Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, NRSV
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Well here we are in the middle of Advent. Christmas is on its way, and it’s been a long time coming. According to most stores I’ve been to lately, it’s been the Christmas season since November 1. For some purists, it’s only been since the day after Thanksgiving. But in reality, Christmas has been inching toward us for generations. Before there was a name for it, before it was scheduled for December 25th each year, before we decorated with green and red and borrowed traditions like decorating trees, God’s people kept their eyes on the door, awaiting their Messiah.
Although I’ve heard of children confusing it for Jesus’ last name, Messiah is Hebrew for “Anointed One.” It refers to someone with great power, anointed like a king at his coronation. The Jewish people expected a Messiah to come to power as a reformer, someone who would restore God’s people to their rightful place, abolish heresy and sin, and reinstate true worship of God. And Lord knows, they needed reform and restoration. We’ve talked together about some of what the Israelites endured as they followed God, from slavery in Egypt to ongoing battle, famine, disease, and the rise of idolatry as they lived in Canaan. They were conquered and exiled from their Promised Land. They saw the Temple their kings had built for the Lord destroyed. They were persecuted by outsiders and dealt with their fair share of internal conflict as well. But they were still God’s people. They still held to the Scriptures and traditions where God had been revealed to them. They rejoiced in God’s faithfulness to bring them through the waves when each storm hit. And they held their breath with eager anticipation for the day when their Messiah would come and calm the waters once and for all.
This is the hope the Jewish people have been waiting on for centuries. These are the people to whom Isaiah speaks. They have been through the ringer in a big way and they have held onto these words of hope as a reminder that God has chosen them, God has promised to deliver them from their suffering, and God is trustworthy and true to God’s Word. So when Jesus stood up in the temple and began reading these words aloud as the introduction to His ministry, I imagine there were some nodding heads. Some people may have felt a few tears gathering in the corners of their eyes. Someone may have lit up at the Holy Spirit moment when they recognized the exact passage of Scripture that had been on their heart being read aloud in the congregation! This was a familiar word to sustain them. But their reactions quickly changed as Jesus moved from the scripture reading into the sermon. Jesus tells them in Luke 4: 21, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It should have been a joyful moment, to be witnesses in that sanctuary when Jesus told them the wait was over. The kingdom of God is here in this room with you right now. I am the Son of God. I am the Messiah. You’ve made it!
But it wasn’t joyful. It was disruptive and confusing. It’s one thing to connect with an idea, it’s quite another to connect with a person. Knowing and even treasuring the story doesn’t always prepare us for seeing it embodied. On the one hand, it’s too good to be true. On the other, this raggedy kid of Mary and that carpenter Joseph is not quite the impressive warrior and king we had in mind. Wasn’t he born in like a stable or something? And have you seen his cousin John? He’s an absolute mess wandering around in the desert all the time talking about repentance. What do we even have to repent of anyway? We’re the chosen ones of God and here Jesus is talking about being a Messiah to us and to the Gentiles. No way. That can’t be right. I think we’ll just keep waiting until the real deal shows up thanks.
They had certain expectations of Jesus, just as we do of both Jesus and His arrival at Christmas. We have traditions to uphold. It’s just not Christmas at my parents’ house until my stepfather brings home our family’s two trees (one for the living room and one lovingly named “the dog tree” that we enjoy with our lab mix Kozmo on the back patio by the fire pit).
When does it really feel like Christmas to you? When the tree goes up? When all the presents are wrapped– or maybe excitedly unwrapped? When friends or family arrive? When you watch that favorite holiday movie or hear that favorite song? When we light the candles in the Advent wreath? When you taste that first sip of Starbucks’ holiday drink for the year?
