“To Comfort Those Who Mourn”
December 22, 2013
Jesus came to transform those who mourn.
I. The year of the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 61:1-2)
II. To comfort all who mourn (Isaiah 61:2-3)
III. Oaks of Righteousness (Isaiah 61:3-4)
Luke devotes a great deal of space to what we call the Christmas story. Luke 1 has the announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist and then the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. Then comes the details of the birth of John the Baptist, and then in chapter 2 the details of the birth of Jesus. That’s what we normally call the Christmas section. But the John / Jesus pattern actually continues for one more cycle. In Luke 3 we have a description of John’s ministry and what he says to the people, and then Jesus comes and is baptized and in Luke 4 we hear what he begins to say to the people.
It’s Luke 4:16-21 “He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. As was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20He rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
If this is the last of Luke’s Christmas texts, then the Scripture we’re looking at today, Isaiah 61:1-4, is also a Christmas text because that’s what Jesus read. This text describes what the Messiah came to do, and the impact of his work, especially in transforming those who mourn. Let’s read the text from Isaiah and trace the transforming work of the Messiah. Isaiah 61:1-4 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; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to grant to those who mourn in Zion: to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
The first thing you notice is that Jesus didn’t read all of what I just read. Actually, I didn’t read Isaiah’s whole thought block either. Preachers try to read only what God wants to communicate to their audience at that moment.
Jesus is trying to communicate that he’s the one: ‘today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ To read much more would have been distracting. But the description of what he’ll do extends at least to verse 4, as we just read.
So verse 1: he begins by saying ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ Luke 3 records the visible coming of God the Holy Spirit onto the God the Incarnate Son as affirmed from heaven by God the Father. Jesus was fully God and fully man and he lived his earthly, human life through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And he is the Messiah: the Spirit of God has anointed me to bring good news. The word anointed in the Greek of Luke 4 is ‘chrio’ which is the root of the word ‘Christ.’ The word anointed in the Hebrew of Isaiah 61 is ‘mashach’ which is ‘Messiah.’ The Messiah is the Christ, the one anointed by the Holy Spirit, to do the ministry God had prepared. Don’t miss this: Jesus says ‘I have come to be the promised Messiah, I have come to bring good news to the poor.
In Greek the ‘good news’ is ‘euangelizo’ which is where we get ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelism.’ We believe and share the good news about Jesus. This is good news for the poor: the physically poor, downtrodden and oppressed have often received this good news with greater welcome than those who are well off in the world. Christianity spread among the slaves of the Roman Empire, not the elite. But Jesus also uses ‘poor’ to imply spiritual poverty: blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is good news not just for the impoverished of the earth, but for all who will recognize their spiritual need.
By bringing this good news Jesus binds up the brokenhearted, proclaims liberty to the captives, and opens the prison for those who are bound. Notice that all of those can be taken as spiritual truths. The last two could also be taken as physical, but binding up the brokenhearted is purely a spiritual reality. Isaiah and Jesus both know, as we do, that there is a deep place of brokenness in people’s hearts, a place that yearns for Good News. We live in a fallen world where there is darkness and brokenness not only in the people around us, but in ourselves and our circumstances, and in the news daily. But God promises that the one who brings good news will also bind up this brokenness.
He will proclaim liberty to the captives, and open the prison of those who are bound. We recognize the spiritual reality to which this points: as Wesley says in the hymn ‘And Can it Be?’ ‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound by sin and nature’s night.’ Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Paul examines this at length in Romans 6 and points out that you are going to be a slave to something – either of sin that leads to death, or, having been set free from sin, slaves of righteousness. When we trust Jesus we are released from this slavery, our imprisonment and bondage to sin.
But if you’ve listened carefully you’ll remember that Jesus does not talk about this release from captivity twice, as Isaiah does. Instead he says ‘recovery of sight for the blind.’ This is what the Greek New Testament of his day said, and, of course, healing the blind was a key part of his ministry, which may be why he said it. And Jesus explains in John 9 that the physical healing of blindness is a metaphor for a larger spiritual blindness, which only he can cure.
Jesus finishes with one phrase from verse 2. ‘To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ is another way to say ‘in that day.’ It’s the Messiah’s day, the day of redemption and rescue. We’ve said that that day is ‘now and not yet,’ but Jesus is announcing that the now starts now, in him. All these blessings Jesus brings are evidence that the time of the Lord’s favor has arrived. So we should expect that the binding up of broken hearts and the freeing from sin start for us now.
The next section of the text emphasizes the fact that the one who brings good news brings comfort to those who mourn. Some of you here today are mourning the loss of a loved one, recently or in years past. Though you know the promise of eternal life, yet you weep. This week I read a post on the ‘remembering David Rask’ page from someone missing a contribution David had made to the Christmas celebration. We still mourn. And even if we are not mourning a death, we mourn the sickness that foreshadows death and causes suffering. We mourn hearts broken, marriages ruined and children scarred by abuse, unfaithfulness and divorce. We mourn lives snuffed out in war or terrorism or martyrdom or random accident or natural disaster. The world is a broken place and we all know of much brokenness in the lives around us. We should grieve.
