to bring us joy
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Let us pray. Open our ears, O God, to hear your word over the wonderful and dizzying din of the modern Christmas. May this story fall fresh on our ears and find its way into our hearts. May it shape the way we live, make choices, and set priorities. In the Saviour’s name we pray. Amen.
I am so glad to be here today. If Chris and the kids have decided to surprise me with a BMW i8 on the 25th I will, of course be delighted, but the very fact that I am here with you this morning means that one of the items on my wish list has been given. You will remember that last year we were not here. An ice storm had just about closed the city; there was no power here at the church, which meant no heat and travel was treacherous at best. The situation continued through most of week; our Christmas Eve service also was cancelled. Power was restored in time to welcome our Out of The Cold guests on Saturday evening and David led worship on the Sunday. How much I missed being with you, my church family, for those two usually very special occasions. Truly I am glad to be worshipping with you this morning.
Our text for today is from the prophet Isaiah. The writings of this prophet have perplexed modern scholars. Some suggest that what we have in our Bibles is more likely the work of two or three people. The reason for this suggestion is the dramatic shifts of mood found in this book. The first part of the book is obviously addressed to God’s people before Jerusalem is captured and many of the Jews are taken into exile in Babylon. The latter part of the book is addressed to the exiles urging them to continue to have hope in their God. I take it as a given that God is able to inspire his prophet to see not only what was just around the corner but also what was around several corners in the future. But one, two or even three writers who found their way into this one book is not my primary concern, nor can I imagine that it’s yours. We want to know if there is a word from God for us here and now. There is and it is a word of joy.
Isaiah 61 opens with the voice of God’s anointed telling us that he has been given a job. These are well-known words. Some of you may recognize the beginning of our text as the very words our Lord used to describe his ministry (Luke 4:18). In other words Jesus identifies himself and his purpose with the whole notion of good news coming to those who are thought to be at the margins, out of the limelight, those without power or influence or prestige.
Who did Isaiah think he was talking about when
he spoke of the one whom the Lord had anointed? We really don’t know nor do we know who the exiles thought this person might be. One scholar suggested that at the time when the Persian king Cyrus allowed the exiles to return to Judea and Jerusalem some of them might have thought that he was God’s anointed.
What we do know is the term God’s anointed at some point became a title that referred to the one who was promised by God to his people. We know that title by its Hebrew name, Messiah or its Greek name, Christ. To state the obvious then it was very early on in the life of the church that followers of Jesus looked back to the Old Testament promises and found in them prophetic promises about the identity of Jesus. For two thousand years we have said God’s anointed is Jesus. Therefore, we have found in these words from Isaiah something central to the life and ministry of our Lord, including this—to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
What is this talking about? This must be a reference to one of two occasions, either a Sabbatical year or the year of Jubilee. According to Deuteronomy 15 every seven years debts were to be cancelled and slaves were to be set free, the idea being that no one should live permanently in hardship. A Jubilee Year was to be held every 50th year and in that year, which of course would come after a Sabbatical year, land would be given back to its original owning family. This is outlined in Leviticus 25.
Now here is something interesting to me. As I said earlier Jesus identifies himself and the work he has been given to do with this text. In fact this is what Luke says about this day in the Nazareth synagogue. And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Here’s the interesting bit—Jesus identifies himself with something that as far as we know was never observed. Scholars tell us the Sabbatical year may have been observed sporadically but they can find no evidence that God’s people every celebrated a Jubilee Year. Jesus says this is part of what he has come to do.
This is a proclamation of joy. Let’s think this through for the next few minutes. It is a measure of maturity when a child reaches a point in life that everything need not be for them. As parents and grandparents we see the opposite of this in young children who, as they pull the wrap of another gift,
keep at least one eye open in order to discover if there is something given to a brother or sister to which they would like to make a claim. “Yes, I have this, but I want that too!”
True, spiritually mature, faithful joy is that which takes delight in a widespread sharing of the good news, the freedom, the reconciliation and the grace that is God’s gift through our Saviour Jesus.
I thoroughly enjoy the Christmas season. I love the food—too much, of course. I love the decorations, although I am not one of those who think that every square centimetre of one’s house should be covered by a sparkling light. And I love the music—Chris and I are off to Massey Hall this afternoon to join our voices with two thousand others in Tafelmusik’s annual presentation of the sing-a-long version of Handel’s Messiah. I do believe that somehow heaven takes delight in all of those voices raised not just once but also in the encore of the Hallelujah chorus. But our text today tells us that Christmas is about so much more than food and gifts and even the most majestic music this side of heaven.
Take a look at our text. We have talked about the first part of it, in particular the beginning of verse two, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. That is the voice of the Servant of the Lord. In verse ten, we have either the voice of the Servant again, or we have the voice of one who has committed his or her life to the cause of bringing that year of favour to the world. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness. The Servant rejoices, those who are followers of the Servant rejoice because God has adorned our lives with salvation and righteousness. I think the direction our text points is this—the one who rejoices in God’s salvation wants to share it. In other words as it was intended to be in the Jubilee Year, the true joy of a follower of Jesus is found in the blessing of God being spread around into the lives of everyone.
Let’s look then at what this means for us today.
Friends I hope you understand that what I am calling us to embrace this day are acts of faith. You see I think it is much easier to be a cynic, like catching fish from a barrel to be one of the world’s many “glass half empty” people. You see I have a feeling that’s part of what is going on with the Jubilee Year. I think it is the cynic who says, it can’t be done, the issues around poverty and homelessness and me having lots and you
having less, those issues are intractable, there’s nothing to be done. I think the cynics won out in ancient Israel as they often do. When Jesus comes to our world it is to bring the full measure of God’s righteousness and for us to find our joy in joining him in proclaiming and living into the year of the Lord’s favour.
Of all the stories I have told through the years this is the one that some of our kids like best. Wally was nine years old and in the second grade, though he should have been in the fourth. He was big and clumsy, slow in movement and mind, but well liked by the other children in class, all of whom were smaller than he.
As Christmas time approached, plans were made for the annual school pageant. Children were being assigned their parts: angels, shepherds, wise men, Mary, and Joseph. Wally stood by expectantly then suddenly his joy knew no bounds; for he heard the teacher say, 'Wally, I want you to be the Innkeeper.' Not many lines to learn, she reasoned and his size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful.
Then came the rehearsals with the manger, beards, crowns, and a stage full of squeaky voices. Most caught up in the magic of the night was Wally. He would stand in the wings, watching the performance with fascination. His teacher had to make sure he did not wander on-stage before his cue. Then came the long-awaited night and Wally stood holding a lantern by the door of the Inn, watching as the children who portrayed Mary and Joseph came near him.
'What do you want?' Wally asked with a brusque gesture. 'We seek lodging.' 'Seek it elsewhere. The inn is filled.' 'Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.' 'There is no room in this inn for you.' Wally looked properly stern.
'Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.'
Now, for the first time, the Innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. With that, there was a long pause and the audience became a bit tense. 'No! Be gone!' the prompter whispered from the wings. 'No! Be gone!' Wally repeated automatically.
Joseph sadly placed his arms around Mary and Mary laid her head upon her husband's shoulder, and the two of them started to move away. The Innkeeper did not return inside his inn, however. Wally stood
there in the doorway, watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling unmistakably with tears. And suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all others. 'Don't go, Joseph,' Wally called out. 'Bring Mary back.' And Wally's face grew into a bright smile. 'You can have my room!'
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness. And yes I will share this joy with great faith and hope.