In 1948, many thousands of Palestinian Christians were forced to flee from homes that their families had occupied for generations, when their country was partitioned, and they found themselves on the wrong side of lines drawn on maps. Most of them still live in refugee camps today. In Bethlehem, far from an idyllic country town the Holmfirth of the Middle East, there are three big refugee camps. The one I visited, Dahaisha camp, is the size of Farnham town centre within our little square one way system, where over 12,000 people live, in ramshackle buildings, many stories high. Families of fifteen or more in two and three bedroomed flats, with water only when the Israeli government deigns to turn on the supply. Now sixty-six years since they were forced from their homes, when might they return home?
As soon as we mention refugees, many of us think of people in Iraq and Syria, desperately fleeing fighting, wondering if they will ever return in peace. Surely, if they return it will be to destroyed villages, to the ruins of their homes picked clean by looters, to farmland overrun by weeds. The joy of coming home will hit cold reality, and they’ll need to have real vision and hope to keep them going.
That’s exactly what Isaiah 61 is about. Centuries old, but this is about giving vision and hope to those returning home to Jerusalem after more than forty years in exile, as they return to ruins and weeds. The book of Isaiah contains the prophecies of Isaiah and his disciples given over a long period of time, yet anchored in the same prophetic message that God will send someone, a Messiah King or a servant prophet, to his people.
By the time of Jesus, there were communities in Judean desert pouring over the scroll of Isaiah, sensing that coming to be imminent. Out of this desert comes John, baptising and calling people to repent, ready for this coming. And then Jesus stands in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads the words we’ve just heard, from the beginning of Isaiah 61.
Isaiah prophesied God will send a servant prophet. Jesus reads “The Spirit of the Lord is on me…to preach good news”.
Isaiah prophesied God would send an anointed Messiah. Jesus reads “… because the Lord has anointed me…”.
As he reads, Jesus declares he is the one the Isaiah prophets foretold, who brings in “the year of the Lord’s favour”, but what does “the Lord’s favour” mean? Let’s go back to the people returning to Jerusalem centuries earlier. Their buildings are in ruins, their farmland in weeds. And they hear the prophets singing this song of hope of Isaiah 61. How does this sound in their ears? The song is such that themes are repeated, and verse 1 and the last half of 11 both speak of the presence of the Sovereign God. Immanuel, God is with us. This is where hope starts.
Look at a place recovering from disaster, like Haiti, like the Philippines. It’s difficult for us, as onlookers, to see where God is in that rebuilding, but there’s so much local testimony from people saying ‘God is here’. That is hope. That’s the Lord’s favour. He is here! And when God is present, we see his healing and wholeness.
Again in the song, verses 2 to 3 and 10 to the first half of 11 work together, depicting wholeness. Verse 2 is about binding up, freedom and release. Verse 11 is an image of soil and the garden yielding growth. Part of the healing is that hearts full of grief give way to praise in verses 3 and 10; beauty for ashes and praise for despair. A wonderful mark of the Lord’s favour is when people allow praise to bubble up amongst them, which we can see in so many Christians from places hit by disaster. Verses 4 to 6, and 8 to 9 give a picture of the ruins rebuilt, and how the land becomes so attractive that those on the outside seek jobs as shepherds and workers, just to share in the quality of life that a healed nation gives.
This suggests to me that our most helpful witness as a church is when we delight in God’. It’s attractive, people want to be part of it. I believe that’s why our Christmas services coming up are so popular, because they’re joyous. It’s nothing to do with the type of hymns we sing, or the style of the service, but everything to do with what’s in our hearts.
The gift in verse 7 is that whatever they have suffered, they will receive a double portion of blessing as gift. When Jesus declares the year of the Lord’s favour, he’s declaring the grace of God, which God gives freely, without limit or condition. Where is God, for the exiles, the refugees, for those who rebuild? He’s in there, Immanuel, declaring good news, healing, rebuilding, giving blessings in spades to those who have suffered and yet turn to him. That is the Lords favour, and in Jesus the Messiah that time is now.
I’m going to end with some words Desmond Tutu wrote in 1990, which say what I’ve been trying to say in a slightly different way. Writing about the church, he said,
“We are the hope of the hopeless, through the power of God. We must transfigure a situation of hate and suspicion, of brokenness and separation, of fear and bitterness. We have no option. We are servants of the God who reigns and cares. He wants us to be the alternative society; where there is harshness and insensitivity we must be compassionate and caring; where people are statistics, we must show they count as being of immense value to God; where there is grasping and self1shness, we must be a sharing community now. In the early Church people were attracted to it not so much by the preaching, but by the fact that they saw Christians as a community, living a new life as if what God had done was important, and had made a difference. They saw a community of those who, whether poor or rich, male or female, free or slave, young or old – all quite unbelievably loved and cared for each other.”