This year, given the pandemic lockdown, you may not be having your usual number of household guests for Christmas; and no doubt that is disappointing – even heartbreaking. So I hope we can all find ways both new and old to experience and share the joy of Christmas given the present restrictions.
But we should not idealize the Christmases of years gone by or have an image of a perfect Christmas in our minds. The entertainment industry is often unhelpful in this respect: last night, while I was finishing this sermon, on the TV in the background, one of these feel-good perfect Christmas movies was playing.
Christmas is a joyful season, but as we all know, it often turns into something else. It can be a time of disappointment and unhappiness. In normal years when we’re able to get together with family and more distant relatives, I suspect we’ve mostly all experienced that instead of an occasion for fellowship, these gatherings can become an opportunity for re-opening old wounds, reigniting old arguments, giving new life to rancor that should have died long ago. Instead of being a time of feasting, it becomes a time of fighting.
This, of course, contradicts what we celebrate at Christmas. Christmas is about the humility of a great and mighty God who humbled Himself to become one of us, to live our human life with all of its pressures and struggles and suffering. And so our celebration of Christmas should thus be marked by this same humility, and perfect humility casts out envy, anger, strife, and resentment.
Speaking of humility, we see a striking example it in our Gospel reading today, when John the Baptist says he is not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of the sandal of the one who comes after him.
In biblical times, a household servant would typically wash the feet of a guest upon his arrival. And because in those days people walked around barefoot or in sandals on dusty roads, their feet would get quite dirty. So foot washing was a necessary though unpleasant task. That is why it was reserved only for lowly servants.
And so when John the Baptist says he is not even worthy to stoop down and untie the sandals of the one who comes after him, we’re meant to ask: who on earth could this possibly be? John is making a striking statement about the surpassing dignity of this guest who is to come. So who is this and why is He so great?
This guest arrives and introduces Himself in today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. He speaks for Himself, without any arrogance, but with a tremendous authority: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me. Thus He identifies Himself as the Messiah, meaning literally, ‘the Anointed One.’ The kings of Israel were anointed with oil as part of the coronation ritual of their ascendancy to the throne.
This King, the Messiah, is anointed with the very Spirit of God; thus He is the long-awaited royal descendent of David whom God had promised would deliver Israel from bondage to foreign powers and establish an ideal kingdom of justice and peace. And this is not just some ancient promise, or the stuff of fairy tales, it’s something we all long for deeply, especially during this time of pandemic and all the disruption that’s come with it. We long for this world to be made right.
To that end, the Messiah then tells us that His anointing with the Spirit empowers Him to perform six royal duties:
First, He will bring good news to the poor, the downtrodden, the disadvantaged, those suffering from financial hardship. The economic disruption caused by the pandemic has drastically increased the number of people in this category. Social service agencies are reporting that they’re seeing new vulnerable families - those who’ve never visited a food bank before are having to do so now. There’s a recent article in the Globe & Mail with this headline: ‘Pandemic financial pressures deplete finances, [and] spirits as festive season approaches.’ It talks about high unemployment, food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, credit card debt and the many, many pressures people are facing now.
The article also includes a heartbreaking anecdote about a poor mother who read her children a letter from Santa in which old St. Nick explains that even the North Pole has been hit hard by COVID and so children might not get everything they ask for this year. Heartbreaking.
And so secondly, the Messiah says He has come to bind up the brokenhearted. That word bind up expresses personal healing attention – the Messiah uses His own hands to soothe, heal and restore to wholeness. And the term brokenhearted covers any and every kind of human brokenness: emotional, psychological, relational, you name it.
So friends, ask yourself, are you currently feeling brokenhearted in any way? What about your loved ones and neighbours? What kind of brokenness are you and they experiencing? Where do you and they need to be bound up?
Next, thirdly and fourthly, the Messiah says He has come to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound - to release people from bondage of any kind. On the individual level, this could include bondage to addiction, or guilt and shame. On the social level, this includes the wrongfully imprisoned and the various forms of modern slavery, including sexual slavery, human trafficking and exploitation.
Fifthly, the Messiah says He has come to proclaim the Year of the LORD’s favour, that is the Year of Jubilee. Everything we’ve seen in this passage thus far – good news to the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives – it all leads up to this point. It’s all gathered into the Jubilee. What is the Year of Jubilee?
In Old Testament law, God ordained that every 50th year would be the Year of Jubilee – a year of release in which debts were cancelled, slaves were freed, and people who had been forced to sell their family property because of poverty received it back again. It was a fresh start, as though God pushed the reset button on society. It gave people a second chance economically, it prevented the intergenerational cycle of poverty – it was a time of comprehensive forgiveness, restoration, release and rest for individuals, families, and even the environment (as the farmland was left fallow) – it was a time of renewal for society as an organic whole. The Jubilee expresses God’s desire for freedom, equality, mercy, justice and wholeness.
Sadly it turns out that the Jubilee, though required by biblical law, was rarely, if ever, observed in practice.
But here the Messiah shows up and announces, 'I bring the Jubilee.' He has come to make everything whole: to rebuild everything, restore everything. He has come to bring, personal salvation and healing, emotional, spiritual and psychological wholeness, social transformation, economic justice - the whole nine yards. He comes and says, “This what I’m about to do.”
