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Holding on to hope

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-7

We cannot live without hope. That’s not just a sentiment, but a proven fact.

The American Psychological Association has found that people who have positive views on aging live 7.6 years longer than those who have negative views.

Depression is fast becoming the second-leading cause of death in America.

Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and insightful psychologist, observed in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning:

The prisoner who had lost faith in the future–his future–was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment…Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick-bay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up.

Have you given up on true joy in your marriage or with your parents or kids? Have you given up on a significant and joyful career and are settling for as much money as you can make? Have you given up on a friend or colleague or family member? Do you have hope that things will ever be better in your life than they are now? If you need some hope, you’ve come to the right season of the year.

I know it doesn’t seem that way. We are entering the busiest time of the year, with hassles and hurries, toys and trees, presents and preparations, decorations and dinners and all Christmas has become. How can this be a season of true hope?

“Advent” comes from Latin words meaning “to arrive.” On Christmas Day, hope arrived. Hope for the world and hope for your heart. How can this hope be real for your soul today? There’s only one way. Let’s discover it together.

The Messiah we wanted

The Jews of Isaiah 61 were an enslaved people, and had been for centuries. They had exchanged the Egyptians for the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians. Still to come would be the Greeks and then the Romans. Now they were exiled slaves in the pagan nation of Babylon, hundreds of miles from home with no future and no hope. Or so it seemed.

But through all the centuries of their occupations and tribulations, the nation had found hope in a single word: “Messiah.” The Hebrew word means “anointed one,” the person who would be chosen and empowered by God to rescue his suffering people.

Some thought the Messiah would be a great prophet or preacher. Some expected a great and wonderful priest, or a miracle worker.

But most expected a military conqueror, a warrior who would destroy their enemies and lead their nation into global dominance. He would be a ruler like David, one who would reestablish the throne of the nation and lead the people forever.

God had promised his greatest king: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).

Isaiah had earlier prophesied: Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:7).

One of the most popular non-biblical books in ancient Judaism was 1 Enoch. It offered this promise to the people of God:

The word of his mouth shall destroy all the sinners and all the ungodly, who shall perish at his presence…All the kings, the princes, the exalted, and those who rule over all the earth, shall fall down on their faces before him, and shall worship him. They shall fix their hopes on this Son of man, shall pray to him, and petition him for mercy…Then the sword of the Lord of spirits shall be drunk with their [enemies’] blood; but the saints and elect shall be safe in that day (1 Enoch 61:3-4, 12-13, 15).

Isn’t it tempting to seek such military, political, materialistic hope? To wait for God to defeat the insurgency in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the terrorists around the world? To wait in expectancy for him to heal your wife’s cancer or get your son through rehab or make your job succeed? To make God a means to our end, expecting him to do what we want and need because we come to church and pray and give and serve?

No wonder the Jews were disappointed in the Messiah they got. They wanted a king on a throne for Christmas–they got a baby in a feed trough. They wanted a ruler to overthrow their enemies–they got a rabbi who taught them to love their enemies. They wanted a military conqueror to rule the world–they got a crucified carpenter who died for the world.

They got nothing they wanted, but everything they needed. So did we.

The Messiah we received

Isaiah predicted a military Messiah, One who would be a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). These predictions will be fulfilled completely on the day Jesus returns to our planet, on the day when he comes as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, on the day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

In the meanwhile, Isaiah gave us a second Messianic theme: the Suffering Servant. The Messiah who would suffer for his people as he served their God.

Isaiah 42:1-4 declared: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”

Isaiah 53 described in detail the sufferings he would endure and predicted: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (v. 3).

Isaiah 61 told the people how this Suffering Servant would come and what he would do. In short, he would bring them all they needed. Not what they wanted, but what their souls needed, now and for eternity.

In their theology, anyone who was poor, brokenhearted, captive or in prison was being punished justly for sin. But the Messiah would “preach good news to the poor,” “bind up the brokenhearted,” “proclaim freedom for the captives” and “release from darkness for the prisoners” (v. 1b). If you’re poor, brokenhearted, captive, or imprisoned, know that he comes for you, to bring God’s hope to you.

And so he would “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” for his suffering people (v. 2a). “Favor” translates a Hebrew word which means to be accepted or to be given God’s grace. If you’re alone this holiday season, without family to accept you or friends to love you, know that he comes for you, to bring God’s hope to you.

He would also proclaim “the day of vengeance of our God” (v. 2b). If you’ve been wronged, slandered, gossiped about, hurt or judged unfairly, know that he comes to bring God’s hope to you.

He would “comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion” (vs. 2c-3a). Mourners would sit in ashes–he will give them a crown of beauty. They would wear a “spirit of despair,” but he will give them “a garment of praise.” He will turn their grief into his glory “for the display of his splendor” (v. 3). If you’re mourning today, in sorrow or grief or depressed despair, know that he comes for you.

Ultimately “they will inherit a double portion in their land and everlasting joy will be theirs” (v. 7b). If you’re without joy and hope, know that he comes for you.

Such was Isaiah’s promise to God’s enslaved people in Babylon. When would this Suffering Servant come? When would the Messiah visit his peopled with God’s favor and hope?

Jesus of Nazareth has begun his public ministry. He has called his first disciples and begun his first work among the people.

Now he returns to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth for Sabbath services. The people have already recited the Shema, their call to faith; they have heard the Psalms and the prayers, and the reading of the Law. Now comes the time when a visiting rabbi would be invited to select a reading from the Prophets to read and teach upon. The people read through their scriptures every 3.5 years. On this occasion, they’ve been reading from the book of Isaiah.

So Luke tells us that “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him” (Luke 4:17a). Jesus could have read any passage he wished. He could have read from the predictions of a military Messiah, a coming Conqueror. Instead, “he found the place where it is written” (v. 17b) that the Messiah would be the Suffering Servant of God and his people, the very text we have been reading today (vs. 18-19).

Then “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (vs. 20-21).

With this announcement the hope of heaven came to earth. The One who would preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, free the captives and release the prisoners has come for us. For all of us. For each of us.

Conclusion

Now he calls us to come to him. To repent of our self-sufficiency and self-control. To seek our hope not in the toys and traditions of Christmas but in the Christ who came to be Immanuel, God with us.

The One who came first at Christmas has come a second time to make his home in the hearts of all who have trusted him as Lord. His Spirit now inhabits your body. You are his Temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). All of God there is, is in your life. And in this moment.

“Advent spirituality” is the conscious decision to place your hope in Jesus this holiday season. To seek his presence in worship and word each morning, to surrender your life to the fullness and control of his Spirit each day. To measure success this season not by what you get or give but by how fully you know Jesus and make him known.

With all my heart I believe that God is calling you and me to a new level of surrendered obedience in these days. To be people who live differently from the world, who aspire to a higher standard. Students who handle dating relationships differently from your non-Christian friends. Parents who model godliness for their kids at home as well as in the Sanctuary. Christians who do what Jesus would do with alcohol and pornography and financial integrity. All of this because our hope is in Jesus and in the reward he gives to those who are fully his.

When the Allies liberated German concentration camps, they found among the suffering prisoners thousands of starving children. They quickly clothed and fed them, and put them in warm and safe homes and shelters. But the children would not sleep at night. They tossed and turned in fright and anxiety.

Then a child psychologist hit on the solution. She instructed that each child was to be given a slice of bread to hold in bed at night. Not to eat, just to hold. And these children, able to feel the promise that they would have food in the morning, slept easily and well.

What bread are you holding today?