(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 21, 2014)
Who’s ready for some joy?
I almost want to ask for a show of hands…things have been so difficult in the world and in our local community lately. Last week, somebody in the balcony said exactly that phrase to me: “I am so ready for some joy!”
We’ve looked at the hard stuff for several weeks: justice after Thanksgiving, light and darkness with Elizabeth a couple of weeks ago, repentance last week. We’ve looked at the hard stuff, so we’re not just giving a sugar-coating of joy.
But we’re ready! We’re ready to look at the amazing good news of joy, transformation, and hope that come through the birth of Jesus. If our faith didn’t have some kind of power, some kind of hope, some kind of joy, well…I would wonder if it was worth it. But it does! Our gospel, our good news, our way of life as followers of Jesus Christ is full of joy that makes a difference. And we see it in today’s passage, in Isaiah 61.
Now, you should know that Old Testament scholars sort of hate it when we make everything in the Old Testament about Jesus.
Am I right, Brian Doak and Howard Macy? There are important reasons to read and know the Old Testament, reasons that stand all on their own.
But in the case of Isaiah 61, I think we are allowed to make the connection to Jesus. First, I mean after all, Christmas is literally this week. It’s right here! I can’t go anywhere without making a connection to Jesus’ birth right now. Second and more importantly, there is a significant connection with Isaiah 61 and Jesus. The gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus began his public ministry, he walked to the front of the synagogue and grabbed a scroll of the book of Isaiah. He opened it up and found this passage, Isaiah 61, and chose to read it.
Let’s listen to the whole chapter. While Luke records Jesus reading only the first two verses, I think Jesus knew the whole chapter and chose this intentionally.
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
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 those who grieve in Zion–
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called mighty oaks,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
And you will be called priests of the LORD,
you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
and in their riches you will boast.
Instead of your shame
you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.
‘ 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.
Their descendants will be known among the nations
and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge
that they are a people the LORD has blessed. ‘
I delight greatly in the LORD;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For 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. (Isaiah 61:1-11, TNIV)
When he finished, Luke says that every eye in the place was fixed on him.
He said to them, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Out of all of what we call the Old Testament (what Jesus would have simply called the bible) this is what Jesus chose as a descriptor of his ministry. This is how he announced himself. “I’m the one anointed by God to bring about what we’ve all been waiting for.”
The year of the Lord’s favor is here! Joy is here! Good news, joy, reversal! I love the hope-God’s Spirit is upon Jesus to bring good news and release and comfort to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and the prisoners. There’s the best gift exchange imaginable, where we are given a crown of beauty and joy and praise, instead of the ashes and mourning and despair we bring to the party.
Even as we’ve looked at the hard things recently, we serve a God who has sent Jesus to turn this darkness around. It’s a long range plan of utter transformation. “Mighty oaks” take a long time to grow, but they are so powerfully strong. Ruins rebuilt and restored. Generational pain ended. A double portion, a heaping amount of joy and inheritance will be ours! Justice will be done for all the wrongs and all the stealing in the world.
Salvation is here through the one God has anointed-not just a personal salvation, but a transformation that renews all kinds of broken places in the world, places of oppression and of the powerful exploiting the poor.
So I decided to indulge myself this morning with my own places of Christmas joy.
I want to use clips from some of my favorite Christmas movies to illustrate this wonderful joy and transformation that God promised and which Jesus says he came to fulfill.
The part most connected to Jesus’ mission are those first two verses which Luke recounts in his gospel. And what better picture of this kind of release, this kind of comfort for those who mourn, than this clip from Rudolph (which, by the way, is having its 50th anniversary this year!)
When we feel like we don’t have any dreams left to dream, there’s new hope coming! New hope even better than a reindeer with a nose that “blinks like a blinking beacon”. Those toys are stuck, imprisoned on the island of misfit toys…rejected and unwanted because they didn’t measure up and were marred by flaws. I love that Santa doesn’t take them to the workshop and fix all the flaws. Instead, Santa just takes them as-is to the families and the places where they will be loved as they are.
This is part of the good work of God! To release us from our prisons of rejection and “not good enoughs”; to comfort we who mourn by first showing us we are worthy of God’s attention and then placing us in communities that are marked by God’s unending love!
Katie Comfort (our own Gene and Betty Comfort’s granddaughter) is someone I’ve known since she was four years old.
