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The Oaks of Righteousness December 11, 2011

Posted by sandhandrews in Sermons.
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Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

 Third Sunday in Advent

December 10-11, 2011

Focus: God restores His people.

Function: That the hearers rejoice in God’s righteousness.

Structure: Then and Now.

The Oaks of Righteousness

            Prophecy is a lost art.  If we hear someone prophesying today we either think they’re demonic or just off their rocker, completely crazy.  But it wasn’t always that way.  There was an age when prophecy was a part of life.  There was a time when the world saw a number of real prophets among all the fakers.  Much of the Bible attests to this.  From minor prophets like Haggai and Malachi, to major prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, even to John with the book of Revelation.  The apostle Paul identifies the ability to prophesy as a gift of the spirit in the church.  Prophecy is an important tool God uses in His kingdom.

With the depth of prophecy in the Scriptures, it’s important for us as Christians to understand how prophecy works and to look at it from time to time.  Prophecy is a gift from God, but more than that, it is a gift from God to the ones who hear it.  When a prophet speaks, the words are not his words, but God’s words meant to impact and shape the hearer.  When Jonah went and prophesied to Nineveh, he wanted to see God pour out His wrath on those wicked pagans.  But God wanted to bring about repentance in their pagan hearts.  And when Jonah proclaimed that Nineveh would be destroyed, God’s words struck the hearts of the people, and they repented.  It was God’s message and God’s intent that the people of Nineveh heard that day.

The other important aspect to bear in mind when discussing prophecy is that it often has a two-fold time element.  By that I mean it carries a both a present meaning, and a future meaning.  The words of the prophet have an impact for the immediate hearers, a specific relevance for them in their lives, but prophecy sometimes also refers to future reality which is tied to Christ.  In the fall, when God was laying out the punishment for Adam, Eve, and the serpent, He gave an example of a two-fold prophecy.  He told the serpent that He would put enmity, or hatred between the serpent and the woman, and between their descendants.  He also said that Eve’s descendant would bruise the serpent’s head, while the serpent bruised his heel.  We see that in life with the hatred of snakes, crushing them, or when they bite us.  But it was also a prophecy of Christ, who would conquer Satan.  We see another example of two-fold prophesy today in our Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah.

Much of what the prophet Isaiah spoke about during his lifetime was the exile of Judah, the fall of Jerusalem.  His work begins with a rebuking of God’s people for their sinful living.  Through Isaiah, God goes as far as saying He no longer wants their sacrifices and their burning of incense.  He no longer wants their new moon and Sabbath festivals.  He despised them; they had become an abomination.  He called them out on their hypocrisy, their worshipping of false gods, and their rampant wickedness.  Yahweh even said He would no longer listen to them when they spread out their hands in prayer.

Isaiah goes on and puts this in imagery they’ll understand, images of nature.

But rebels and sinners shall be broken together and those who forsake Yahweh shall be consumed.  For they shall be ashamed of the oaks that you desired; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen.  For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water.  And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them.

He chastises them for their idol worship when he compares them to oak trees and gardens.  It’s a reference to the pagan worship of certain fertility gods.  But it also rebukes them for thinking they could be just like a mighty oak tree, for being proud, dominating, and thinking they were self-sufficient.

And while they were a sinful bunch deserving exile and death, we see in our text today that they’ll receive something better than that.  In the first half, Isaiah speaks to a people who are oppressed.  His words and imagery extend to a people in exile, in slavery.  He tells them they will be freed from their captivity, broken hearts will be healed, the grieving and the mourning will receive comfort.  Instead of covering themselves in ashes to mourn, they will wear a crown of beauty.  Their mourning will turn to gladness.  And instead of despair, they will give praise to God.

Isaiah then brings back the image of the mighty oak tree.  “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of Yahweh for the display of His splendor.”  He reverses the image from before.  No longer is the oak a negative.  But now, it mean firm, rooted, strong, lasting, tall, inspiring.  All of these describe the picture.  And when King Cyrus sets the people of Judah free from captivity in Babylon, they return home, rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple of God.  They rejoice in their freedom and give praise for their newfound gladness.  Their behavior, at least temporarily, exhibits the righteousness of God for the rest of the nations to see.

