If we can successfully deal with a couple of problems in this Lectionary reading, we can preach a sermon on it that will address a perennial and painful question on this First Sunday after Christmas.
The first problem is the same one we stumbled upon two Sundays ago when we focused on Isaiah 61:1-3 and 8-11, namely, who are antecedents of the pronouns “me” and “I.” To put it bluntly, who in the world is speaking in these verses? “I delight greatly….” Is that the prophet who writes the text? Or is the prophet putting these words in mouths of Zion, Jerusalem, the community of Israel personified? Or, jumping several hundred years ahead, are these the words of the Messiah or the Messianic community? Scholars disagree over the identity of the speakers in this reading.
The second problem is the awkward borders of this reading. I mean that this is not a natural pericope. Verses 10-11 belong with the preceding verses of chapter 61 and 62:1-3 are part of the succeeding verses. The Lectionary has sliced and diced these two chapters in an unnatural way, and that makes this an awkward text.
I’m convinced we don’t have to solve the pronoun problem in order to preach this text. And that’s because the creators of the RCL had a perfectly good reason to create this hybrid text. The joining of these snippets from two chapters reflects a problem we all have with Christmas. It was the same problem that troubled the post-Exilic Jewish community.
Let me put it baldly. It’s two days after Christmas, the day we celebrated the earthshaking event of the Incarnation with shouts of “glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” But the earth has not been shaken and God isn’t being glorified and there is no peace on earth. It’s pretty much the same as it was the day before the Christmas. We proclaim that God has come to redeem the earth, but the earth seems unredeemed. Even the people of God, whether that ancient Israel or the modern church, haven’t become the glorious spectacle of salvation announced by prophets and angels. It’s the same old same old. “He has appeared,” but the world still seems to lie “in sin and error pining.”
Here’s where our reading is helpful. It reminds us of the “already but yet” quality of salvation. Isaiah 61:10-11 declare the “already” of what God has done- “clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in robes of righteousness.” Isaiah 62:1-3 point to the “not yet” of consummation when that “righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.” Right now, salvation is hidden like seed in the soil of a garden (61:11), but the day is coming when that salvation will be seen by all the nations (62:2). To put it in Pauline terms, justification has come, but glorification has not yet been accomplished (Romans 8:30).
But let’s not jump right over the historical situation in the text, because that give us a perfect illustration of the “already but not yet” of our salvation. Israel, or a remnant of Israel, has returned from the Babylonian Exile. They are delighted, rejoicing greatly in what God has done for them. Using the imagery of a wedding, the “I” of the text celebrates the new status of God’s people. No longer called “deserted” and “desolate” (62:4), they celebrate their marriage to Yahweh. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to speak of the reconciliation of an estranged married couple. Israel is delirious with joy.
They look forward to the day when their restoration is complete. It wasn’t yet, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah make clear. There was much rubble to clear, much rebuilding to do, much replanting to accomplish in a land that had been devastated by successive waves of invaders. But the “I” of verse 10 is sure that this restoration will be done. Switching imagery from marital to agricultural, the speaker asserts with certainty that “as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” Israel may be the object of scorn in the eyes of the nations who see their small beginning, but Yahweh will finish the salvation he has begun in Israel. You can count on it.
So, keeping hoping, and keep praying. A rebuilt Jerusalem might be a shabby substitute for the golden city of memory, but “I” is not going to simply bemoan the state of things. He is going to pray and pray and pray for completion. “I will not keep silent… I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines like the dawn… like a blazing torch.”
Don’t miss the emphasis on righteousness here. Israel may have been primarily focused on the physical rebuilding, but God is focused on the spiritual. That, after all, is what God had in mind when he chose Israel in the first place—a shining city of righteousness that would attract the nations to Yahweh, a blazing torch of holiness that would illumine the way to the only true God. It was precisely the lack of that righteousness and holiness that landed Israel in Exile. Now that they are back, God is determined to re-make them in God’s image. He will crown them with glory and splendor so that the nations will see God in them.
So, says the speaker, I will keep praying, no matter how gloomy the present make look, because I believe in that glorious future. He paints a picture of a shining future for Jerusalem and Israel in verses 2 and 3 in chapter 62, as a way of encouraging the prayers of the people. God will accomplish all his work, so keep working and keep praying.
It should not be difficult to show your people how this text speaks to their Christian lives. We have just celebrated the birth of Christ with high spirits and higher praise. With ancient Simeon in the Gospel reading for today, our “eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:31,32).
But so many in the nations are still sunk in darkness, far from Christ. And even those of us who have seen his glory do not display his glory to the nations. Rather, we are as shabby as rebuilding Jerusalem, strewn with the rubble of old sins, a patchwork of new and old attitudes and behaviors, fields and orchards that aren’t filled with the fruit of love, joy, peace (Gal. 5:22ff). The world looks at a church as divided by partisanship and self-interest as the world is and it scoffs at our claim that God has come to change the world. Two days after the Incarnation of God’s only begotten Son, two days after the angels proclaimed God’s glory and earth’s peace, two days after God shook the earth, not much has changed.
Oh, but it has. Billions of people are clothed with garments of salvation, having been clothed with the robes of Christ’s righteousness. The seeds of salvation sown by 12 apostles and their handful of friends have resulted in a world-wide harvest that stretches to the ends of the earth. And the righteousness and praise of the church has transformed the world in many ways. The Kingdom has come and the world is much the better for it. Progress in government, science, health care, education, and human rights can be shown to flow directly from the church’s proclamation and demonstration of God’s righteous work in the world.
Oh, yes, it is true that the church has fumbled and bumbled, has obscured and hindered, has been sinful as well as righteousness. That is why we must pray and pray and pray that God will finish his work in us and through us. Things are not right yet, but God will make it so. So, pray and work, because God has already saved the world through the Christ whose coming we just celebrated, but he is not yet done with the world he will completely save through the Christ who is coming again.
That’s the Good News for the First Sunday after Christmas.
As I write this piece, I just finished performing a wedding for a young couple I have known for a long time. It was a festive celebration of their long-nurtured love and their solemn vows to stay faithful even if the love grows cold. They were filled with joy, but they both knew very well that this one event was not the end of their work. In a pre-marriage counselling session, I asked them what they expected their marriage to be like. She answered, “a struggle, hard work, but well worth it.” That’s realistic. They are already married, but they have a long way to go to full marital maturity. They are already together, but not yet one flesh in the fullest sense. A wedding does not a marriage make.
Incarnation alone does not accomplish salvation. There’s atonement through death and resurrection. And restoration through Word and Spirit in the church. And consummation when the Incarnate, crucified and risen Christ completes his work in the world.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 27, 2020
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Commentary