New Clothes for Christmas (Sermon)

“New Clothes for Christmas”

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

12/5/21 – Advent 2

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

 to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,

they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,

the devastations of many generations.

8For I the Lord love justice,

I hate robbery and wrongdoing; 
I will faithfully give them their recompense,

and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,

and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge

that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10 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,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,

and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

11 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.  (NRSV)

         According to Luke, when Jesus is asked to preach for the first time at the synagogue in Nazareth, he opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads the first verse-and-a-half of Isaiah 61, God’s magnificent promise of deliverance and renewal. Jesus follows the reading with a sermon that Luke sums up in one sentence: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-30)

         At first, the people stand in awe of Jesus. The hometown boy seems to have made good for sure. Things change quickly, though, when Jesus interprets Isaiah’s words. He recalls that two of God’s most memorable prophets, Elijah and Elisha, tended to a Gentile widow and a Gentile leper before tending to Jews. In this memory, Jesus exposes that which is most utterly true about God: When the Spirit of the Lord moves, the initial beneficiaries are not necessarily those who consider themselves blessed and favored, but rather those who are most vulnerable. God acts first on behalf of the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or even religion, these are the ones whose “descendants shall be known among the nations.” These are the ones whom the world will acknowledge as “a people whom the Lord has blessed.”

I hear Jesus saying that to the extent that Israel continues to remember that she was called out of bondage, not privilege, and to the extent that Israel continues to embody God’s concern for the powerless and the marginalized of the world, she maintains her role as God’s chosen witness. However, when Israel falls into bed with power, wealth, and violence, she allies herself with injustice and abandons her identity and her calling.

Now, let’s remember, while Israel does refer to a specific people and place, even more does Israel refer to those who intentionally “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)

         The same is true for the church. When we commit ourselves to the way of the Christ, by following Jesus as Lord as passionately as we proclaim him Savior, we are his body. When we fall short of that calling, we compromise and weaken our body-of-Christ identity. We become tribal and shallow. We quit looking for the image of God in ourselves and each other, and we become obsessed with demanding “proof” of salvation by uttering prescribed religious phrases.

When we settle for a spirituality of rewards-and-punishments, our definition of beloved and called gets reduced to selfish concerns about who has earned what after death. We become impatient with the mysteries of grace. And we completely miss out on the joyful holiness of living as ones who, as God says to Abram, are blessed so that we might be a blessing. (Genesis 12:2)

         If the four gospels are accurate, it would seem that the leadership of first-century Judaism had abandoned Israel’s unique identity and calling. But let’s be gracious with them. Let’s acknowledge that living as Jews in first-century Rome was no picnic. As a whole, Israel was an oppressed people, and they desperately craved deliverance. They looked for God’s long-awaited messiah, and because of their situation, they looked for a military leader to deliver them from Rome. This was particularly true among the Pharisees who were also desperate to keep Jewish identity pure—free from all Gentile influence.

Returning to Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth: The theology of those who hear Jesus would have been shaped by the Pharisees’ teachings, so they’re offended when he reminds them of times when blessedness extended beyond the confines of Israel. Turning from friendly to fiendish, they herd the Good Shepherd toward a nearby cliff intending to throw him off it.

After slipping through their fingers, Jesus, instead of wilting and fading away, commits his life to fulfilling the gloriously disruptive prophecy of Isaiah 61. And he will not wear the fancy, gold-fringed robe of a Pharisee. As one who loves the Lord who loves justice, Jesus wears a very different wardrobe. He wraps himself in “the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” because God has clothed him with “the garments of salvation…[and] the robe of righteousness.”

         Given these images from Isaiah, whose prophecy Christians connect to Jesus and his Christ-revealing life, there’s little wonder that new clothes tend to be popular Christmas gifts. And if the clothing we give and receive actually reminds us of being clothed in Christ—a teacher of love and doer of justice—new clothes are entirely appropriate.

         Clothing has a long history as a metaphor for the spiritual life. The psalmist speaks even of God being “clothed with honor and wrapped in light as with a garment.” (Psalm 104:1b-2a) One of my favorite passages to read at weddings comes from Colossians 3: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…forgive each other…And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:12-15)

         Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, peace, gratitude—these are the bridegroom’s garlands and the bride’s jewels. They are Isaiah’s garments of salvation. And such garments assume relationship with the Creation as well as the Creator. Our Christmas clothing is outerwear, not underwear, because salvation is our visible life, life in relationship with and for others. This does not mean that we try to encumber ourselves and others with some kind of homogenous, mind-numbing uniform. It means that we wear our Christmas hearts on our sleeve.

         Jesus declares the same thing when he says to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this [love] everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35)

         Agape love is the fabric of the garments of salvation. To mix in the rest of Isaiah’s metaphors, love is the eternal and irresistible energy God uses to grow the fragrant and healing gardens of faith. When our lives embody the agape love and the redeeming justice of the Christ, we do more than talk about and wait for salvation. We experience it. We share it. To engage our faith actively and boldly is precisely what it means to wait upon the Lord. And isn’t that what Advent is all about?

         The promise of Christmas is this: When we gratefully offer ourselves to others, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon us. And even through the likes of you and me, the very heart of God may be revealed and fulfilled.

         Advent is the season of getting dressed for the arrival of the bridegroom. The table before us is our dressing room, our place of deliverance, renewal, and transformation.

And everyone is welcome here.

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