December 17, 2017 “Recompense” – Isaiah 61:1-11
December 17, 2017 – Third Sunday in Advent
One-year-old babies watched a puppet show. One of the puppets was “nice.” When a ball was rolled to it, it rolled it back. Another puppet was “naughty.” When it got the ball, it stole it and wouldn’t give it back. When those 12 month old children were given the chance to respond, they clearly demonstrated a preference for the nicer, more fair puppets. Paul Bloom described this psychological study with young children in his book Just Babies.
Bloom also explains that young children across cultures expect to be treated fairly, getting upset when food or other benefits are distributed unequally. Even some higher animals react this way. In one study monkeys were perfectly happy to be rewarded for a particular behavior with a piece of cucumber until one of them received a sweet, delicious grape as a reward instead. Suddenly the other monkeys began to refuse to perform for cucumber pieces or threw them back at the experimenter.
We are wired to expect fairness. In human and perhaps in animal society it helps us get along with each other and maybe improves our chances of survival. The problem is what we all realize pretty soon in life. Life is unfair.
That basic unfairness about life would have been echoed by Jewish exiles in the sixth century B.C. Despite their relationship with God as His chosen people, in 587 the holy city of Jerusalem was invaded and destroyed. It was punishment for their sins, but it went beyond justice. Everyone was killed or taken captive, even those who had remained faithful. And the Babylonian invaders were much worse sinners than the Jews.
It’s like how some of us feel about the recent tax bill. It’s not fair. It’s like all the allegations of sexual harassment flying around these days. Just the accusations have cost a senator, a movie director and Garrison Keillor their jobs. But many people have noticed that others, like Woody Allen and our president, seem to be getting a free pass despite substantial allegations and their own admissions that are as bad or worse. That hardly seems fair. Nor did it seem fair for the pagan and cruel Babylonians to receive a pass from God as they devastated the people of Judah. Life is unfair.
Our text today is a promise of how God will deal with the unfairness of life. It’s full of hopeful contrasts and changed fortune. Verse 1 says the oppressed will hear good news; the brokenhearted will be comforted; captives will be released. Verse 2 promises God’s vengeance on those who have done evil. In verse 3 there will be garlands instead of ashes; gladness instead of mourning; praise instead of despair. Verse 7 tells how shame will be rewarded with double blessing and dishonor will receive a double inheritance of land and everlasting joy. All the inequity will be undone. After everything His people have suffered, God will even things out, in their favor.
As we saw last week, the time Isaiah predicted did come. Babylon got the punishment it deserved and the exiles went home. God kept His promise to save them, bless them and recompense them for all they had lost. But this prophecy was not completed in 539 B.C. Luke chapter 4 tells how almost six hundred years later in the synagogue in a little village called Nazareth a new teacher named Jesus read the beginning of this text out loud to the congregation. He began with verse 1 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and finished with the words at the beginning of verse 2: “ to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then Jesus sat down there in the preacher’s chair and announced, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He claimed Isaiah’s prophecy as His own mission. God would once again address the unfairness of life, offering His people good news, freedom, and sight, where they had only known poverty, captivity and darkness.
As verse 1 says, Jesus was the one “anointed” by the Lord. That’s what the word “Messiah” means in Hebrew and what “Christ” means in Greek. Jesus the Anointed One came from God to reverse the bad fortunes of His people. You and I know how He brought spiritual fulfillment to Isaiah’s prophecy. To us who are spiritually poor, he brought the Good News of God’s rich blessing. He comforted us who are brokenhearted by death and evil. He freed us from the prison of our sins by dying on the Cross. He brought us out of the darkness into His marvelous light. He taught us that God is favorable toward us, that He is a God of grace, and love.
Yet Jesus stopped reading in the middle of verse 2. After “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” He did not go on to read “and the day of vengeance of our God.” He did not continue with the prophet’s promise of comfort for all who mourn, of His people becoming priests to the whole world in verse 6, of “everlasting joy” in verse 7. Even with the coming of Jesus, even with His mission of salvation completed, there is more to come. God is not done evening things out in this world.
