FIND YOUR ADVENT JOY IN JESUS!
in the work he came to do for you
in the gifts he came to give to you
Text: Isaiah 61:1-3a
Life is hectic this time of year. That’s an understatement! You have two weeks to get your Christmas shopping done. Deadlines are looming at work, demanding your attention and taking up extra hours of your time. The kids need to be carted around everywhere for all of the practices and plays and performances that seem to book the calendar in the last month of the year. You might be looking forward to a vacation after Christmas, but anyone with an ounce of life experience knows that getting ready for a vacation is no picnic. Throw in some winter colds, longer than usual rush hour traffic jams, and a few of life’s usual but unexpected setbacks, and it can be a little tricky to keep your chin up and a smile on your face this time of year.
That’s when it’s useful to have a reality check from God. No one will deny that life this time of year can be hectic. But let’s consider for a moment the situation that God’s Old Testament people found themselves in in today’s First Lesson. Our reading comes from Isaiah, one of the most significant books in the Old Testament. From chapter 40 to the end, Isaiah wrote for a generation of people that had not been born yet, but a generation of people who would find themselves exiled into a foreign land for several decades. I think we’ll take a traffic jam over a national exile! What’s worse, this exile was God’s punishment for their sinful waywardness—a punishment God allowed to take place after repeatedly warning them to repent and turn away from their sin.
In that situation, God used Isaiah to bring his Old Testament people some good news that would put joy in their hearts. Isaiah’s book contained promises of deliverance from their national enemies. But Isaiah also used the message of their future political deliverance to segue into the more important message about their future spiritual deliverance. Their greatest joy was not to be found in good news about future political freedom, but in the greater good news that Jesus would accomplish. And that’s the same good news we need to hear on this Third Sunday in Advent. Our greatest joy is not in the presents we will exchange in two weeks, or the vacation that will follow the hectic holidays. Our greatest joy is in Jesus, the Savior who came and is coming again. Find your Advent joy in Jesus—that’s what Isaiah wants you to hear this morning. Find your Advent joy in the work that Jesus came to do for you, and in the gifts that Jesus came to bring to you.
Isaiah has sometimes been called the “Fifth Evangelist.” The title, Evangelist, usually refers to the writers of the first four books of the New Testament, who all wrote about the life and work of Jesus. When Christians call Isaiah the “Fifth Evangelist,” they are suggesting that Isaiah talks about Jesus nearly as much as the four Bible books that actually recorded Jesus’ life.
The section we are looking at this morning is one of many sections that earned Isaiah the nickname, “The Fifth Evangelist.” Isaiah may be writing, but Jesus is the One doing the speaking: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” This opening statement describes the Spirit of God coming down on the Speaker because God anointed and appointed the Speaker to preach the gospel. This statement was fulfilled at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism; at that event God sent the Holy Spirit in a visible way on Jesus to anoint him—that is, to publicly appoint him to his special task of preaching the good news that he was the Savior. Not long after Jesus’ baptism, he served as the guest preacher in his hometown’s synagogue one Sabbath Day. When it came time for the sermon, he quoted this very section from Isaiah and said that Isaiah’s statement was fulfilled through his preaching.
As the reading goes on, Isaiah continues to write as if Jesus is speaking. He describes the work that Jesus was sent to do, and the way this work was described would have resonated with the exiled Jews who were reading Isaiah’s words. “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.”
There are four main phrases in the verse and a half I just read. Let’s quickly look at each one. “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” If you break a bone in your arm, the doctor might put your arm in a cast so that the broken bone stays together and heals properly. Jesus’ entrance into this world would not fix bones broken by an accident, but hearts broken by the heavy weight of their own sin. Isaiah’s next phrase is that Jesus would come “to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” The Jews who read this knew what it was like to be taken captive, and they longed for freedom from captivity. Jesus’ entrance into this world would free people from a greater captivity—the captivity to sin. Isaiah’s third phrase tells us that Jesus would come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” Isaiah uses language here that refers to the Old Testament “Year of Jubilee,” a day when debts were cancelled and property that had been sold was returned to its original owner. The Old Testament Year of Jubilee was yet another picture to describe Jesus’ work, which would cancel the debt of sin that human beings owe to God. Finally, Isaiah tells us that the Savior would come “to comfort all who mourn.” If you comfort someone who mourns the death of a believing loved one, you can’t undo the death that occurred, but you can point them to the resurrection from the dead that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees. Jesus’ work not only defeated sin, but it gives us comfort knowing that he has also conquered death and opened heaven to all believers.
