Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 30, 2018
Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3 (CEB)
I 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.
For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still until her righteousness shines out like a light, and her salvation blazes like a torch. 2Nations will see your righteousness, all kings your glory. You will be called by a new name, which the Lord’s own mouth will determine. 3You will be a splendid garland in the Lord’s hand, a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand.
Through the weeks of Advent and into Christmas, we have studied some of the prophecies of the Old Testament that speak specifically to the coming Messiah. We looked at messages from Jeremiah, Malachi, Micah, and Isaiah, as they delivered to the people words of hope, promise, and restoration that would one day come through the long-awaited Savior. Today, we circle back to Isaiah. And if we understand some of Isaiah’s earlier messages to describe the much-anticipated Savior-King, then we might look at these words we heard a few moments ago as a description of the world after the Messiah has arrived.
Have you all heard about the most expensive Christmas tree of all time? Eight years ago, the luxury Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi was trying to make the Guinness Book of World Records with the most expensive Christmas tree. So, they decorated a 43-foot tree with 131 different pieces of gold and precious stones. When all was said and done, there were gold and jewels totaling over $11 million dollars hanging on that tree. That’s enough money, by the way, to buy a 60-year stay in a deluxe hotel at Disney World. And a 43 foot tree would not only fill this sanctuary, it would poke through the ceiling! How did your Christmas tree this year compare? The tree at our house is 9 feet tall, and about half the ornaments were made by Owen and Mary Ellen, which means our Christmas tree has a lot of sentimental value, but not much monetary value at all. Most likely, none of us has the world’s most spectacular Christmas tree, but part of Isaiah’s message to the people today is that we don’t have to have the world’s most spectacular anything, and still we are a wonder to behold.
You know, when God chose to take on flesh and to come and live among us, the sole motivation was us, humanity. God created us to be in relationship with God, and God so desires our companionship that God sent his very own son into the world to show us the way to the Father. You all know the story, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son….” But it wasn’t just that Christ came, it wasn’t just that Jesus was born to a humble couple, and lived what was in many ways a typical life. No, what made Jesus special, what made the Messiah’s presence so meaningful was that through his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, the Christ really did make it possible for us to be in real relationship with God, just the way God desires. And according to Isaiah, the way this will happen is that the Messiah will make us righteous. He will “clothe us with clothes of victory,” and “wrap us in robes of righteousness.” Not because we are deserving in any way, not because we have done anything to earn such a gift. God does this simply because God loves us.
There is a story of a shepherd in New Zealand who had two ewes who each gave birth to a lamb around the same time. Soon after the births, though, one of the ewes and one of the lambs died. Then, to complicate things even more, the surviving ewe rejected the surviving lamb, which was not its own, and refused to feed it. Distressed and fearful of losing yet another sheep, the shepherd did the only thing he could think of. He went and cut the skin off of the deceased lamb and threw it over the surviving lamb’s back. It worked! The ewe then accepted the young lamb who had lost its mother and allowed him to feed. In a sense, the shepherd clothed the lamb so as to make him pleasing and acceptable to the ewe. This is much like what Christ does for us.
Because of God incarnate, we may be restored, made whole, clothed in righteousness before God. Righteousness will grow, says Isaiah, as a garden grows its seeds. Because Christ came, God will draw us once again into his presence. And there will be great, abundant joy. Joy so immense, says Isaiah, that our hearts will be full. Is there any greater description of Christmas? Hearts full of joy. It’s what happened to the Grinch when he discovered the true meaning of Christmas; it’s what makes us smile when we watch the anticipation and excitement of young children as Christmas approaches. It’s what we feel when we raise our candles in Christmas Eve worship and sing, “Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born!” Isaiah foretold the birth of the Messiah, but Isaiah also foretold the righteousness and ultimate joy that this Savior would bring for all who would follow. That’s what we celebrate today; that because Christ was born into our midst there is joy everlasting.
We are not capable of experiencing such joy on our own. There is no way we can save ourselves. So God, in his vast mercy, took matters into his own hands. God sent a redeemer who was the Messiah the Jews were patiently awaiting. That Messiah came when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Then, 30 years after that, Jesus started his work, and one of the first things he did was declare his mission when he preached in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. And Jesus’ mission statement was penned by Isaiah some 600 or 700 years before, just before where we began reading this morning. At the beginning of chapter 61, Isaiah writes, “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….”
As Isaiah foretold, everything that Jesus did is a source of joy for all people everywhere. You know, when Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue that he had come to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” he wanted the Israelites to think of the Year of Jubilee. Once every 49 years (that’s seven times seven), the Israelites were to forgive one another’s debts at the beginning of a year that was called the Jubilee. There is no evidence that this ever actually happened in all of Israel’s history, but can you imagine the excitement if they really had done such a thing? Just imagine how you would feel if your bank, and credit card company, and everyone else you owe money to right now said that right here and now (just a few days after Christmas), they were going to cancel all your debts! What a blessing that would be, right?!? The purpose of the Jubilee Year was to point ahead to the joyous news the Messiah would bring. The news that Christ would pay everyone’s debts, so that all people could be freed from their sins and drawn into the abundant life of eternal presence with God. No wonder Isaiah declared, “I surely rejoice in the Lord; my heart is joyful because of my God….” I can almost imagine that he very nearly shouted with joy at the thought of a Messiah who would usher in not just a year of Jubilee, but an eternal life of Jubilee!
You know, I don’t have any idea what happened to that $11million dollar Christmas tree after the Emirates Palace hotel set the record for the world’s most expensive Christmas tree a few years ago. My guess is that all the gold and precious jewels went back to a bank, or a safe deposit box, or to some jeweler who sold them. The tree, which I read is artificial, is probably stored in the hotel somewhere except during the Christmas season. Save for those few weeks when it was adorned with valuables back in 2010, there’s nothing really special about that tree. But you know what is pretty special? I heard a news story a week or so ago about last year’s National Christmas Tree—this is the one that the President lights each year up in D.C. Well, it turns out that last year’s Christmas tree got chopped up and used to rehab a Habitat for Humanity home in downtown D.C. That tree, even though it wasn’t elaborately decorated with precious jewels, even though it got all chopped up, it became a part of a house for a family that otherwise would not have a home.
And this is what Christ does for us. We may not be much to look at. We may not feel valuable or even worthy. But when Christ came into this world, he came to transform us. That won’t always be an easy process; sometimes we may even feel as if we are being put through the grinder. But it’s worth it because by God’s transformation, we are clothed in righteousness and drawn into God’s eternal presence. We are shaped and formed into the people God has always intended us to be. We become these beautiful people whose lives have purpose and meaning in the larger world as we live and grow in righteousness. And through this transformation we can know blessings and joy beyond measure.
I want to close with a poem I found this week. It was written by Howard Thurman, a great African American theologian. It is titled, “Now the Work of Christmas Begins,” and it goes like this: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.”
As we are clothed in righteousness, we will find ourselves following Christ’s own mission: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, proclaiming the year of Jubilee. And in such righteous lives, made possible because Christ came among us, we will find the greatest joy this world has ever known!