I have been blessed by countless trips to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for so many years. One of the guides who was a former prisoner told us that the prisoners had used the island as a University. They learned to read, write and even 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 fulfilment of freedom finally comes. For 39 chapters Isaiah waxed lyrical about a world that needed judgement. Isaiah 40 onward 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 a fulfilment of them. Jesus came to herald in the hope of the redemption so poetically prophesised in these chapters.
They struck me with power and a good deal of emotion recently in Belfast. I am the organiser 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. It was a poignant hopeful morning as Christians sought to contribute. Minutes after the event I was sitting in my car outside my 4 Corners partner Fr Martin Magill’s Church and while I waited I thought I better 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.”
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 not so keen in peacemaking calm outside. 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.
Last time I was at Cathedral of 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.