Advent is not just play-acting, not just a kind of holy puppet show making believe we are waiting for Jesus again, like the children did so wonderfully for us last Sunday evening at our Christmas program. As we have been remembering, Advent looks forward to the coming again of our Lord. We read Isaiah’s prophecy with eyes to the future, not just to the past. As we read this promise of the day when God will reverse the fortunes of His people, we are still waiting for it to happen.
What does that mean for us? If we are, in fact, still expecting this prophecy to be fulfilled; if we are looking for a time when all the unfairness of life will be made right; if we believe that God, who loves justice and hates wrongdoing (as verse 8 says); if we believe He will one day bring complete justice on earth—then how ought we to live? How should we prepare for His recompense, for His re-compensation of all the inequities we see around us now in this world?
Eleonore Stump refers to the Gorgias, one of the dialogues of Plato in which Socrates talks about what is needed to give a person a good soul. Socrates says that if our goal really is goodness, then we ought to welcome correction, even punishment when we do wrong. It will help drive the evil out of us and make us more inclined to do good. So instead of trying to escape the bad consequences of our wrong actions, like some of those men who attacked women, we ought to accept and even be glad when things go poorly after we do wrong.
Callicles, listening to Socrates, realizes that happily accepting hard consequences is not at all how most people feel. He exclaims that if Socrates is correct he is turning the world upside down, “Everything we do is the exact opposite of what we ought to do.”
If we truly believe that God is going to bring us His recompense and even things out; if the unfairness of this world really is going to be reversed, then perhaps we as Christians need to turn our viewpoint upside down. Do we really believe what Jesus said in Luke 6? “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” “but woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation,” and “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” but “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry,” and “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” but “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”
If, in the end, poverty is going to be replaced with riches; if sorrow is going to be exchanged for everlasting joy; if shame and disgrace are going to be taken away and a double blessing put in their place—then perhaps much of what we do, maybe most of what we do, is the exact opposite of what we ought to do.
Jesus told us this over and over, you know. He constantly spoke in ways that turn our way of looking at life upside down. He said the first will be last, and the last will be first. He taught us that if you want to save your life, you must lose it. He explained that if you want to be great, you must be a servant. It’s all just the opposite of the way we normally live.
If God is going to even things out when Jesus comes again, it makes a huge difference in how we look at what happens to us in life. If Isaiah is right, then we spend way too much time wondering with Harold Kushner why “bad things happen to good people,” when, as weird as it sounds, we ought to be pondering why good things happen to good people, when it is the bad things in our lives that give us opportunity to become good in the Lord’s eyes.
Gregory the Great wrote that it is hard to understand the ways of God’s providence, but that they are “still more mysterious when things go well with good people here and ill with bad people… when holy people see the prosperity of this world coming to them, they are troubled with a frightening suspicion. For they are afraid that they might receive the fruits of their labors here [rather than in the life to come]… Consequently, holy people are more fearful of prosperity in this world than of adversity.” In other words, when good people experience no problems in this life, they begin to wonder if God perhaps has counted them wicked, so that when everything is evened out in the world to come, they will receive no blessing.
It’s like going on a hike. Trails generally start low and rise into the mountains. When you pull up below Spencer’s Butte, get out, lace up your boots, and shoulder your backpack, you expect to begin walking uphill. In fact, as strange it seems, you want to start out uphill. You know that eventually, on the way back, when you’re tired and sore, it will all be reversed and recompensed. You can come home walking easily downhill.
That’s what makes hiking the Grand Canyon feel so wrong. You start out downhill. The first half of the hike is a breeze. Walking down to the bottom of the canyon in the cool of the morning is a pleasant stroll. Climbing back up in the heat of the day is another story. If you really understand the challenge, it’s all backward from the way you would want it to be. We don’t want to get it backward like that in our spiritual understanding.
Jesus was no killjoy when He invited us to take up crosses and follow Him on the path that led uphill to Calvary and to suffering. He knew that was the only way to get where we really want to go. The easy way may not be the way at all to God’s Kingdom. Our psalm this morning, 126, said, “Those who sow in tears, will reap with songs of joy.”
