcefully. Again others are ashamed for our part in systems that in some ways are so productive, and so destructive in others.

But God is faithful, and as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

We hear the good word of God’s faithfulness, and if we listen well, we recognize ourselves among the oppressed in need of liberation, the brokenhearted thirsting for comfort, and the prisoners longing for the doors of our cells to be opened from the outside. The good word of God’s faithfulness is for us, for you and me, and against the fears that paralyze us, against the idols that hold us in thrall, and against guilt’s iron grip. We will be called oaks of righteousness, planted to display the Lord’s glory, because God is faithful – and God has sown righteousness.

When we decide to give ourselves to building up the ancient ruins and repairing the ruined cities, we don’t pretend that somehow we are better able to live in God-pleasing ways than previous generations of God’s people. Perhaps we will go to work with the humility of those who know how sometimes even the best of intentions will not prevent us from making terrible mistakes.

We will go to work with joy, though, because God’s promises are solid ground to stand on and have sustained generations of God’s people. Take Paul, for instance. Joy may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of him; he was a rather serious man whose writings were notoriously difficult (2 Peter 3:16). He was beaten for the gospel he proclaimed, he was imprisoned, he was shipwrecked three times, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked (see 2 Corinthians 11:24-27).

But Paul had found something to sing about and even the darkest prison cell couldn’t silence him. “Rejoice always,” he wrote to the Thessalonians, “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”

There is no indication in any of Paul’s writings that he was blissfully unaware of the conflicts within and between the churches in Jerusalem, Syria, Asia Minor and Greece—on the contrary. Paul was no pollyanna; he knew well the difficulties Christians faced every day, but his joy wasn’t determined by circumstances. Whatever conditions he found himself in, he looked at them from the perspective of God’s promises and gave thanks. Earlier in his letter he wrote,

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2:19-20; 3:9)

The source of Paul’s joy were the promises of God and the community of brothers and sisters who lived faithfully in the light of these promises. Paul sang because in cities across the known world men and women responded to the good news of Jesus Christ with the work of faith, the labor of love, and with steadfastness of hope.

We are sitting on the floor and we may not feel like singing at all with homes being foreclosed, jobs being cut, and companies going out of business. But Paul urges us to reach for our deepest joy and to let it determine our response to changing circumstances—not the other way round, never the other way round. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.

Both Paul and Isaiah knew that what we need are not more detailed construction drawings for the city of God or more comprehensive job desriptions for kingdom workers; what we need is oil of gladness instead of mourning and a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

What we need is the promise that gives us the courage to align our lives with God’s purpose and work in our time.

What we need is a call to get up from the floor and give ourselves to building up, raising up, and repairing.

What we need is to know one thing, and to know it with our whole being: The one who calls you is faithful. This is our joy.