But the anointed one comes “to comfort those who mourn, to grant to those who mourn in Zion: to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.” Wow. Of all the aspects of the human condition that God could have focused on through Isaiah the one he piles all these phrases on is his ministry to those mourning over lives and circumstances that are so painfully broken.
The main heading is comfort: Jesus later says ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ As believers we have the presence of a Holy Spirit who takes on the name ‘comforter.’ This comfort is almost never taken hold of quickly, almost never completely, and it is not approached smoothly, but in a series of ups and downs. Nonetheless, the consistent testimony of God’s people is that there is comfort. Charles Spurgeon, writing on these verses says “For broken hearts the broken-hearted Savior died, and for them He lives and pleads. Look to Him, mourner, and the black horror of despair shall end. . . . Get Him and keep Him, O bruised and bleeding heart, and you are healed.”
Verse 3: ‘to grant to those who mourn in Zion.’ The NIV says ‘to provide for those who mourn.’ God provides for us emotionally, spiritually and often physically when we mourn. He provides ‘a beautiful headdress’ or a ‘crown’ or ‘garland’ instead of ashes. It was a sign of deep mourning in Biblical times to put ashes on your forehead, and a sign of comfort to put back on the crown or garland that you would wear to a festival. Up until recently in our culture we had a custom of wearing black for mourning and putting on colors when mourning was ended. Jesus ministers color to our lives.
He gives “the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” Again, in that culture you anointed yourself with fragrant oil when you wanted to celebrate. He gives ‘the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.’ The mourner is now dressed for one of the feasts and can praise instead of being heavy in spirit. One of the most abiding characteristics of mourning and grief is a deep sigh in your spirit, the heaviness that weighs you down. Whether you are grieving something you just saw on the news, the loss of a loved one or the sharp words spoken in your home, you feel that weight on your heart. Jesus promises that he will enable you again to praise. Don’t expect to be all the way out of mourning when this happens; but that which is praiseworthy remains praiseworthy even when we are suffering, and it is a sign of God’s work in us that we can begin to lift our eyes and see the beauty of who God is and what he does.
So God through Isaiah says ‘the anointed one who comes will heal the heartbroken, free those held captive by sin’ and especially, comfort those who grieve the griefs of this fallen world. Isn’t that reason enough to celebrate Christmas? Hannah Gronseth wrote a Facebook post a while back that struck me because she said we appreciate Christmas the most when we have true comprehension of the darkness the light came to dispel. He comes to comfort those who mourn, whose hearts are heavy with sorrow, strife, death and weariness.
But he doesn’t stop there. Look at the end of verse 3: that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.” He comforts, he frees, he rescues, not just because of his love for us, but because by this rescue and comfort he transforms us, and by this transformation he is gloried. He makes the mourner in to ‘an oak of righteousness.’ The oak has, rightly, a place in our minds as a mighty tree, tall and strong and beautiful. Just as the lion is the king of beasts, the oak has a place as the king of trees. No matter how deep the winter, long the summer or strong the storm, the oak stands. The transformation is miraculous, from the weakness of the mourner to the strength of the oak, and then from the bleak winter to the green of spring.
The oak is given this strength for right living. The one transformed by Jesus through sorrow, through grief stands firm for God. One of the ways he or she does this is delighting in God’s word. Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” Those who delight in the word become oaks of righteousness.
And this, Isaiah says, brings God glory. This transformation is intended to make you and I trophies of his grace, to make us a heavenly victory celebration. When our brokenness is transformed by his rescue, our captivity by his release, our mourning by his comfort, then our lives glorify him. He does it for us and he does it for his glory and those two ends are not in conflict. As John Piper says ‘we are most satisfied in God when he is most glorified in us.’
Listen to what these strong, scarred oaks, these comforted mourners do: ‘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.’ Believers mourn among the ruins, the ruins of a fallen world and the ruins of generations that have rejected God’s truth and gone their own way. But those Jesus has rescued by his good news are used to arrest or even reverse this ruin. We build up, raise up, repair our families in their generations and our churches in their generations and our nation in its generations of slow defeat and our culture in its centuries of decay. By practical godly living and caring we bind the brokenhearted, we comfort those who mourn, we release the captives, we repair the ruins and restore the devastation. Jesus does these things through the comforted. The same Holy Spirit who empowered him empowers us.
As you look around this room there is no shortage of people with reason to mourn: people who have lost loved ones, who are enduring sickness, who are out of a job, out of money, out of time, painfully coping with family crises. There are the broken hearted, those bound in sin, those spiritual blind, those fearful, impoverished and blind. But God transforms. Not all have been transformed, but enough of those in this room have received his rescue, found his strength, had their mourning turn to dancing, their brokenness to healing that God well deserves the glory. Not all are fully mature oaks of righteousness, though some are. Others are young oaks still maturing, scarred oaks still recovering, wind lashed oaks still re-growing. But God promises us substantial healing through his rescue, his comfort and his love. We are being transformed.