Many of you know I was sick for a couple of weeks at the end of November. It was all because of an antibiotic. Bacteria-killing drugs bring quick and easy relief for hundreds of infections and diseases. But they also kill good bacteria in your stomach that protect you from even worse bugs. And when I was given more antibiotics to kill the bug in my gut the first one didn’t work. That c. difficile bacterium has become resistant to a drug that used to kill it. By taking an easy way to healing a little too often, we lower our resistance and increase the strength of the bugs. Sometimes it may be better to endure the illness.
Running from troubles in this world lowers our resistance to spiritual disease. We will be better off in the long run for having suffered adversity rather than skating through life on a downhill slope and getting a free pass whenever we do wrong. What we really are hoping for is not a trouble-free life now, but that double blessing promised by Isaiah in return for all our troubles.
It doesn’t mean you should leave this morning looking for a way to suffer more. A few Christians make the mistake of thinking they need to inflict pain and persecution on themselves. They flog their own backs and give other people good reason to hate them. That’s not the way. We don’t need to invent trials and sorrows for ourselves.
However, as we look at these promises in Isaiah, and listen to the words of Jesus, let us remember the recompense. Anything we might lose will be restored. Pain will give way to blessing. Remembering that recompense, we can cultivate an attitude which sees trouble differently, which gives ourselves a different place in the scheme of things.
That was John the Baptist’s attitude in our Gospel text this morning. He was a key figure in God’s plan. Crowds of people followed him into the desert. His message was full of power. But John put it all into perspective in relation to Jesus: “Among you is… one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John had no worries about taking a lower place, about being merely a servant, even about giving up his life. He trusted in the One who was coming to bring him recompense, to raise him up again.
We have to remember, though, that waiting for our Lord, waiting for Jesus to bring us the sweet recompense of eternal salvation, is just the opposite of how we usually think. We typically mourn over all that we’ve lost, whether it’s a job we wanted or a house we dreamed of or a child we hoped for. And we compare ourselves with those who have what we don’t. It doesn’t seem fair that their cars are newer, or their children more successful or even their clothes nicer than ours.
But Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God. For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” From that perspective, we can worry less about how we are dressed in this life, looking forward to clothing which God will give us, which Jesus said won’t fade or wear out. Let us seek to put on righteousness rather than prosperity.
Let’s quit living backwards. Let’s quit doing the opposite of what really brings blessing. Let’s not be discouraged by adversity. Let’s not give up when we suffer loss. Let us not expect that following Jesus will always be easy. That’s not at all what He told us. What He told us, what Isaiah told us, is that it will be hard, very hard, but that there will be blessing, reward and recompense to come.
Ask some of our volunteers who serve here at our warming site or at the City Mission. Ask our Sunday School teachers or nursery volunteers. It’s not easy, not pleasant at all when you are cleaning up vomit or changing a diaper. It can be very hard when you are breaking up a fight or trying to get a squirmy child to pay attention. But as some of our teachers and volunteers have realized, it’s all worth it when you hear a word of thanks, when a guest says, “Thank you for giving me a warm place to sleep when I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” or a child writes you a card that says, “Thank you for teaching me about Jesus.” There is the recompense for all the trouble.
Isaiah says there is going to be recompense for everything. However you are hurting today, whatever you have lost, wherever you feel caught and stuck, the Lord is coming with good news, coming to reward you and set you free. This cold weather is killing plants and turning grass brown, but we know it will all come back in the spring. Verse 11 says, “For as the earth brings forth its shoots and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”
Life is unfair. But the Lord is coming to bring recompense, to even things out. As both Isaiah and John the Baptist prophesied, he will bring down the mountains and raise up the valleys. He will raise you if you’ve been down low, or you may get lowered if you’ve been riding high. But Jesus raises and lowers us like you level your garden. He does it so His seeds can be planted and grow. He wants righteousness and praise to be planted deep in us, waiting to spring up forever when He comes again.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 (New York: Crown Publishers, 2013), p. 7.
 Plato, Gorgias 481c, quoted in Stump, “Aquinas on the Sufferings of Job,” in Reasoned Faith (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 343.
 Morals on the Book of Job, quoted in Stump, “Aquinas on the Sufferings of Job,” pp. 343, 344.