We visited her and her parents in Peru where they served as missionaries when she was 5, our daughter Natalie went with Katie to Cambodia on a YCEW trip with our Yearly Meeting, and now she’s 21. She’s had a rough couple of months, and she posted a beautiful picture of freedom and comfort (ha! See what I did there?) on Facebook a week or so ago.
Here’s what she wrote:
“Two months ago, in the midst of catastrophe and loss, I started knitting this scarf. It got me though lectures, train rides, meetings, presentations, car trips, movies, lonely nights, panic attacks, and helped me learn how to sit in the presence of a comforting God and pray, lament, and learn to hope again.
The finished product is laden with mistakes, places I purled instead of knit; holes that are hopelessly out of place; cables that are a couple rows too long or short. But isn’t that life?
2 months, 2 skeins, 28,860 stitches, 1 semester, and countless difficult life lessons later: I can hang this thing around my neck to proudly symbolize growth in the midst of mistakes, missteps, and difficulties.”
The hope of God’s presence in our lives, the hope of transformation, is sure and real, because it rests on Jesus’ love. But it doesn’t require perfection or pristine stuff. It’s hope in the midst of the mistakes and pain and horror. This is what God anointed Jesus to do!
The next part of Isaiah 61 brings me such joy.
It’s like God is a horrible business person. We enter into a “transaction” with God, giving God our ashes, ashes marking the failures in our lives, brokenness, our repentance for our wrongs; we give God our mourning, our despair. What does God give in return for these worthless investments?
God takes all of our junk and in return gives us a crown of beauty, the oil of joy, a garment of praise. God enables us to rebuild the things we’ve ruined, restore places that have long been devastated.
What a joyful transformation! I think of Ebenezer Scrooge, and the amazing transformation that comes to him after his visits by the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. My favorite version to watch is the old George C. Scott version. Look at his interpretation of receiving back joy after a life of investing humbug.
I don’t remember seeing any grown up jump on a bed for joy like that…but I have a whole list of video memories in my mind of people who experienced this kind of joyful transformation and exchange from God. People who I’ve walked with through the ashes, the mourning, the despair…and have gotten to see, sometimes years later, how God brought new life and new hope and new joy that they did not believe would come. I’ve seen that in my own daughter, and it is one of the things for which I am most thankful to God.
This ridiculous unfair exchange is part of God’s crazy promise to us! This is the heart of our faith. This is why Christmas matters. This is our joy!
Finally, down in verse 8, God reminds us of the love of justice.
Robbery, wrongdoing, exploiting the poor isn’t the way of God in our world. Jesus took these words as his mission, because Jesus saw salvation far more broadly than only our sins being forgiven and heaven being opened. Salvation also includes wrongs on earth being made right, the poor being able to live, the powerful reminded and challenged that God will not let them do whatever they want.
As an adult, I’ve grown to love “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Some can’t stand it, I know, but I told you…I’m indulging myself today.
One of the places I see the gospel in it is George Bailey’s life of sacrifice for others. He says he’s not a praying man, but his life models God’s values and God’s work in the world. Watch this scene where he takes on the rich robber baron, Mr. Potter.
One of the things I noticed for the first time this year in Isaiah 61 is how God’s work to bring justice and transformation is to allow the broken ones to have the ability to work and rebuild and renew themselves.
God doesn’t just drop their new cities or new mighty oak trees out of heaven, but rather makes possible what was impossible before: God acts to allow the poor and oppressed the freedom to work hard to renew, to make more just places and communities in our world.
And it’s not only movie George Bailey who makes a difference, helping people living in slums buy their own homes. This kind of transformation is happening today, in Newberg, through the efforts of people in our church! Just to name a few: we’ve got dozens working every month of the year so that we can give firewood to those who need it to heat their homes. We’ve got Larry Hampton leading the board for Habitat for Humanity and many others serving in all kinds of ways to get housing for the poor right here.
We’ve got Susan Ankeny, so excited to lead the charge a week from Monday to serve a hot meal to students from Edwards Elementary right downstairs in our social hall. We’ve got Kay Passmore and Denise Brooks bringing many of us together around the Giving Tree, giving presents to those who need them most.
We are living the gospel!
God’s work through Jesus in us is transforming us…and through us, God is transforming little parts of our world.
These are the things that give me hope! These are the things that make me believe that that baby born in a manger long ago is still alive and still working and is transforming our world and leading us to a certain and joyful future!
Joy to the World! The Lord HAS come!