Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 28, 2014
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
The First Sunday after Christmas is something of an odd moment in the church’s year. Many in the church regard it as somewhat anticlimactic following whatever big services, concerts, and other celebrations and programs that probably accompanied the run-up to Christmas Day and then whatever special services got held on Christmas Day proper. By the time the Sunday after Christmas rolls around, people are already starting to turn their thoughts away from the holiday season and toward the time when they will start to take the garland and the tinsel and the bright lights down and then pack them away for another year.
Yet at just such a moment, these verses from Isaiah come to us and confront us with images of decking the halls all over again, of sprucing things up and getting arrayed in finery and taking on the appearance of shining crowns and resplendent jewels. We’re just getting ready to DE-decorate our churches and sanctuaries and homes and along comes the word of the Lord in Isaiah to point us toward a day when the garments of salvation and the glory of God’s adornment of his people will outshine and outlast anything we could imagine. In fact, unlike even the best of the holiday decorations that we may manage to put up each December, the adornment that God alone can do will be not just for a brief season but for all times.
So often in our human lives and despite all the effort we put forth to make things like weddings and birthdays and holidays special and vibrant with color and spectacle and special attire, the fact is that there is always a part of us that knows we can only take so much festivities. We’re actually glad for the times when we can take off our tuxedos or wedding gowns, when we can get the house back to “normal” by throwing that Christmas tree to the curb and boxing up again all those lights and ornaments and garland. All good things must come to an end, we say, and that includes even those times that we ourselves work hard to make as festive and cheery as possible.
We can scarcely imagine something so good that the festivities would never end. We can scarcely imagine a celebration so grand that we’d never want to get out of our party clothes and we’d never want to see the decorations disappear from view. But Isaiah knew that the time would come—and in Christ and in his coming kingdom has now come—when just such a never-ending time of delight would come to pass. And if we have a hard time imagining such a thing, it’s probably because our view of the salvation that God brings is much smaller, much more parochial and provincial than we are mostly aware!
Still, preaching on this Year B lection as it is listed is not easy. Chopping up texts in Isaiah and then splicing them together in various ways is a somewhat common practice for the Common Lectionary, but as Stephen Breck Reid once pointed out, it certainly creates some tensions and challenges for preachers. For one thing, the first (and better-known) part of Isaiah 61 was assigned earlier in the Year B cycle on the Third Sunday in Advent, and since the last couple of verses of Isaiah 61 continue and complete the themes started earlier in the chapter, anyone who brought this text to light earlier in December will be treading the same territory again on the Sunday after Christmas when this lection is assigned.
But a second challenge comes in the fact that between the end of Isaiah 61 and the beginning of Isaiah 62 there is a shift in voice in terms of who is speaking. The “I” of 61:10-11 is not the same first person narrator as the “I” in 62:1-3 as we shift from the voice of the prophet rejoicing in the Lord and in the promises he has made to the voice of the Lord in declaring further promises to Jerusalem. So for a variety of reasons, this is a text that may be very underpreached (at least in the form the Lectionary presents it).
The text is also challenging in that it focuses pretty exclusively on Israel and Jerusalem and on a restoration of their fortunes that would become a wonder in the eyes of other nations but that does not appear—in these verses at least—actually to reach out and include those other nations of the earth. Yet this Old Testament text is paired with the New Testament selection from Luke 2 and the story of Simeon and Anna at the Temple where something of the universal scope of salvation is communicated as the child Jesus is predicted to become “a light to the Gentiles” by the prophecy of Simeon. Certainly that points to the global trajectory of Jesus’ mission, which may also be why Jesus as Messiah never really did restore the fortunes of Zion in the ways so many of his contemporaries thought he might if he really were the Christ of God. (Recall that even as late as a few moments before Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples were still asking him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus did restore “Israel” but by the time he was finished doing so, it was a “New Israel” that looked and felt rather different from what many had expected.
