Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 31, 2023

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Commentary

Rejoicing in Salvation

For those churches that celebrate a strict Advent fast from Christmas hymns, this Sunday lands with all the pent-up energy of the season.  Church musicians stuff this service full of all the carols that wouldn’t fit on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning worship.  There are plenty of “Joy to the Worlds” and “Glorias” left for the congregation to belt out in well-worn four-part harmony.

The lectionary texts share in the work of joyful praise.  From Psalm 148’s “hallelujahs” rooted in creation’s glory to Paul’s salvation analogy to adoption and belonging, amplifying the people who cry out “Daddy” and run to the front door to be picked up and held by the one they’ve been waiting for.  And, of course, Simeon’s canticle recounting promises fulfilled is one of the most famous song of praise in all of Scripture.

The final verses of Isaiah 61 bridging into 62 share the praise. If the first phrase sounds familiar, it is likely because you heard it on the 3rd Sunday of Advent in Mary’s Magnificat, though according to chronology, it was Mary who cribbed this phrase and wove it into her own reflections. It will be no surprise that there is a resonance of themes between the two songs: honor to the lowly, the growth of new life, vindication, nation’s praising, the glory of God’s name and, ultimately, the faithfulness of God in covenant with God’s people.


Righteousness (Justice) and the Nations

This text centers God’s righteousness, especially as it plays out in the vindication of God’s people.  Unfortunately, the word righteousness has come to mean far less than it really means, due in part to the frequent prefix “self-“ attached to it. Righteousness can land with a sense of harmless goodness.

But, reading the lectionary text in context, backing up to verse 8, the prophet makes a stirring claim about God’s character: “For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.” God’s righteousness means something bold, that covenant faithfulness to God’s people demands God’s just action on their behalf.  As one commentator observes, this is “not abstract justice, either, but justice embodied in the living God, the advocate of the oppressed and the redeemer of those in bondage.The future of those who have suffered at the hands of this world’s tyrants is in the hands of a personal sovereign who not only enacts laws but loves justice, who not only decrees punishments for misdeeds but hates robbery and wrongdoing. Israel’s future does not depend on divine caprice, but is guided by God’s faithful adherence to the covenant relationship.”

In light of this more robust take on “righteousness”, the use of “vindication” as an elaboration in later verses better matches the meaning of the word.  So, along with the sweet songs of a newborn babe, don’t forget to add some of those robust hymns on this first Sunday after Christmas:

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”

“Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies.”

“Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression

shall cease.”

“He rules the world with truth and grace.”

Bride/Bridegroom (covenant renewal for the new year)

The first Sunday after Christmas presents a particular challenge for preachers this year for two reasons.  First, it is the only Sunday after Christmas, before we launch into Epiphany celebration of light and the life of Christ. Second, it lands on New Year’s Eve morning.  In many homes, the live trees are drooping after a season’s worth of cheer, presents unwrapped and strewn through the house, and the boxes that store decorations through the year have already come up from the basement. People will be thinking about New Year’s Eve plans, resolutions, and football bowl games.

So, while the church calendar calls for a full program of Christmas, congregants may be ready for Auld Lang Syne — how can the wise preacher split the difference?  Thankfully, the lectionary text as a whole, particularly Galatian’s focus on adoption and the gospel retelling of Simeon’s song, can push us toward the theme of covenant and covenant renewal, which works for both themes.  The Isaiah text gifts us an image of a garlanded bridegroom and a bride drenched in jewels.  Eagerly, shyly, nervously, giddily, they prepare to make promises they have no idea how to keep. They cannot foresee the challenges, failures and great joys ahead but their “I do”s ring out with boldness nonetheless.

In the context of Isaiah’s greater emphasis on God’s righteous covenant faithfulness, we can enter into the unknowns of a pristine new calendar knowing that God enters in.  God goes before. God will keep covenant and fulfill promises



Holding the tension of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, It is the time of year for new and continued commitments, for fresh starts and the opportunity to remember and renew our participation in God’s covenant with us. When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled by Howard Thurman, serves as a beautiful call to covenant renewal.

When the song of the angels is stilled, 

When the star in the sky is gone, 

When the kings and the princes are home, 

When the shepherds are back with their flocks, 

The work of Christmas begins: 

To find the lost, 

To heal the broken, 

To feed the hungry, 

To release the prisoner, 

To rebuild the nations, 

To bring peace among people, 

To make music in the heart.


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