Read Isaiah 61:1-3
1 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;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 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.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (NRSV)
The ancient people of Israel were exiled in Babylon. All hope seemed lost. Then these words came to them from their God. A new beginning was going to take shape. Hope was not lost. Their present shadowed circumstances would give way to a new light-filled experience. This came true to an extent in their return from exile and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. But its lasting fulfilment has to wait for the new heavens and the new earth ushered in at the return of Jesus to his world.
We who are in a different historical situation still need to hear these words. A garland replaces ashes. Defeat and despair are not the last word. We are really victors. Instead of tears of mourning there will be refreshing oil bringing out the beauty of our skin. Instead of languishing behind closed doors of fear and timidity, we will wear a mantle which signifies we are ready to face the world and live life.
An exchange is taking place. Disappointment replaced by hope; sorrow replaced by joy; despair replaced by praise. All made possible by the new life offered to us by God through Jesus and his Spirit. The exchange is not yet complete, but it has begun. The door to new life is at least ajar. And one day it will come to complete fruition. Our exile will come to an end. And God’s favour will never end.