Sunday, December 23, 2012

Joy at Christmas (Isaiah 35, Luke 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 23, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Carol Medley" (arr. Mark Hayes)
Hymn of Praise: "Good Christians, All Rejoice" (IN DULCI JUBILO)
The Word in Music: "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" (arr. Poston)
Hymn of Response: "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" (HYFRYDOL, refrain Youngblood) 
Offering of Music: "Come, Lord Jesus" (Behnke)
Hymn of Sending: "What Child is This?" (GREENSLEEVES)
Postlude: "Let All Together Praise Our God" (Paul Manz)

"Joy at Christmas"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Isaiah 35: Luke 2:10-11

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

“I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people!”  That’s what the angel said to the shepherds (Luke 2:10-11).  We’ve got two days to go to Christmas and I wonder if you are feeling it.

What is IT – stress? hurried last-minute shopping? family dynamics on overdrive? national and world events closing in like a dark cloud?  What about the joy?  Is it possible to experience joy at Christmas? Or any time anymore?

Luke recorded the message of the angel – an announcement of joy tied to the birth of Christ.  But if you’re not feeling it, you’re not feeling it.  How do you get it? How do you find it?  Is it actually out there for all people like the angel said?

For those kinds of questions, let’s turn back to Isaiah the preacher.  He also spoke of joy and he was speaking to people and times like ours.  We talked about that a few weeks ago.  His audience had lost their homes in a crushing economic and political defeat, which included war and death and loss.  Their families were scattered and their faith in a shambles.  Isaiah was no rosy peace-time preacher; he was facing some serious darkness.  And yet he spoke of joy.  I’d like to take a look at that with you today.

The initial visual paints the whole picture: the desert blossoming with flowering life will be like the joy of God’s glory coming.  I don’t know if you’ve seen Judean wilderness and desert before, but it’s about as bleak as you’d imagine desert to be.  And here’s the picture, with imagery and emotion all wrapped together: “it will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy.”  Do you remember how I’ve said that in Hebrew you repeat things for emphasis, like we bold or underline or use exclamation points?  Did you hear it there… “rejoice with REJOICING and SHOUT OF JOY!!”  There’s some joy to be had; the question is how.
 
The Hard-Pressed


This text is packed with reality and the human condition.  Listen to all the folks Isaiah names and see if you don’t identify with one or more, which range from the literal to the metaphorical:

The exhausted (v. 3) – Work, school, family, sickness, debt, depression, recession, expectation, travel, bills, news, disappointment, and more.  It is exhausting; my guess is that a significant number of you, of us, feel completely exhausted.  Ironic, isn’t it?  You finally made it to Christmas break or vacation and you just want to crawl into bed for a week?  And we’re not just physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally exhausted. 

The feeble (v. 3) – Not too much past exhausted is “feeble.”  Sometimes we don’t bounce back and we get borne under.  Or our bodies have failed us; or our will has failed us.  And we are beyond exhausted to feeble.

Those with anxious heart (v. 4) – In a different but related vein, we can be full of anxiety and fear.  That can either come with the exhaustion or can create or make it worse.  As bad as the present may be, we fear the future even more.  And that can be debilitating.

To each of these, Isaiah’s message is “Hold on; take courage; do not fear. God is coming with strength to take on that which oppresses you. God will save you.” In the case of Isaiah’s audience, this was a generation or more of literal defeat and captivity from an opposing nation.  And the salvation would require the repentance and turning back to the Lord of His people.  But help would come.  Death, defeat, and darkness did not (and do not!) have the last word.

Blocked Off from God


Isaiah also names four physical limitations, which in context speak beyond the literal to the spiritual.  Let me mention why I say that.  It is indeed possible that God’s people contained numerous blind, deaf, and similarly disabled people; and it is true that Jesus performed miracles of healing on people just like this.  But Jesus made the point that the healing was just a sign of something greater.  In healing a lame man one time he asked, “Which is harder, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Get up and walk.’?”  To help their belief, he healed; but what he was doing (forgiving sin and reconciling people with God) was the real miracle.

These limitations, taken as descriptors of one’s spiritual condition, actually block us off from experiencing God.

