I’m no longer really blogging, but I guess this still is a good place to posts sermons, when I have the opportunity to write/preach them, so here’s the latest, which I preached on Sunday.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
You do know it’s still Christmas, right? You’ve heard that song, “The 12 Days of Christmas”? That’s because technically, Christmas only starts on December 25th. . . and then it keeps on going all the way up until January 6th. This means no one’s allowed to have hit the post-holiday letdown yet! No, but really—now that the distraction of presents and junk food are out of the way, let’s rejoice and celebrate a little more, all right?
I mean, because, Isaiah sure did, in this passage we heard read today!
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God!
So, let’s start with a definition. What does “exult” even mean? (I even had to look it up–and it means, “To show or feel elation or jubilation, especially as the result of a success.”) Have you ever seen someone exulting? What kinds of things do people exult over?
I don’t know about you, but even when I’m passionate about something, it still takes a lot for me to exult with my whole being. Whole-self exultation in humans in general, in our day and age, in our culture, is hard to come by. We’re fans of stuff. We even get emotionally involved with ideas and causes. We can rant or rejoice on Facebook when we feel strongly about something. But I’m not sure how often we exult with our whole beings. And let’s be honest. Even if we do exult like that, it’s particularly difficult for most of us to imagine getting that excited about God.
Which is, of course, who Isaiah is excited about. So, since many of us can’t really picture ourselves getting that excited about God, let’s try this analogy. As you probably know, my husband and I have two dogs. If either one of us goes away somewhere, when we come back they are so excited, their whole beings exult in the fact that we’re home. They smile, they bounce, they wiggle, it’s all they can do not to jump up and try to knock us down and lick our faces. They get that happy even when we’ve come back after only five minutes! Dogs know who they belong to, and when they see that person, if that person and that dog have a good relationship, the dog exults—with its whole being.
I truly believe that is the kind of exultation Isaiah is talking about. But why? Why is he so happy and excited? Let’s look at the rest of that verse:
[God] has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.
So here’s where we talk about context a little bit. First I have to let you know that there is scholarly disagreement about who Isaiah was, and whether it was one guy who wrote this whole book, or two guys, or three guys, or eleven guys . . . It’s a pretty long book and it covers a pretty big stretch of Hebrew history, so that’s where some of the disagreement comes in. I want to acknowledge that the disagreement is there, and even that I have an opinion on it, but for our purposes, it’s just simpler to call whoever wrote this “Isaiah,” because he (or they) isn’t really the point. His message about God to a suffering and discouraged people is the point.
Back in the fall, we were talking about how Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. After that deliverance, they lived in the land God brought them to for a good long time. There was just one problem. They didn’t know how to exult in the God who saved them, I guess, and they kept worshiping the idols of the nations surrounding them instead. This was really hurtful both to them as a people and to God, and in many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament, the people are portrayed as a cheating spouse—cheating on God. The pain of that dynamic runs through a large part of the Old Testament, and is demonstrated as the reason why the Chosen People were taken captive by other nations, dispersed, and their national identity taken away. The beginning of the book of Isaiah talks about this exile to come, but second half looks forward to a strong theme of hope, restoration, healing, and joy to come after it.
This is why Isaiah is excited. The exile, the abandonment, the loss of identity is not the end of the story. God is going to wipe out the people’s unfaithfulness and clothe them (collectively and individually I believe, because Isaiah writes this passage in the first person—he says God “has clothed me”)—God’s going to clothe them with salvation, and with righteousness. God is going to give them goodness! God is going to save them! This is momentous! It is, Isaiah says, like a bride and bridegroom getting all dressed up for their wedding—which is pretty interesting imagery given the whole unfaithful-spouse concept. God is bringing them back into relationship with Himself. This is awesome! Like a bride and bridegroom who can’t wait to be together, this is something to get happy about!
So maybe now we can see why Isaiah is so stoked. He and his people have a future. Except that . . . the Hebrews were restored to their land but remained captive to other empires for generations, so either Isaiah didn’t know what he was talking about, or God’s promises are pretty thin, or Isaiah was talking about something more than just the restoration of the Jewish people to their land.
I think it’s the third option. I think Isaiah was talking about the Hebrew people, and other parts of the Bible tell us that God will do more, not less, than we can imagine, and I believe that, too. So I guess I’m left with the third option: that though Isaiah was talking about the Old Testament Hebrews, he was also describing something more, and I think that something more has to do with Christmas, and with us. But what?
Well, first of all, this passage isn’t just a feel-good Old Testament Facebook meme. It’s a prophecy. I believe that Biblical prophecies have multiple fulfillments—or maybe they’re kinda like cosmic time-release capsules, one fulfillment, but over the course of millennia. However you want to think about it, when Isaiah was dancing about God restoring the people, God really did allow them to return to their land, but about 400 years after that, more of this promise got fulfilled, because Jesus showed up.
This hope in this passage is the hope we have at Christmas. During these twelve days of Christmas especially, we are celebrating that God personally and physically entered our world—ultimately to deal with our own unrighteousness—or sin—to clothe us “with the garments of salvation” and cover us “with the robe of righteousness.”
It is pretty impossible to miss all the bad news that has been going in our country and around the world over the last few months. All of that bad news has its root in the utterly divisive nature of human sin. In Confirmation class we’ve been discussing how sin separates us from God, from each other, from creation, from ourselves—and we’re all infected. We can’t heal ourselves; we need someone to save us from—well, ourselves, sometimes, to be honest. I had a couple of interactions this week where I just couldn’t get out of my own way. The more I tried to clean it up, the worse it got—and the greater the separation between me and other people grew. I don’t know if you ever feel like that, but that tendency, as well as much darker ones, are part of the human condition.
