One of the major themes of biblical prophecy is the shift towards what we call ‘ethical monotheism.’ Where the stories of the Patriarchs, the Exodus and the early Israelite settlement of Palestine mostly define faithfulness in terms of worshiping the right God with the right ritual, with the appearance of the prophets there is suddenly a strong — often strident and extreme — insistence that faithfulness is primarily about how we treat others, and especially how the powerful and wealthy treat the powerless and poor. Keeping good faith with God is now explicitly connected to keeping good faith with those around us.
This was never a particularly popular or successful message. It’s far easier to worship a God who only really cares what we do for ninety minutes on Sunday morning and leaves us to our own devices the rest of the week, than one who cares deeply about every moment of our life. It’s no wonder that the typical response of the authorities to the prophets was to get rid of them. Jesus even referred to Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” No one ever said speaking truth to power was easy. And yet the prophets’ message is truth, no matter how inconvenient it may be: Faithfulness before God means being faithful in each and every one of our relationships.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is quite possibly the most powerful example of this ethical emphasis. It’s a powerful expression of God’s heart, and just how expansive the salvation God desires for the world really is:
The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion:
To give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit…. (Isaiah 61.1-3)
This oracle speaks in the voice of a person truly anointed with the Spirit of God. But while the earlier stories connect the activity of this Spirit with feats of superhuman strength, military victory, and political power, this oracle defines its activity in quite different terms: the Holy Spirit looks like good news for the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, freedom for captives, the forgiveness of debts, comfort and provision for the grieving, joy, gladness, praise. The prophet himself summarizes this just a few verses later: “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing” (v.8).
This oracle from Isaiah is probably the part of Scripture I quote most often, and with good reason. Not only is it a beautiful window into the heart of God, but Jesus also explicitly took it on as his own vocation and manifesto (Luke 4.16-21). Since we as Christians believe that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God in a human person, his appropriation of this text as his own means that we have all the more reason to centre it in our understanding of who God is and what God longs for.
But of course, it doesn’t end here.
The Gospel readings this week and last week tell the same story, the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, from two different perspectives, last week Mark’s and this week John’s. Mark makes explicit what is only implicit in John’s telling of the conflict between John the Baptist and the authorities: “I baptize with water,” the Baptist says, “but he [the one who is coming] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” If we are indeed baptized with the same Spirit that fell upon Jesus like a dove at his baptism — if we are indeed anointed with the same Spirit that anointed Jesus “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,” then this means that this is our vocation and manifesto as much as it is his.
This is nothing new. This is far from a fresh take on an old story. (Sorry to disappoint.) But it is the heart of the Gospel, and it is the heart of God.
So let’s go and get on with it.
Proclaim good news.
Bind up the broken.
Free the bound.
In thought and word and deed, let’s go.
For this is God’s heart.