The blind (v. 5) – You’ve heard the line in “Amazing Grace” – “I was blind, but now I see.”  This is one of the most easily understandable metaphors for coming to faith.  Until we believe and trust God, we are blind to so much of who God is and what He is doing.  God’s glory and handiwork can be all around us and like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia book, “The Last Battle,” we only see mud and straw and refuse.  “I can’t believe until I see,” we cry; but in reality, we can’t see until God opens our eyes.  And that is just what Isaiah describes with God’s salvation: “the eyes of the blind will be opened.”

The deaf (v. 5) – Likewise, we can be deaf to God’s Word and Spirit, both of which speak words of life and help.  It is a double-curse, is it not, that we suffer so in this life and are spiritually blocked from seeing or hearing the One who could help us?  Yet, that is the human curse – to be deaf and blind toward God.  And yet, Isaiah’s good news is that God will one day unstop the ears of the deaf.

The lame (v. 6) – He continues, with the lame promised to “leap like a deer.” How well being lame describes those who are crippled by the exhaustion and anxiety we’ve already mentioned.  We can hardly stand, much less run after God.  Like the man by the pool of Bethesda that Jesus healed, we are stuck on our mats waiting for the equivalent of a magic pool rather than looking for the true hand of God to lift us up.

The mute (v. 6) – And we are mute.  That’s a strange one.  Most of us don’t know too many mute people.  But I do know people who are so bound up that they can no longer speak words of love to a spouse or admit to the truth because of a web of deceit.  With all that binds and weighs us down, is it any wonder that we are mute and unable to profess love of God, sing praise, or be free to worship sincerely?  And yet those are the ones – the mute – who will “shout for joy!”  Not just croak out a sound here or there, but shout for joy!

Isn’t that what we want?  More than just to not be afraid or discouraged – though that at the very least – but to see, hear, walk, run, and shout?

A Final Picture


The scorched land (v. 7)  The rest of the passage is one more word picture, building on the initial image of wilderness and desert.  Isaiah comes back to that in verse 7 and describes “the scorched land.”  I know there are some of you that are way past exhausted, anxious, or feeble; you feel like scorched earth… blasted and blasted and there is simply no life or hope left.  Isaiah is talking to you!

He speaks of scorched land, thirsty ground, haunted by scavenger jackals and threatening beasts.  And in the midst of all that, Isaiah paints a picture of hope.  It’s not just rosy, “Trust Jesus and life will be wonderful.”  It is a gritty and real description of a God who knows right where you live, and walk, and suffer.  And there he describes scorched and thirsty land filling with life-giving pools of water.  In the midst of jackals and lions, he describes a path of safety and rest.  In the lost place of the wilderness, he describes a way that has a destination and a purpose and those who travel on it experience joy and gladness, such that sorrow and sighing flee away.

Isn’t that what we want?  Well yes, and no.  I remember talking to the Confirmation class about the lame man on the mat.  “Of course he wants to walk!” we always say on first reading the story.  Then we dig in and think about how long he’s been there – 38 years.  We think about his mat and his space, reserved day after day.  It’s a horrible existence… but it’s familiar.  What would walking mean?  What would picking up his mat mean? 

The Jesus Factor


As we read this mini-sermon from Isaiah, we see a promise of joy, which as we’ve seen elsewhere was sealed at Christmas with the birth of the promised Messiah.  And we see the promises of God to help, to encourage, to lead, and to save.  But we also have plenty of opportunities to turn away: to close our eyes to God’s work, to shut our ears to God’s Word and Spirit, to lay down and refuse to follow.

There is joy to be found at Christmas, as well as any time of the year.  What is more accurate is to say that there is joy to be found in Jesus, and it is his birth that is in focus at Christmas.  The Good News – declared by God through Isaiah and throughout this Bible – is that God has made a way where there seemed to be no way.  God has spoken and acted, and invited, and leads.  That doesn’t mean there is a magical money tree waiting for you, or a sudden reversal of years of sorrow.  But it does mean that there is a way for you in the scorched desert.  There is hope in the darkness and help for the helpless. 

Will you look, listen, get up, and follow?

With all this in mind – this whole passage – listen to one more thing.  This is what Jesus read, from another part of Isaiah (ch. 61), when he began his public ministry as an adult.  It should give you a good idea of why the birth of Jesus is such a joyful thing in God’s history.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

What do you hear? What do you see? What will you do? What will you say? 

The answer to those questions has everything to do with joy at Christmas.  Amen.


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