You’ll likely recognize the beginning of this passage as the scripture Jesus read in the synagogue on his first recorded day of public ministry (Luke 4:18-19). It certainly makes for a dramatic opening, one whose bold, poetic imagery fires our imaginations.
First, a series of reversals (vv. 1-3, also 7) prefiguring Mary’s Magnificat set the scene for a re-ordering of society into a living embodiment of God’s kindom: those who are oppressed, imprisoned, and suffering great loss will be freed and restored.
And this is no small-scale redemption: the largess of God’s mercy is emphasized by the use of the Jubilee phrase “proclaiming liberty,” borrowed from Leviticus 25:10. The reference to Jubilee, a twice-a-century clearing of debts and returning of property, echoes the prophet’s mission to declare “the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 2). The Jubilee allusion also dovetails with the mention of God’s vengeance (v. 2), a favorite Isaiahian phrase linked to redeeming Israel and punishing their enemies.
Now here comes the poetry: the prophet, on God’s behalf, promises to give to those who mourn a “garland instead of ashes”—the KJV translation of “beauty for ashes” is particularly lovely—and to provide “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (v. 3). These embodied details scale the communal reversals of Zion’s fortunes to a personal level as well. The vision of God’s anointed one refreshing formerly tear-stained faces, wrapping formerly hunched shoulders in new garments, and crowning formerly bowed heads with flowers are a tender reminder of God’s very personal attention to our losses.
Then in v. 3, “Oaks of righteousness” brings us back up to the forest view, so to speak, with a prime example of the agricultural metaphors Isaiah favors. The perspective stays communal as a vision of the rebuilding of the city devastated by conquest and exile (v. 4) cements the people’s role in their recovery.
Verses 5-7 (not included in the lectionary reading) double down on God’s abundant graciousness; the people won’t just be restored to their former land, they’ll be rich enough to hire foreigners to work their fields and enjoy serving God in the special role of priestly people.
Why is God’s anointed one so committed to the restoration, individual and communal, of the exiled people? Verses 8-9 give us God’s own words on the subject: this is a manifestation of God’s commitment to justice as well as a new expression of the covenant made with Israel’s ancestors.
Verses 10-11 read like the concluding portion of a psalm, where God’s praises are sung by an individual on the receiving end of God’s graciousness, not the one on the proclaiming end of it. The repetition of imagery from the first few verses (garlands, clothing, flourishing plant life) celebrates the fulfillment of the promise laid out in the anointed one’s proclamation. God is faithful, the speaker declares, and when you’ve witnessed that faithfulness in your own life, you can’t contain the joy: “my whole being shall exult in my God!” (v. 10)
This last portion of Isaiah is preaching to those who have been exiled in Babylon for 70 years, speaking to them of a homecoming that was decades in the making. Yet the exiles–Jerusalem’s religious, political, and royal elite–return to a city they barely recognize: the Temple is still in shambles, and the common people have filled the vacuum left when Babylon carted off the city’s leadership. As Elna Solvang writes, “The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees.”
This gives a whole new read on the promise of comfort for “those who mourn in Zion” (v. 2). Imagine the tension between newly returned exiles expecting to resume their families’ former positions of power and those who remained, creating new patterns of leadership in their absence. As we learn from Ezra and Nehemiah, the return was fraught with power struggles, demonization of the “other,” and questions about what it meant to be Jewish; the rebuilding of the city and the Temple was not exactly harmonious, requiring years of tumult and fits-and-starts effort.
Post-election, the United States faces divisions just as deep, if not deeper. The repair of multiple years’ worth, multiple generations’ worth of devastation is the task before us. Whether we’re talking about the latest salvos in four centuries of systemic racism; the loss of life and damage done to mental health, education, small businesses and more wrought by the pandemic; the calculated weakening of democracy; the stripping away of environmental protections; or the children torn from their parents whose traumatization will ripple through communities and families for years to come, the work of repair it isn’t going to happen overnight or without significant ongoing division.
So where do Isaiah’s words leave us, particularly as Advent people?
First of all, there is no ignoring the good news God’s anointed one is bringing to all those who have been wounded, forgotten, oppressed, or maltreated. Those Magnificat-esque reversals are central to the text, and the freedom and new life they portend are a central function of the Messiah coming anew into our lives and our communities. God-made-flesh brings hope, liberation, healing, and vindication to all those who desperately need it, within our congregations and without.
Second, the “repair [of] the ruined cities” and of “the devastations of many generations” (v. 4) is not accomplished by the magic wand-waving of the speaker, but rather by the work of “those who mourn in Zion” (v. 3), the ones who lament what has been lost, stolen, and corrupted in a land they so dearly love. In other words, it is our work – the work of we who mourn the devastations of the last four years, and the last four hundred.
Though it is our work, we certainly are not left alone in it – the God of justice, the covenant-maker, will be with us (v. 8) and will bless our descendants (v. 9), those who will benefit from the social and communal reordering we undertake now.
Isaiah’s words—and Jesus’s quoting of them—are both an immediate, personal balm and a long-term, communal assurance that large-scale wrongdoing will be made right. As we draw ever nearer to the birth of God-with-us, let us echo Mary’s “Yes” as we respond to these invitations to heal and to work for the rebuilding of our nation into a kindom of justice that will indeed bless those who come after us. Then we, too, will surely join the author of Isaiah in exulting in our Savior with our “whole being” (v. 10). Amen.
 Luke 1:46b-55; next week’s Gospel reading.
 Solvang, Elna K. “Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11: Hope Sprouts from the Ruins.” Working Preacher, December 11, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1100
 Ex. Isaiah 34:8; 63:4; 59:17,20; 47:3-4).
 Roberts, J.J.M., “Isaiah,” The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (eds. Wayne A. Meeks et al.; New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 1101.
 Solvang, “Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.”