Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 17, 2023
Visiting a couple of Napa Valley vineyards, Margaret Feinberg noticed the long-term approach vintners take to make their wine. She saw how, at the end of the first growing season of newly planted vines, they brutally hack back their plants. Then at the end of the second growing season, they do the same. Only after the third year do the vines produce full clusters of grapes, but serious vintners would never consider harvesting them. At the earliest, they do that at the end of year four. And after bottling, they wait three more years before even sampling the fruit of their labors. The best vintners don’t reach a breakeven point on their investment until year fifteen or later.
Seeing this led Feinberg to look at her spiritual life in a new way. She’d often wondered why she was not producing more fruit of the Spirit. She came to realize she was judging her progress from a short-term perspective when God was viewing it from a long-term one. She realized that, like a good vintner, God knows that it takes a lot of time to grow fruitful and that the process can’t be hurried. In our foolishness, we overestimate what can be achieved in a day and underestimate what can in a decade. We are wise to see things from God’s viewpoint, and learn to wait and persevere in hope.
Hopeful waiting can be hard – whether it’s waiting for Christmas or for heaven, for the end of the school term or for the start of a new project, for knowing God better or for developing better character. For hopeful waiting keeps us in touch with the often painful awareness of what we are lacking at present but aching to welcome into our life. Even if we appreciate the good gifts of God’s grace we already have, the waiting for further and perhaps greater grace may uncomfortably remind us of what we do not yet have and tempt us to focus more on our shortfall than on our progress.
Yet, while hopeful waiting has its costs, it can also give us joy. For our faith about our future puts meaning, purpose, contentment and inspiration into our present. Our anticipation about how good tomorrow will be puts something of that tomorrow into today and gives us foretastes of what we’re awaiting. For example, our expectation of Christmas joy makes us happy in our Advent waiting.
The voice that speaks in the first four verses of this scripture comes from someone who is identified here, and many other places in Isaiah, as “the servant of the Lord”. Sometimes the servant seems to be the prophet Isaiah; sometimes, the chosen people as a whole; and sometimes, a transcendent Person, the Messiah. Jesus claimed to be He when He first ministered in Nazareth and quoted this very scripture, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Ever since Isaiah first passed on these words of the servant of the Lord, the servant has spoken by means of them to many people, though to different people in different ways. For example, in Isaiah’s day, those awaiting their deliverance from their captivity in Babylon heard the Servant promise to “proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners”, while those awaiting the accomplishment of their goal to rebuild a ravaged Jerusalem heard Him promise to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” and “to provide for those who mourn in Zion”. But all people of all generations have rightly heard from these words the call of the Servant of the Lord to wait on Him and persevere in hope. He here urges those who believe in Him to count on Him to some day initiate the time of favor when His people can put on the mantle of praise in place of the heavy coat of a faint spirit and apply the oil of gladness in place of the ashes of mourning, because He is bringing good news to the oppressed, healing to the brokenhearted, comfort to the downcast, and restoration to the ruined cities.
In our day as in Isaiah’s, God’s work in fulfilling this promise is not the work of a single moment, but a steady, persistent work for however long it takes. It involves God’s cultivating His plantings over time and tending them with undeterred patience, that they may mature into “plantings of the Lord to display His glory” or into slow-growing “oaks of righteousness” to attest to, by their final grandeur, the magnificence of the Lord.
Though we are far from fully mature crops of God, we can nevertheless “greatly rejoice” in the Lord who consistently moves us forward. Even in the drawn-out process of our growth, we can “exult” in our faithful God.
Waiting and persevering in hope brings us both pain over the “not yet” and jubilation over the “sure to come”. Even when we have a long way still to go, we have what Tim Keller called “subterranean joy”.
Apparently, when Tim and his wife Kathy lived in Philadelphia, the basement of their house was always damp and their backyard always mucky. It turned out that they’d bought a place on a street that had an underground river running down the length of it, one whose waters always flowed strong, even in drought.
Since God is faithful, gracious and strong, those of us who wait on Him and trust in Him have – despite our being yet without the grace we most wait for – a subterranean river of joy running through our days that keeps God’s plantings in us well-watered and flourishing, and keeps us growing in green beauty and greater fruitfulness.
Because the God who has promised us infinite and eternal good makes good on His every promise, and because at Christmas God sent down the Servant, His Son, to dwell among us and to provide us a river of the “living waters” of His Spirit, all the way to heaven can be a bit like heaven itself. And we will come to skip and dance with delight to the music of His river of grace flowing forever over the rocks of this troubled world.
Let us then both wait with hope to welcome the arrival of the grace we most want and greatly rejoice in the grace we already have!