HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
December 17, 2017
Isaiah 61 (CEB)
The Lord God’s spirit is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the Lord to glorify himself. 4They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.
5Foreigners will stay and shepherd your sheep, and strangers will be your farmers and vinedressers. 6You will be called The Priests of the Lord; Ministers of Our God, they will say about you. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and fatten yourself on their riches. 7Instead of shame, their portion will be double; instead of disgrace, they will rejoice over their share. They will possess a double portion in their land; everlasting joy will be theirs. 8I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. 9Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the Lord.
10I surely rejoice in the Lord; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown, and like a bride adorned in jewelry. 11As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.
One of the tough things about this time of year is that it is not a happy time for everyone. Sure, there are young children giddy with anticipation of a visit from Santa complete with much longed-for toys. Parents and grandparents look forward to seeing the excitement of their children and grandchildren as they open gifts on Christmas morning. There are family gatherings to look forward to and traditions to uphold. But then there are the widowed, those deployed overseas; people for whom the holiday season only magnifies the sense of loneliness they are already experiencing. There are families who approach this season with a sense of dread because they know there is no money to provide gifts for their children this Christmas. And for people who struggle with anxiety or depression, the long dark days of the winter months can make life even more difficult to bear.
As I pondered these realities earlier in the week, it reminded me that this is precisely why we need to celebrate Christmas. We often treat Christmas more like a birthday party for Christ, complete with gift goodies all around. But Christmas isn’t about Christ turning one year older. Christmas is about celebrating what it means that God took on flesh and came to live among us. Christmas is about celebrating all that Christ has done and will do to transform this world and all who are a part of it; to make God’s kingdom a reality on earth just as it is in heaven. Christmas is about remembering and celebrating the exceedingly good news of Christ’s birth, even as we anticipate Christ’s return. And really, there is no better news; this is about light shining in the darkness, good overcoming evil, justice reigning in an unjust world. Christmas is about healing for the sick, comfort for the grieving, peace for the afflicted, and love for the lonely. As Isaiah says, “He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.” Indeed, there is great joy in this season, but it is not the fleeting happiness that is gone when the toy breaks and the family departs. The joy of Christ’s birth is something much more lasting than that.
I want you to think for just a moment about times in your life when you have seen or experienced true joy. I saw a show on TV a few weeks ago about this guy who had been imprisoned for 23 years, all the while proclaiming his innocence. Then, modern DNA testing proved his innocence. You should’ve seen the look on his face when he got the news that he would be freed. It was pure joy. He has come “to proclaim release for the captives, and liberation for prisoners.” While I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to travel to Uganda. We went up into these remote mountain towns near the border with Kenya. When our vans pulled up to the local school, let me tell you what I saw. There were probably a couple dozen kids out in the field playing soccer. Their soccer ball was a collection of old rags tied together and wound around each other. Most of the kids were wearing flip flops, but some were barefooted. Their t-shirts and dresses were well-worn, and some of the kids didn’t even have pants on. They were content in their game of soccer, but then we pulled out a few new soccer balls we had brought along for just such an occasion. One of my friends started inflating them, and immediately the kids were jumping up and down and squealing in delight. But I knew we had moved from contentment to happiness to pure joy when the kids spontaneously broke out in a song of praise, even as they clapped and danced. For the rest of the afternoon and all the days to follow, we could hear the joyful laughter of the children as they played soccer in the fields around the school. Christ has come “to bring good news to the poor.” Maybe you have seen the joy of a person as they received a clean bill of health after a long battle with some disease. Or maybe you yourself have welcomed with joy a new grandchild, even as you mourned the loss of your spouse. Christ has come “to comfort all who mourn.”
As I think about such moments of joy, it seems to me that there can be joy even when there is not happiness. It’s awfully empty and insensitive of us to expect everyone to be happy at this time of year. But what we can do is help people know that even in the midst of their troubles, there is reason for them to have joy! Christ has made his home among us. Christ came into this world to establish God’s kingdom, and Christ will come again to make all things right. With Christ in our midst, true joy is possible for all people, no matter what their circumstances.
Webster’s dictionary defines joy as: “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” But I think we have to understand that if our joy is based only on fleeting pleasure and happiness, then we will never experience true joy. Happiness is based on material things, or events; happiness is an emotion and only temporary, but joy is an attitude of the heart. I think of joy as freedom. I think of joy as confidence. I think of joy as a sense of security and well-being. These are more than just momentary feelings. And Christ makes such joy possible. But even more than that Christ makes it possible for us to find joy in expectation—the expectation of something wonderful! As Isaiah speaks to a people who have been in exile for many years, he is calling them to expect something wonderful. “They will rebuild…they will restore…they will renew.” Even in the midst of exile and oppression, there is reason to rejoice, to have joy! And listen to how many times reference is made to joy in this chapter: God says he will give “the oil of joy in place of mourning,” and because of God’s blessings the people “will rejoice over their share. They will possess a double portion in their land, everlasting joy will be theirs.” As Psalm 30 says, “Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Isaiah’s words offered promise to a people longing to return home after exile. He was giving them a picture of joy in the midst of restoration and renewal, and the response of the people was to rejoice before God. But, of course, we know that Isaiah’s words also point to the ultimate renewal made possible in the person of Jesus Christ. And if the joy of the exiles returned home is as Isaiah describes, how much greater will be the joy of all who find their home in Christ?
Over the last few weeks, we have thought a lot about home and what home means to us and for us in our lives. People have experiences of home that are not always positive, and we must acknowledge that. But home at its ideal, at its best, is a source of comfort, peace, rest, freedom, blessing, and love. Whether a place or a group of people, home can be an escape from difficult times—a refuge in the midst of life’s storms. And because of that, it is a place of joy.
Last week, I told you about the night my grandfather died. Let me tell you now about the week that followed. My grandfather died early on a Saturday morning. By late Sunday afternoon, most of the family that had not already gathered there arrived. This included all my aunts and uncles and their spouses, and some of my cousins and their spouses. For the next week, my family went about preparing for the funeral. My Mom and her brothers and sister worked with my grandmother to make funeral and burial arrangements. They had to plan two memorial services, plus the burial, and had to coordinate transporting my grandfather’s body across state lines for the burial. The rest of us were responsible for the odds and ends here and there. We answered phone calls, received gifts of food, flowers, and cards. We ran errands and did laundry. And you know what else we did, we laughed. I don’t know if there has ever been a time in my life when I have laughed so hard. The spouses, my Dad and my aunts and uncle, started (jokingly) conspiring about which food dishes they were going to hide-away for themselves, and that just snowballed. By the end of the week, they referred to themselves as the “Out-laws,” and we still laugh about it today. But we also laughed at memories with my grandfather, who was a pretty humorous man. We experienced deep and abiding joy even in the midst of a great loss. This is the joy of home.
In the same way, our greatest, truest joy comes when we find our home in Christ. But even more than that we should live our lives rejoicing because Christ has made his home here, and in Christ, God will transform everything in this world that is messed up and broken. And for all of those around this world who approach this Christmas with a sense of dread or sorrow, our joy-filled lives can be a sign of God’s blessing to the people through Jesus Christ. The joy of Christ can be a reason for all people to rejoice and to proclaim, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come!”