The great news of this passage is that in Christ, at Christmas, God kicked off the greatest reconciliation project ever. We can exult in God because He came here in person, personally to save us and to dress us up in goodness— that is, righteousness—like we’re going to a wedding.
But of course, we still sin, and we still encounter sin in other people. As I said, this very week I (and some of you) had to deal with my own sin. And it’s not like this is a freak occurrence. I hate to tell you (no—I mean, I really hate to tell you!), but I sin on a regular basis. And the amount of violence that has occurred in our nation and around the world in this year alone indicates that God’s grand reconciliation has not been completed. So we can get depressed and have another cup of eggnog. Or we can listen to Isaiah and believe and hope for yet a further fulfillment of this Isaiah prophecy. Theologians often call this idea “now and not yet.” God has come to us, and has begun the process of dressing us up in His goodness and salvation, but the process is not complete. We are still being healed, and still being reconciled—to God, to each other, to creation, to ourselves. But we are. And we will be.
I personally believe Jesus is going to physically come back to earth again, and that that is when this prophecy and all others will be completely fulfilled. In the meantime, though, while we live in the now and the not-yet, I honestly feel this passage has an application specifically for Now Church. In fact, I kind of got the chills the first time I read this passage in preparation for today. It felt personal.
Our church has been through a lot over the last few years . . . or even decades. I’ve been here for part of it, but some of you have been here a lot longer. I suspect any number of us has wondered where God is, whether God cares about our congregation, or about our neighbourhood, or about Our Fair City—whether what we’re doing here really matters as much to God as it does to us.
Chapter 61, verse 11, especially reminded me of us:
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
It reminds me of us because I feel like our church has been through a long, hard winter. But I’m beginning to see signs of spring—signs of “shoots” beginning to “spring up.” Aren’t you? This verse reminded me of the ancient carol we sang this morning: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” It’s a song about Isaiah’s prophecies. Jesus is the Rose in the song. Jesus is the first sign of spring.
Who here has read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? I love the Narnia stories because they’re really well told, but also, they take biblical ideas and put them into a context even children can understand. There’s a part of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which feels to me like CS Lewis (who wrote it) was making a whole story out of Isaiah 61.11. If you know the book, you will remember that Narnia, the magical land of talking animals, has been taken over by the White Witch, an evil enchantress who makes it “always winter but never Christmas.” The Narnians are oppressed and fearful and mistrustful, and the White Witch has turned many of them into stone statues. She has taken away the power of potential, of action, even of an individual’s active identity.
But finally, after a winter so long the Narnians don’t remember anything else, there is a glimmer of hope. “Aslan is on the move,” Mr Beaver tells the four children from our world who end up in Narnia. Aslan is a mysterious Lion, powerful, the true ruler of Narnia. He’s been away, but rumour has it that he’s coming back.
And what is the first sign that these rumours are true? Christmas! After years and years of dreary winter but never rich and warm and joyful Christmas, Father Christmas (Santa Claus) escapes the White Witch’s spell and shows up in Narnia with gifts. There is celebration! There is merriment! The Witch isn’t defeated yet, but she will be. Her powers are clearly weakening. This is what Christmas signifies to us. Jesus is on the move! Sin and evil and oppression aren’t gone from our world yet, but every year Christmas is a sign that one day they will be. Their powers are weakening.
After Christmas comes spring. In the story, the White Witch has deceived and captured Edmund, one of the four human children, and she and her dwarf servant are traveling with him to try to intercept the other three. Edmund is tied up with a rope and still under the power of the Witch at this point in the story, but things are suddenly not going so well for her. Aslan is on the move! Listen . . . (close your eyes if it helps!)
Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller . . . Then the mist turned from white to gold and presently cleared away altogether. Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down onto the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree tops . . . The noise of water grew louder. Presently they actually crossed a stream. Beyond it they found snowdrops growing.
“Mind your own business!” said the dwarf when he saw that Edmund had turned his head to look at them; and he gave the rope a vicious jerk.
But of course this didn’t prevent Edmund from seeing. Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree . . . Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full sun, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
“Faster! Faster!” said the Witch.
There was no trace of the fog now. The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses . . . The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves . . .
“This is no thaw,” said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. “This is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.”
Does this sound like Isaiah 61.11 to you? Does it sound Now Church? I think it could be. I believe Aslan is on the move no matter what. We can fight Him to the bitter end like the Witch. We can remain stone statues like animals she imprisoned in her castle. Or, when Aslan breathes on us like He does to the animals in the book, we can come to life, exult in Him, and joyously follow after Him.
Spring is exultant and hopeful but also chaotic and messy. Regeneration and new life at Now Church probably will be, too. Aslan, as the children are told in another part of the book, is not a tame Lion. Jesus is not a tame God. We can’t control Him. But we can exult in Him with our whole being. We can look for Him and what He is doing even when the voices of oppression in us and around us tell us to mind our own business. We can make space for Jesus to work by His Spirit in our community and do His work of reconciliation through us. We can pray that this will happen. Isaiah prayed for it to happen for his people even though he also predicted that it would:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
Let’s pray this, too. Pray that God will shine through us and reconcile us to each other. Pray that God will reconcile our community and beyond to Himself as He shines our “salvation like a burning torch” through us. Let us pursue our new “name”—our true identity—in Christ. Let’s exult in God with everything we are. Spring is coming, everybody! Aslan is on the move! Jesus is on the move! Merry Christmas!