So even though our New Testament perspective forces us to have a rather different “take” on the fulfillment of the lyric words contained in this portion of Isaiah, we can nevertheless appropriate something of the beauty of these words and apply them to the Advent of the Christ, which we are still celebrating when this text comes up for the first Sunday after Christmas. And among the thing we may note at such a time in the church year is the fact that what we are celebrating is so clearly the work of God alone. The things Isaiah predicts and that the Lord himself promises are so big, so grand, so mind-boggling that we know immediately that this is a work that only God could do.
Too often in the holiday season we make the message and the hope of Christmas so very domesticated and, for that very reason, so very much within our human reach of things we might be able to accomplish on our own. If we can just manage to be a little nicer, if we can just manage to smile more at our neighbors, if we can just manage to reach a little deeper into our pockets just this once to help the neediest among us, if we can just get the family together without fights breaking out . . . These may all be good goals but they pale in comparison to what God is actually aiming at in bringing his Christ, his only Son, to this world. The real work of salvation, the real delight that comes from the redemption that God alone can work out for us, is actually so big, so grand, so cosmic in scope that it will quite probably take us a goodly chunk of eternity just to explore the riches of the kind of vision Isaiah is sketching for us in these glorious verses!
If you are a devotee of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, then not only have you read these outstanding novels, you have likely seen the film versions of The Lord of the Rings (and let us Tolkien fans not speak of what all went on when Peter Jackson took on The Hobbit itself . . . ). In Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle Earth, there is a threat arising in the east as the dark Lord Sauron attempts to find the one ring of power. If that ring, forged long ago in the fires of Mount Doom, returns to Sauron, all will be lost and evil will rule the world. Again and again in Tolkien’s story, that threat is depicted as a creeping shadow. As Sauron’s power increases, darkness begins to fall over one section of Middle Earth after the next. And as the hobbits and other characters repeatedly say to one another, if Sauron finds the ring, then the entire world will fall into shadow. All that is good and green will cease to grow. Trees will die, grassy meadows will be burnt over, clouds will gather, and the sun will no longer shine. Indeed, the inscription on the one ring says it all: “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
In the beginning God’s first order of creation business was to create light. According to Genesis, God did not create the sun first, nor the stars, nor any proximate source of light, but he created just light. Pure, radiant light. In the beginning there was light. And almost from the beginning, evil and sin and all things unholy have been depicted as darkness. To this day people describe depression as rather like slipping into a dark hole.
Author William Styron once told his own tale of battling depression in his memoir titled, Darkness Visible. In fact, in recent decades psychologists have discerned a link between a lack of light and depression. Some of the most melancholy people in the world live in the northern reaches of places like Finland and Norway where, during many months of the year, sunlight is restricted to a few scant hours per day. Even in other parts of the world something called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or “SAD” for short, has been discovered in people who drive to work in the morning darkness of winter, labor all day in a windowless office or factory, only to drive back home in the evening darkness. But when people go without natural light long enough, something goes awry and they begin to slip into depression. For some, a most striking remedy has been prescribed: light therapy. By exposing some depressed people for a few hours every week to sun-like light, doctors have been able to lift the fog of depression.
We were created in the light, from the light, and we still need light. We are drawn to the light. Yet light remains a mystery. We know it is the fastest moving phenomenon in the universe. Einstein theorized that nothing could ever move faster than a beam of light. That is not too difficult to believe in that light travels at just over 186,000 miles per second. When you hear someone referring to “a light year,” that is the amount of distance that a beam of light would travel in the course of one year. And by the way, that total is just under 6 trillion (6,000,000,000,000) miles, or a 6 followed by 12 zeroes! So we know light is fast, and we also know it is constant. You can neither speed up nor slow down a beam of light. Einstein even figured out that time itself can slow down or speed up relative to a beam of light, but the light itself will not be affected.
Isaiah loves to play with imagery of blazing light, of radiant glory, of bright shining things that will attract, hold, and keep the attention of the nations of the earth and, ultimately, of the whole cosmos. Isaiah knew something about what the promise of this kind of light might mean and of the hope that beams forth from words like “I will not remain quiet till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch!”
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