I really did. Just a few days ago.
It was one of those late at night ideas when I was thinking about how to communicate the truth of what God has done for us. In a way that is visible. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
I have been preaching out of passages in the prophet Isaiah for a few weeks now. This past week, it was Isaiah 61:1-11.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives…
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 61:1-2)
Jesus read this at the beginning of his ministry (see Luke 4). Implicit in this is that God’s Spirit is empowering him. God has called him to these tasks. Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus lived as one living for something else…rather, someone else.
As Christians, our story starts and ends with Jesus. We learn from watching Him live out that mission—and our mission is shaped by His. We are to be those that bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, set free those bound in prison, and proclaim God’s grace to all who will listen. His way of being—slow to anger, abounding in love, abounding in forgiveness—his ways become our ways. Jesus ended the reading in the synagogue right there. But the passage goes on:
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61:2-4)
This is where the tuxedo comes in. A transformation takes place: God changes their clothing from one of mourning to celebration. Over a garment of despair, a garment of praise.
When I wore my tux to church that day, it was amazing the reactions I got. I saw people whispering amongst themselves, and they were all trying to guess where I was going after church. “Must be a wedding,” some of them told me. One joked that I must not have had anything else clean to wear.
But then here is this abrupt shift of metaphor from the outfitting for a wedding to the tending of a garden. From the haberdashery to the arboretum.
The changing of clothing from despair to praise is for a purpose: So that they might be oaks. Oaks not for themselves. A planting for the display of God’s splendor. I continue to marvel at the fact that God chooses to make Himself known through His people.
I talked to our junior high group a couple of weeks ago about God being just. And I shared with them a talk I heard by Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission. Haugen said, “God’s only plan for showing the world that He is a just God, God’s only plan for this…is us!”
In a similar fashion, I see here that God’s plan for showing the world what kind of God He is…is us! We are a planting for God’s glory.
Why God’s glory? Is God an egomaniac, seeking words of affirmation like an insecure teenager going to their first dance?
God’s glory is seen in a human being fully alive, said the church father Irenaeus. Perhaps translated more properly: “Life in a human is the glory of God; the life of a human is the vision of God.” [cited here]
And the vision of God we see is a being that is with and for us. He created us in His image. He became one of us in Jesus Christ; willing to sacrifice Himself for our salvation. Glory of God is for another.
Another reason why God’s glory is worth pursuing: Because the glory of human beings is fleeting. It leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths. When we see a human being seeking their own glory, don’t we reel back at that display?
But the glory of God is with us, and for us.*
So we shall be glad to be a planting for God’s glory.
God has planted us as a church on a particular corner in a particular city. As a group of people. Not just a building, but a people.
There was a question that was asked amongst us last week: “When people drive by this church, what do they think of? How are we known in this community?” People first get to know us by things that we do. Events we hold for the community. They are open doors to greet and welcome people into our midst. But this passage is a challenge for us to ask ourselves, “What are we displaying?”
We are to be a display of God’s glory and splendor. Somehow, in the way that we live, the way that we speak, what we do—is supposed to be for the praise of God—people should see the character and heart of God in us.
And, we become the rebuilders and restorers. Of beauty. Of fruitful and fair commerce. We become those that engage in righteous practices in law and government. We create art and culture that is honoring to God and others. We become teachers that treat each person with dignity as they are made in the image of God.
Isaiah has more to say…
Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
6 but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
7 Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed. (Isaiah 61:5-9)
We will be called priests and ministers. That does not mean that all of us will do the things that we think ministers do. That is, work one day a week and talk about the Bible.
Instead, the image is that our way of living will be like a clothing—that when we are seen in the world, people will say, “They represent God.”
Tucked into this is a message of good news: Instead of shame and dishonor, God will bless. Shame can traumatize all of us. Most of us hear this promise of God–that we shall represent Him–and say in our minds, “Not me. I couldn’t possibly be someone who represents God. Look at what I’ve done. Look at what I’m still doing.”
Listen: the Bible is NOT full of stories of men and women who completely overcame their brokenness and THEN God used them. It is full of stories that God showed His power and might through their brokenness, and in spite of their brokenness.
God will make the wrong things right. He hates robbery and wrong, He loves justice. And, this passage seems to be telling us–we will be the children of God that help enact that justice.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:10-11)
At our church, we’ve been using this imagery of a tree to talk about our relationship with God. Seed, sapling, providing shade for others, and then a sower. The sapling stage of our life is when the seed of faith has broken through the soil, but our relationship is still in need of certain things to help us grow strong. In those sapling stages of our life: God tenderly begins to tell us this: We begin to discover that our life with God isn’t just for our own happiness. There is pruning that takes place that isn’t pleasant. But in the end, we emerge a stronger tree—a more righteous oak.
In this sapling stage we begin to understand this: that while God is for us, life isn’t about us. We begin to understand that our lives can be a song of praise to God.
In this passage is this idea of us all needing to surround ourselves with praise. “I will rejoice…my soul shall exult…praise shall sprout up before all nations.”
Why praise? When we call upon the name of God, the promises of God, something happens within us. There are scores of medical studies that show that having a positive attitude, positive thoughts, can help immensely in the battle against disease, illness, even cancer. Do we think that singing praise to God would have the same effect?
Beyond those positive effects, we praise because God is worthy of it.
For the last several weeks, we’ve been talking about the conditions that are needed for us all when we are at the early stages of our faith—this sapling stage of faith.
- We need the water of community.
- We need to be deeply rooted, planted straight, strong, level.
- We need to rest and trust in God’s grace in times of weakness.
- We need the word of God, to be reminded of His promises to us.
- We need praise.
In the end, this beautiful passage in Isaiah 61 tells us this: We get new clothes. A new identity. A new life.
God gets a song. (Sounds like a bad deal for God doesn’t it?) We get a new identity, a completely transformed life—God gets a song? But that song is our life, fully lived out for Him.
We need to worship. We need to be reminded that seeking our own glory leads to emptiness, seeking God’s glory leads to abundance.
When we take all of the main parts of Isaiah 61, we have the fullness of the gospel message.
- Someone once came, preaching good news to the poor, free those in prison. God did those things in the person of Jesus.
- When we follow Him, listen to His Words—we are changed. Changed for a purpose. We become rebuilders and restorers.
- People will see God because of us. Not only because of how we talk, but how we live, and what we do, and how we do it.
- So we gather in rejoicing in praise. We need this rejoicing and praise. And every nation, every race, every language will see justice and God’s glory.
It wouldn’t be practical to wear tuxedos and gowns every day. After a while, people would stop paying attention anyway. But I pray our lives would reflect the love, peace, mercy, justice and grace of God. And we would stand like oaks of righteousness, displaying God’s splendor to the world.