I have been blessed by countless trips to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for so many years. One of the guides—himself a former prisoner—told us that the prisoners had used the island as a university. They learned to read, write and even studied economics and politics.
The guide then profoundly added, “We were getting ready for freedom before freedom came.” Writer Jim Wallis once wrote, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.”
Isaiah 61-63 is about the place where we live in God’s story. It is that place where, in spite of the evidence of the evening news, we believe that redemption is already coming and will finally come. It is the place where the truth is setting us free before the fulfillment of freedom finally comes.
For thirty-nine chapters Isaiah waxed lyrical about a world that needed judgment. From Chapter 40 onward, Isaiah sees redemption breaking through. The first words of Chapter 61 are the words that Jesus read to launch his ministry, in the synagogue in Nazareth. His exposition was that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. Jesus came to herald in the hope of the redemption so poetically expressed in these chapters.
These chapters struck me with power and a good deal of emotion recently in Belfast. I am the organizer of the 4 Corners Festival, which attempts to bring the broken pieces of Belfast together. One of our events was a Prayer Breakfast, where we asked some major public figures to share with us what the Churches could pray for them. The Commissioners of Justice, Equality and Youth, as well as our Lord Mayor, were all present. It was a poignant, hopeful morning as Christians sought to contribute.
Minutes after the event, I was sitting in my car. While I waited I thought to read these verses and start my thinking for this devotional. I read:
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations. (Isa. 61:4, NIV)
This is why we had got up early. This is why we had heard our public leaders. This is what we had prayed for. This is what we needed to now believe and live. This is what God wants for Belfast. In just a few days time we would sit in another 4 Corners event where peacemakers were speaking inside a church and the riot police were keeping a crowd calm outside who were not so keen in peacemaking.
We are a city long devastated—devastated for generations. We were believing in spite of the evidence. We were a long way from freedom, but Isaiah 61 was calling me to get ready for freedom because it is coming. These verses brought tears to my eyes, called me to prayer and recommitment to the vision of God for Belfast.
The last time I was at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, I walked down to the Civil Rights Institute and sensed the connections of Belfast and Birmingham. I pray for you my brothers and sisters in Birmingham, as you believe in spite of the evidence and pray your evidence will change. I pray that God will inspire you to imagine freedom in every corner of your city. Let us pray for one another.