Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 25, 2016
Isaiah 52:7-10 Commentary
I’ve seen the feet of a few preachers and teachers who proclaim the gospel’s “good news.” Some are big, others are fairly small. Some are quite flat. Preachers and teachers’ feet can even be pretty smelly. But I’m not sure even their closest family members and friends would call them “beautiful.”
Yet no one who brings the good news of the gospel needs to hide our feet. Isaiah and Paul, after all, in fact, call them “beautiful.” Yet when they describe the feet of those who bring good news, they’re not literally referring to their physical qualities. No, the prophet and the apostle seem to be talking about the beauty of the good news the gospel’s teachers and preachers bring.
Certainly Isaiah’s first hearers desperately needed some good news. They’re, after all, part of a people who have been slaves to cruel Egypt and Assyria. Now the people to whom Isaiah sends beautiful messengers are likely in exile in Babylon.
So they’ve watched pagan armies invade and defile their holy city of Jerusalem. Oppressors have wrapped the yoke of slavery around the necks of the Israelites to whom these messengers bring good news. Their enemies have sold them like so many head of cattle into captivity.
What’s more, Israel’s enemies have also shown themselves to be God’s enemies. They haven’t, after all, just harmed God’s beloved Israelite people. The Babylonians also blaspheme God’s name constantly.
In linking this Isaiah passage to Luke 2, those who organized the Lectionary recognize that Jesus’ contemporaries needed a healthy dose of good news as well. After all, in verse 10 an angel tells Bethlehem-area shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (italics added).
Those shepherds as well as Jesus’ other contemporaries lived under the heel of not Babylonian, but Roman authority. They desperately needed the angels’ “feet” to carry to them the good news of a Savior who would rescue God’s adopted sons and daughters from our sins.
Yet the situation of some of God’s children today is little better, even on Christmas morning, 2016. People have wrapped some of us in the chains of oppression. Poverty, neglect and racial prejudice have also tried to claim some of us as their captives.
Others have, sadly, sold themselves into a kind of slavery to things like debt, materialism and the relentless pursuit of a pleasure. Advancing age, sickness, loneliness and grief burden still others.
On top of that, some of our family members, friends and acquaintances act as though they’re God’s enemies. They engage in false religions or the puny gods they’ve created for themselves. They use God’s name only in frustration or attempts to enlist God in their own selfish causes.
Those whose feet carry them to preach and teach the good news that is the gospel announce, in a sense, bad news first. We announce that we’ve made not peace but enmity with God by our sins. We’ve, in fact, made ourselves strangers to God by both what we’ve done and failed to do, by both what we’ve said and neglected to say.
So the good news’ preachers and teachers call God’s adopted sons and daughters to make peace with God by confessing our sins and receiving God’s grace with our faith. God, after all, wants to adopt all of us as God’s children. You and I simply need to faithfully receive that grace.
Yet their beautiful feet carry the preachers and teachers of good news to make peace not only with God, but also with each other. They call us to be reconciled to each other. We bear good news that is “for all people” (Luke 2:10).
After all, God has not just reconciled us to himself through the blood of Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, Christ’s blood has also broken down the walls that once separated people from each other. God has graciously freed us to live and worship together in peace.
The good news’ preachers and teachers proclaim that even the most wretched sinners need only respond with our trust that Jesus died for our sins. We bring those glad tidings to people saddened by advancing age, sickness, loneliness and death. In sad places like hospitals, funeral homes and gravesides, we bring good news to people who desperately need some.
Yet that good news of salvation through Jesus Christ that beautiful feet carry is so good that it needs lots of “feet.” The good news needs many messengers. So together, pastors and deacons, elders and board members announce the good tidings of salvation to both Christians and those who don’t yet believe. Together we proclaim God’s peace to our various neighbors who are still strangers to God.
You and I bring good tidings to our family members, friends and co-workers who so desperately need the good news of Jesus Christ. Together, after all, we can shout for joy. We can burst into songs together, celebrating God’s great grace.
After all, we know, as Isaiah ends our text, we don’t do any of this alone. The Lord will go before us. We won’t go anywhere God hasn’t already, by God’s Spirit, gone. The Lord promises to go ahead of us.
What’s more, we won’t have to worry about a sneak attack from behind as we bring the good news. The God of Israel, after all, promises to be not just our escort, but also our rear guard. God, to use a common phrase, “has our back.” So we can move forward into a future we don’t know, but that God’s already got all mapped out for us.
In his Christianity Today October 23, 2000 article, “Beyond Self-Help Chatter,” David Neff describes a couple of preachers whose “feet” weren’t particularly “beautiful.” He writes, “I took a vacation last summer, and of course I visited a church. It was a mainline church, which meant (among other things) that the Scripture readings for each Sunday were prescribed.
In the best of circumstances, set readings motivate preachers to dig into a Bible passage not of their own choosing and to listen there for the voice of God. In the worst of circumstances, preachers discover some phrase in the text that reminds them of something else they’d rather talk about – a joke, a favorite scene from a movie, some therapeutic insight from a self-help book, or some political agenda.
The first Sunday I visited that church was among the worst of circumstances. It was the Sunday of the church year devoted to celebrating the Trinity. The Old Testament reading from Exodus 3 told the story of Moses at the burning bush. There God reveals to Moses how he plans to fulfill the pledge he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by using Moses to liberate their descendants from slavery. God not only renews his pledge in this story, he also reveals his ineffable name. This is a pivot point in the Bible, a hinge on which the door of sacred history swings.
But the preacher trivialized it. He talked not about the doors of history but of life’s stages. Moses was afraid to walk through the door set before him, the preacher said, but he walked through it anyway. We too face doors that we must walk through. End of message. No God. No divine plan revealed. No theophany. Just stages in the life cycle.
The bulletin promised a different preacher for the next Sunday, so I came back. The next Sunday’s Old Testament lesson recounted the voice of God speaking out of the whirlwind to Job. In Job 38, God asks Job if he knows who ‘shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb’ and where he was when God ‘prescribed bounds for the sea and said, “Thus far shall you come … and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”
The Gospel lesson was from Mark 4, in which Jesus stills a storm on the lake and the awe-struck disciples wonder aloud, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’ The Scripture leaflet in the church bulletin placed this title over the Gospel story: ‘Jesus stills the storm and shows that he is Lord of all creation.’ Mark took this event as a theophany.
But the preacher took it as a story about our anxieties when we travel, and offered us a lame joke about a woman who was not comforted by knowing that three bishops were flying on her airplane. The sermon may have soothed some fears, but theologically it crashed and burned. I didn’t come back the third Sunday.” Neff goes on to mourn that some evangelicals trivialize texts too, especially when they have happiness and wealth in their sights.
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