The Great Reversal

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor  …

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”

Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11 NIV

In Plato’s Republic, the famous philosopher writes about the allegory of the cave. In the allegory, a man lives in a cave. He’s shackled there so that he cannot move about in the darkness and he cannot turn to the left or to the right, all he can do is look at the cave wall directly ahead of him. 

Behind him is a fire. It’s light casts shadows upon the portion of the wall that the prisoner can see. So, at best, the prisoner can merely see the shadows of people moving around or the shadows of what they are carrying. Plato says that, to the prisoner, these shadows–as limited as they are–are reality. 

After all, it’s all the prisoner has ever known. The prisoner is completely ignorant of all of all that lies beyond the cave. He has never experienced direct sunlight. He doesn’t know the sensation of a cool breeze on a warm afternoon. He hasn’t experienced snowflakes melting on the warmth of his skin or the steam of warm breath on a cold winter morning. All he knows is that sliver of reality that is directly in front of him and all he sees is a shadow of a real thing rather than the thing itself. He is a prisoner, a captive both of his cave and of his ignorance.

Then, Plato supposes that one of the prisoners is released. He climbs up and out of the cave. As he emerges, he is confronted by the scorching sun and the biting wind. He hears all sorts of sounds that he has never experienced before. 

He’s told that this, rather than the cave, is reality. What would he do? Plato surmises that he would immediately retreat to the cave. It is, after all, the only reality he has ever known. And the real reality beyond the cave would be too much for him. Even if he wanted to, the prisoner would find the real world beyond belief.

Plato wasn’t a Christian, but he was onto something. 

You see, the message of the Christian faith is that we all begin life in a cave. And we all naturally experience a reality that is limited. 

We can’t rescue ourselves from the cave because, after all, we don’t know we’re in a cave to begin with. 

For the Christian, salvation from the cave of sin and death can only come through the power of God who, by the working of his grace, liberates us from our bondage to sin.

This is a message that stands at odds with the dominant message that our culture communicates to us. Our culture tells us that we know ourselves perfectly and that we need only be true to ourselves in order to have the best life possible. 

Our culture assumes that our self-knowledge is complete and accurate. We’re told that in order to be free we need to be autonomous–self-governing and making decisions with respect only to our own inner compass. Even among Christians the god we proclaim is often one who simply blesses our opinions and prejudices rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The gospel of John tells us: 

“This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”

John 3:19-20

But, you say, I find myself wanting to do the good and the right–imperfectly, obviously. That’s good! Every time we find ourselves wanting to do the good and the right, it is the grace of God at work in us. 

The Christian message is, according to Paul,

“…is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

1 Corinthians 2:6-8

He continues, in verses 13 and following,

“We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

We are all, apart from God’s activity in our hearts, “natural men and women” who are about as inclined and as capable to escape sin and death as the man in Plato’s cave. 

We need liberation.

And it is this liberation–from sin, self, and death–that Jesus accomplished for His people on the Cross. 

The Heidelberg Catechism asks:

Question. What…benefit to we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?

Answer: That by His power our old man–that is the natural man, the enslaved man, the guy in the cave–is with [Christ] crucified, slain and buried; that so the evil lusts of the flesh many no more reign in us, but that we might may offer ourselves unto [Christ] a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Q/A 43

It is this liberation that Christ accomplished during his passion, his death, and in his resurrection and his ascension.

Again, The Heidelberg Catechism asks:

Question. What benefit do we receive from the resurrection of Christ?

Q/A 45

This is the “so what” of Easter:

Answer: First, by his resurrection He has overcome death, that He might make us partakers of the righteousness which by His death He has obtained for us. Secondly, we also are now by His power raised to a new life. Thirdly, the resurrection of Christ is to us a sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.”

Q/A 45

So, in Christ’s death and resurrection we get three specific spiritual benefits: 

(1) Christ conquers death, and Christ makes us beneficiaries of this victory

(2) Christ gives us a new life, a new heart–one that is free from the cave of sin and sees spiritual things more clearly.

(3) Christ promises--gives a pledge, that is, a down payment or earnest money, if you will–to guarantee our resurrection.

And here’s where we connect with Isaiah 61. 

This passage from Isaiah is the passage of Scripture that Jesus chose to speak on when he started his ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

Jesus’ reading stops at the very beginning of verse 2 of Isaiah 61. And I’ll tell you why: because the resurrection of Jesus Christ–and our resurrection life with him–begins now! 

This isn’t some far off, ethereal hope that one day we will be sitting in the heavens strumming a harp and enjoying the sun.

No, resurrection begins now. 

It begins with a changed heart–inward transformation. In the deepest parts of ourselves, salvation involves the reorientation of the compass of our lives. 

You see, we are by nature born with a compass that deviates from “true north.” And unless that inner compass is renewed, reoriented, aligned to true north, it will always and ever lead us astray and away from the true source of all delights, even Jesus our Lord.

What’s remarkable about the Christian message is that God himself–God the Son, Jesus–intentionally enters the cave of our sin and of our guilt and takes apart the shackles that bind us there. He takes us in his arms and he leads us up and out of the darkness, the dankness, the squalor of the cave and he leads us to freedom.

There we are able to breathe deeply the fresh air of grace. He binds our wounds. He takes the filthy, tattered rags of our own righteousness and, having washed and cleaned us, gives us new clothes–the clothes of his righteousness that cover over the multitude of our offenses. 

It is, in short, the greatest of reversals. Rags to riches. Death to life. And it starts now. Here. In this world, broken as it is. 

We are to live the resurrection. And it is the resurrection life that Jesus gives us that allows us to be the church that Jesus wants us to be, and the people who Jesus wants us to be.

You see, the church is not a building although the buildings that host our worship ought to be beautiful and tasteful pointing to the holiness of God. 

The church is a people. In a recent letter to the editor, theologian and Anglical Bishop N.T. Wright put it like this:

“The earliest Christian writings insist that in the Messiah ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’. The book of Revelation envisages Jesus’s followers as an uncountable family from every nation, tribe, people, and language. At the climax of his greatest letter, St. Paul urges Christians to ‘welcome one another’ across all social and ethnic barriers, insisting that the church will thereby function as the advance sign of God’s coming renewal of all creation.”

N. T. Wright, Letter to the Editor

It is the character and the life of the church as the people of God that makes the gospel plausible to a society that is, quite frankly–and perhaps understandably–not all that interested in what we have to say.

Isaiah puts it like this:

“For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”

As we reflect on the power of God that caused Christ to be raised from death, and the new life he gives to Christ’s followers, let’s remind ourselves, too, that the power of the resurrection must produce the fruit of change in our life and in our life together.

We are, in a sense, the change that God would see in the world.

So, let’s get started.

Amen.