But as we said, prophecy often has a two-fold function, a now and a then.  And it’s a good thing too, because Judah didn’t remain righteous very long.  The present reality of Isaiah’s words came and went swiftly.  But the future reality remains to this day.  For when we look at these words, we see a prophecy about the Messiah, about Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Messiah is the Lord’s anointed.  He is the One who was sent into the world to preach good news to the poor, to heal broken hearts, to free prisoners from darkness and captivity.  He came to comfort the mourning and the grieving.  All of these things speak of being spiritually dead in sin.  The poor and the mourning, the captive and the grieving.  All are ways of expressing sins grasp on mankind.  A grasp which Jesus Christ destroyed on the cross.

In our baptisms, we were clothed with the crown of beauty, the oil of gladness, and the garment of praise.  We received all of these things from Christ when the Holy Spirit created faith in us.  We have been set free from our bondage to sin, and now live in Christ.

And now we return to being called Oaks of Righteousness.  We return to the point where we have been called to be a “planting of Yahweh for the display of His splendor.”  We are called to live out our faith, to live and to love as Christ loves us.  We are called to be holy, to be righteous, that others may see it and come to know Yahweh and His Son Jesus.  We see this in our text:

“Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples.  All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people Yahweh has blessed…the Lord Yahweh will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”

We are called to be mighty oaks, displaying God’s righteousness, love, and salvation.  It’s as Christ said: first for the Jews, then for the Gentiles.  The message of our God is not for a select people.  God desires His love to be known by all men.  As Christians, as children of God, the world looks at us differently.  They expect us to be perfect and pounce on us whenever we sin or show signs of weakness.  But we must remember that we are God’s children, we are His oaks, and we are strong because He is strong.

As oak trees have roots that dig down into the earth to keep them strong, so does our faith.  It is not something we come up with on our own, but a gift given to us by God; a gift which He strengthens and nourishes.  In the same way, we can only be oaks of righteousness, we can only follow His command, because He gives us the strength.  It is only by His power that we can come to faith and live the way that He wants us to live, righteous as His children.

Isaiah uses another image to help us understand his message.  He talks about weddings and wedding clothes.  I would say that we’ve done up weddings today much more so than the people of the Old Testament.  After all, the average cost of a wedding in our country these days is $26,000.  Most of us know the drill.  It’s a big celebration of a big event.  We have the ceremony in the church, which is decorated with flowers and pew bows, candles and aisle runners.  And of course, everyone is dressed their best.  But none quite like the bride and groom.  The groom in his tux and the bride in the wedding gown.  It’s a beautiful event made to be picture perfect.

But what would all of the pomp and grandeur be if not for the actual wedding itself?  If it weren’t for the bride and groom becoming one, everything else would just be a worthless show.  That’s the image brought together here by Isaiah.  The garment of salvation or the robe of righteousness, the headdress or the jewels, apart from God, these would all be nothing.  Salvation and righteousness are only ours because of God.

The New Testament expands this image when it makes Christ the groom and the church His bride.  Because of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice, we have the fullness of this prophecy.  Not only are we free from captivity and healed in the heart; not only has our mourning turned to rejoicing and our grief to praise; not only have we been called oaks of righteousness; but we have become children of God, blessed and saved by Him.

He has taken us to Himself, made us a part of His covenant, and thus a part of His family.  All of His love, His blessings, His mercy, and His care are given to us.  And now we are blessed with the opportunity in life to give Him thanks and praise, and as oaks of righteousness, we are on display, that we can witness and share His love with those around us who don’t yet know Him.

And as we wrap up, it’s as good a time as any to mention that prophecy can refer to the end time also.  As God’s children, we await the day when Christ returns and together with Him we all live in everlasting paradise.  And as paradise implies, there will be no grieving or mourning, no prison or captivity, no broken hearts or poor.  There will only be comfort, gladness, and praise.  So “be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

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