So the question is: how on earth can He possibly accomplish all of this?
Well, He goes on to tell us:
After saying that He has come to bring Jubilee, the Messiah announces His 6th royal duty, which is to comfort to all who mourn in any way. This term – the mourners - incorporates all the people we’ve met already: the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, those who are bound. And the Messiah bestows upon them a series of gifts.
He doesn’t just comfort them with words, but gives them: a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, The oil of gladness instead of mourning The garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.
In biblical times when someone died or when something went seriously wrong in your life, you didn’t just wear black, you would wear ashes. You would literally go to the fireplace and pour ashes on yourself. So you looked filthy and ugly. And it was a way of expressing ‘My life is like this. This is how I feel!’ Just as the fire has broken down and destroyed this wood (or whatever was burned), turning it to dirty dust, so everything in my life has disintegrated in the same way. It was a visible expression of one’s mourning and faint spirit.
Now we don’t wear ashes anymore, of course, but I’m sure you’ve experienced this same feeling. Perhaps you’re going through it right now: grief, bereavement, loss, mourning, affliction for any reason, with a dejected and depressed spirit.
The Messiah says He will replace these. He gives us a beautiful headdress – or a crown - instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of mourning; the garment of praise instead of a faith spirit. The key word here is ‘instead.’
The Messiah does not simply say, ‘Here, let me put a crown of beauty on top of your ashes.’ That would make no sense because you would still be wearing the ashes, you would still be ugly and dirty and not yet ready to receive the crown properly, your joy would be incomplete.
No, what He seems to be saying is, ‘I’ll give you my crown. You give me your ashes. I will anoint and coronate you with the oil of gladness and don you with my royal garment of praise, and to do that I will first take from you your state of mourning and your faint spirit.’
What kind of King would humble Himself to do this?
In the early part of Isaiah we’re told there’s going to be this strong, incredible king, a descendent of the great King David, who is going to be glorious, rule the nations, put down all evil, and make the whole word right. And the Spirit of the Lord with which He is anointed will be upon Him to empower Him to do all this. That’s appealing to us – especially in this difficult time. We say, ‘Yes indeed, the world is a mess - and perhaps, so is my life. We need somebody to come in and deliver us.’
But then, in the middle part of Isaiah, starting in chapter 42, suddenly a new figure appears in these prophecies, totally unlike the great king of the earlier chapters. He is known as the Suffering Servant. He is described as lowly, despised and forsaken, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, with no beauty that we should desire Him - totally unlike the strong, glorious, beautiful, conquering King.
But in our passage today from Isaiah 61 suddenly we see that in fact the Messiah and Suffering Servant are one and the same person. The strong and mighty King will become weak and lowly, He will give up His beauty and glory and power to suffer and take upon Himself the ashes, mourning and faint spirit of His people.
Is it any wonder then, that Jesus Christ chose this very passage to announce the beginning of His ministry, reading it aloud and saying Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:14-21).
At the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. John the Baptist said He was unworthy to wash the feet of Jesus, and yet here is Jesus the great and glorious King washing the feet of His disciples, who would soon either betray or abandon Him. The next day Jesus was given a crown of thorns, He was spit upon, He was stripped of His robe, He was crucified. But He rose again from the dead, and ascended to His throne in heaven; and from there His God and Father poured out upon us His Holy Spirit.
Back to our passage from Isaiah, the verse about the crown instead of ashes, etc: notice the downward movement from the head, or the crown, down to the garment. It’s an outpouring. So you see what’s happening here: the Father of the Messiah, the anointed King, anoints us with the very same Holy Spirit with whom Christ has been anointed. What Isaiah shows us here is something of a royal coronation ceremony, but this time, we’re the ones being crowned, anointed and vested!
And just as the Spirit gave Jesus the kingly power to rebuild and rule the world, amazingly the same is now true for us. The Spirit gives us Christ’s royal status, power and authority. That’s why in the very next verse it says that we will build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations, repair the ruined cities. Jesus says, in effect, ‘I’m going to give you a joy and a power so that together we can heal and remake the world. I’m going to give you a deep inner joy and a power. I’m going to remake you from the inside out, so that we can remake the whole world together.’
That sounds very grand – and so it is - but it’s important we remember that this kingdom-building work starts small, like a mustard seed; and with God there is no such thing as a small act. So friends, ask yourselves, in this upcoming Christmas season, with so many people in need this year, where can I carry out this work of proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, releasing those who are bound, comforting those who mourn? Again start small – even in your own household and neighbourhood. The Jubilee which Jesus announced is still in effect – and so we are called to live in that same spirit of renewal, generosity, forgiveness and grace.
And again, it is the Holy Spirit who empowers you to do this. This is what St. Paul refers to in today’s reading from First Thessalonians, when he prays that the God of peace would Himself sanctify you completely. This is God’s work in us. Paul closes by praying that the God of peace would Himself sanctify you completely. This is God’s work in us by His Holy Spirit. And though we may stumble in our weakness, He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it – God will surely bring to completion the good work He has begun in you, through Him who loved us and became as we are so that we might become like He is – Jesus Christ Our Lord.