Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 31, 2017

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Commentary

My wife and I have a friendly but persistent discussion about on what date we should begin singing Christmas carols.  Were it up to her, our home’s halls would start ringing with carols the day after American Thanksgiving.  Were it up to me, we’d begin singing Christmas carols roughly one week before Christmas Day.

From my perspective, it’s not just that the Twelve Days of Christmas didn’t traditionally begin until Christmas Day.  It’s also that as Scott Hoezee notes in his fine December, 2014 Sermon Commentary on this text, many of us are ready to start putting away our Christmas carols on the day after Christmas.  On this Sunday after Christmas, a culture that’s been busy preparing for Christmas since Halloween is so sick of it that it’s ready to replace its Christmas trappings with Valentine’s Day preparations.

But then along comes the Lectionary’s appointed Old Testament lesson for this Sunday with its thanksgiving for what God has done.  In tandem with the Lectionary’s Gospel lesson from Luke 2, it’s what Samuel Giere calls “doxology.”  We might even think of Isaiah 61 & 62 as what we could call a Christmas caroling “encore.”

Yet our text’s doxological content is striking when we consider its original context.  Many biblical scholars contend that someone wrote it after Israel returned from exile.  Yet whether Isaiah 61 & 62 are written during or after the exile, it draws a striking contrast to the situation of its first Israelite hearers.  Whether they’re in exile’s misery or post-exile’s disappointment, things are not yet that for what God’s people have longed as well as anticipated.

Doesn’t that disappointment resonate with the some of the Lectionary text’s proclaimers and hearers?  After all, after all of the holiday buildup, some of us have found ourselves profoundly disappointed.  Or we find it hard to sing because we’ve worn ourselves out trying to meet all our holiday obligations and negotiate tricky family arrangements.  Or disappointment with people like our children and grandchildren, as well as things like our careers and retirements has drained our “delight (61:10).

However, it is precisely for times and circumstances such as our text’s Israel and ours that God anointed prophets like Isaiah.  In fact, in Isaiah 61 the prophet announces God has anointed him to “preach good news to the poor … to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the captives, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for all who grieve in Zion.”

On this first Sunday after Christmas and last day of the year of our Lord, 2017, the anointed prophet rejoices in God and God’s faithfulness.  He testifies to the heart of a God who graciously “clothes” God’s spiritually naked people in salvation and righteousness.  In spite of his countrymen and his circumstances, Isaiah is determined to “delight greatly … [and] rejoice” (61:10) in his God.

He uses, as Samuel Giere notes, two main metaphors: marriage and gardening.  The prophet compares God’s care for and tenderness toward everything God makes to a bridegroom’s care and tenderness toward his wife.  God, he says, gently clothes God’s spiritually naked people with salvation and righteousness.

Isaiah’s second metaphor is that of gardening.  Giere calls it imagery of germination.  “As the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seed to grow,” the prophet says in 61:11, “so the Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”  In other words, in God’s “garden” that is God’s adopted sons and daughters, God causes to spring up not plants, but lively righteousness and praise.

It’s important to note where all of this delight and rejoicing, salvation and righteousness, dressing, sprouting and growing as well as righteousness and praise comes from.  It’s not, says the prophet, the result of human effort and determination.  It is, instead, the gracious gift of God the heavenly Lover and Gardener.

And for whom does God do all this?  For the sake, answers the prophet, of the nations.  For the whole world to see.  God graciously works in Israel, as Giere notes, so that the rest of the word may come to know and rejoice in God’s tender loving care for everything that God makes.

Of course, as Hoezee notes, this passages focuses very narrowly on Israel and Jerusalem.  It also predicts something that had not yet seemed to happen even more than 2,000 years after it was first written.  Isaiah’s post-exilic Israel could hardly, after all, be called “righteous” or glorious.”  When the rest of the world looked at her at all, we can only imagine it did so with either contempt or dismissiveness.

Is that why the prophet employs two different verb tenses in our text?  In verse 10 he uses the past tense to describe what God has already done.  In verse 11 as well as Isaiah 62’s first two verses, Isaiah employs a future tense.  That suggests that while God has already graciously done so much for all of God’s people, we remain what J. Clinton McCann calls “works in progress.”

Perhaps equally challenging for those who proclaim Isaiah 61 & 62 is the fact that as Hoezee also notes, their verses don’t seem to in and of themselves hold out much hope for the rest of the nations.  They seem to embrace Israel exclusively.

Yet perhaps that’s why, as Hoezee goes on to point out, the Lectionary pairs Isaiah 61 & 62 with Luke’s account of Jesus and his parents in the temple.  There, after all, Simeon predicts Jesus will become a “light to the Gentiles.”  In doing so he suggests that it isn’t just God’s Israelite sons and daughters whom God dresses in righteousness and salvation.  It’s all of God’s people whom God graciously makes righteous and glorious.

This is a hopeful and, thus, needed word for a sometimes-hopeless culture and world on the last Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2017.  Only 17 years into the new millennium we’re realizing, after all, that we have not only made a mess of our world, but also continue to make messes of things like our relationships, the nations and the creation.

The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday promises that in spite of it all, those and other messes won’t get the last word.  The prophet suggests that in the year of our Lord, 2018 God will somehow continue to make “righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”  God promises to make God’s people “righteousness shine out like the dawn and her righteousness like a blazing torch” so that the nations will see the righteousness God gives us and the glorious new name God graciously grants God’s adopted sons and daughters.

Illustration Idea

In Isaiah 61:10 the prophet announces that God has “clothed” him in a distinct way.  God has dressed him, he says, “with garments of salvation and arrayed” him “in a robe of righteousness.”

In his book, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Vol. 1: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, William Manchester notes that Victorian London’s “Gentlemen, no less than ladies, could be identified by their clothing.  They wore top hats, indoors and out, except in homes or churches.  Cuffs and collars were starched, cravats were affixed with jeweled pins, waistcoats were snowy white, wide tabular trousers swept the ground at the heel but rose in front over the instep, black frock coats were somber and exquisitely cut.

“Swinging their elegant, gold-headed canes, gentlemen swaggered when crossing the street, dispensing coins to fawning men who swept the dung from their paths. (These men were followed by nimble boys with pans and brushes, who collected the ordure and sold it in the West End for fertilizer.) Bowlers were worn by clerks and shopkeepers and caps by those below them. Switching hats wouldn’t have occurred to them, and it wouldn’t have fooled anyone anyway.

“Despite advances in mass production of menswear, dry cleaning was unknown in the London of the time. Suits had to be picked apart at the seams, washed, and sewn back together. Patricians wore new clothes or had tailors who could resew the garments they had made in the first place. The men in bowlers and caps couldn’t do it; their wives tried but were unskillful, which accounts for their curiously wrinkled Sabbath-suit appearance in old photographs.”


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