We have such strong emotional ties to each of these things. We have a vision of what Christmas is and what it should be, but life happens. It doesn’t always go the way we planned. Travel plans are interrupted by bad weather, and we run out of time to finish the shopping so everybody left on our list gets whatever we can grab at Walmart the night before Christmas Eve. We miss loved ones who have passed away or just don’t come around any more. Then again, we may dread having to face those who have hurt us when they show up at the dinner table. The world doesn’t always stop to take notice of the coming Savior, and sometimes tough times keep on coming regardless of the season. We don’t always have the money to buy the gifts we want to give, much less to cover rent, groceries, and all the bills this month. People get sick, people get arrested, people get scared and holidays are spent in hospital rooms and prison cells and in cramped apartments with the sound of gunfire in the street.
But the thing is, Christmas does come to those places. Christ is not deterred by messy houses where we forgot the rolls and the ham is way over cooked. Christ is just as comfortable in a homeless shelter as right here at Woodland Terrace, in a rioting neighborhood as at a church potluck. Christ doesn’t bat an eye at our family drama, and he’s not offended when some people are so caught up in just surviving that they don’t even realize what day it is when December 25 rolls around. Christ needs no formal invitation, and He’s not picky about accommodations. He was happy to hold the first Christmas in a stable someone let his parents use as an afterthought when they couldn’t let them squeeze in a mat on the floor in the inn. Christ won’t turn up His nose at whatever we have to offer either.
And when Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us!” arrives, we can exchange our ashes for a Christmas garland, our mourning in shadows for rejoicing by the light of the tree, and our weariness for the rejuvenating warmth of conversation by the mantle where stockings are hung by the chimney with care. Although that’s not the kind of mantle Isaiah means, it’s striking how well the imagery of the fireplace that is central to much of our Christmas tradition in the US fits with the vision the prophet has for the coming of the Messiah. That’s how Santa Claus gets in to have his milk and cookies, fill our stockings, and leave presents under the tree, right? But even in the popular children’s classic, when Saint Nick emerges from the fireplace, “his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.” I would imagine he’s probably a little sweaty and out of breath and has some serious winter dry skin going on, too. Even Santa isn’t quite as pristine as we like to make him in our holiday decorations.
And the thing is, he shouldn’t be. We should all be a little dirty. Maybe it’s good to be a bit frazzled and tired. That what it’s like when you’re working hard to feed the hungry, relieve the oppressed, heal and comfort the sick, love the lonely, visit and free the imprisoned. Christ came to proclaim the kingdom of God and these are the marks of it– sacrificial love poured out for one another. Vulnerability to make our needs known and to offer what we have, no matter how little we may feel it is, to meet the needs of our communities and our world. God wanted us to understand that need for vulnerability so much that Christ came in the form of a baby, born under gossip-worthy circumstance to a poor family from a small town that everyone had all but written off. Advent challenges us to be vulnerable with one another to share our needs and our dreams and to listen well when our neighbors share theirs. It challenges us to look for leadership and hope in unexpected places, from among people who know what it is to be hungry, poor, oppressed, lonely, sick, or imprisoned.
I’ve joked about Santa, but the real 4th century Saint Nicholas of Myra, the one has evolved into our current character of Santa Claus, embodied this way of life. Orphaned at a young age, Nicholas used his inheritance to care for others. Ever wondered why we do hang our stockings on the mantel each year? Tradition holds that Nicholas heard that his neighbors had fallen on hard times and a father was going to be forced to sell his three daughters into prostitution. Wanting to spare them all from such a terrible situation, Nicholas snuck up to their house and threw gold coins down the chimney into stockings that had been hung by the fireplace to dry. His image has been transformed over time but the legend of Saint Nicholas that has contributed to all those Christmas traditions we hold dear is a testament to the Christ child who comes in a manger and invites the worship of shepherds, angels, and kings.
This Advent season, let’s wait for Him eagerly with open hearts and open minds. Look for him in one another. Look for Him in unexpected places, especially among those who are hurting this season, and worship Him by showing love to all you find.
Let us pray.
“Loving God, We thank you for the example of St. Nicholas, who fed the hungry, brought hope to the imprisoned, gave comfort to the lost, and taught the truth to all. May we strive to imitate him by putting you first in all we do. Give us the courage, love and strength of St. Nicholas, so that, like him, we may serve you through loving our brothers and sisters.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”