When I was in high school, I was involved in a couple of musicals. I remember the teacher who was the director for those musicals explaining to us what happens psychologically when someone attends a play or a movie. He called it “suspension of reality.” A public performance—whether it’s a play or a movie or a concert or even a sporting event—has a way of psychologically removing us and giving us a mental break from our current situation in life.
A public performance might be able to give you a mental break from your current situation, but it can’t change your current situation. If you have a cold, watching a television show might distract you somewhat from your illness, but it doesn’t take your cold away! You and I are sick—not with a cold, but with a spiritual disease called sin. All the busyness of the holidays might distract us from our spiritual disease, but it can never take that disease away. In fact, sometimes our sinful nature likes the distractions of this season, because it detracts from the real reason for Christ’s Advent into this world. Sin is not solved by a psychological distraction, a Christmas party, or a favorite Christmas special on television. Sin can only be solved by a Savior.
If you want to see guilt and fear and sin removed, then find your Advent joy in the work that Jesus came to do. Marvel that the God who made heaven and earth became a part of this world at his humble birth. Wonder at the mystery that the One who fills heaven and earth by his very existence filled the tiny space of a simple manger on the night of his birth. Remember the work that Jesus came to do for you, work that started at the manger but kept him moving forward to the cross where God’s justice was satisfied and your freedom from sin’s guilt was won. Rejoice in the victory that Jesus’ resurrection gives you, for faith in his resurrection sets you free from sin’s debt and death’s grasp, and gives you a comfort that overcomes even the grave!
When we lived in the Bay Area, my wife worked for the local franchise of a national music business that offered developmental music classes for little children. My wife’s boss, herself a music teacher, had a saying: “Repetition is good. Repetition is good. Repetition is good.” Isaiah would have agreed with that premise. In the two verses we’ve considered so far, he has essentially said the same thing several times: He explained the work that Jesus came to do for us. Now we’re going to add another half-verse to our discussion. In the first half of verse three from our reading, Isaiah talks about the gifts that Jesus came to bring his people. Jesus was sent to “provide for those who grieve Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
Isaiah describes three gift exchanges that Jesus would bring about. Ashes were an ancient (and even modern) sign of sorrow, but Jesus’ Advent would take away our sorrowful ashes and replace them with a beautiful crown. Oil would sometimes be poured over a person in ancient cultures as a sign of joy, and Jesus’ Advent would take away their mourning over sin and guilt and replace it with oil, a symbol of joy. We know how clothing can be a symbol of either joy or sorrow. People dress differently for a wedding than for a funeral! Jesus’ Advent would replace the despairing spirit of sorrowful souls with clothes that reflect joy and praise flowing from hearts of faith.
There are times in life when we don’t feel all that joyful. Sometimes that comes from the things I mentioned in the sermon introduction—stress at work, busy schedules this time of year, along with a few unexpected setbacks to our plans. But there are often more serious and sobering reasons why we don’t feel a lot of joy. Health takes a turn for the worse and our mortality comes to mind. Guilt nags at us and our conscience secretly accuses us and the weight of our sinful nature’s baggage weighs us down.
At times like that, we need to hear about the gift exchange that Jesus’ Advent brings. Find your Advent joy in the gifts that Jesus came to bring to you. He didn’t show up 2,000 years ago and leave nothing behind for you! No, he left you the greatest gifts imaginable! He left you with a guilt-free status before God, a status that you enjoy because of your trust in him, a status that is yours as a believer even if your conscience tries to tell you otherwise. Jesus left you with a true joy that comes from the knowledge that he has already defeated your sin and your grave, and so nothing can take away the saving gifts that Jesus brought you. He has left with you with constant and continual reassurance of his love every time his forgiveness is pronounced, his Supper is celebrated, and his name is confessed. So find your joy in these gifts, for these are the treasures that Jesus came to bring you by his Advent.
A number of you commented about how much you have enjoyed our Wednesday evening Advent services the last couple of weeks. When you think about the rushing, the busyness, the constant-on-the-go culture all around us, a quiet and meditative service like the ones we have had offers a badly needed spiritual refuge from the world around us.
Maybe that’s a good way to understand Isaiah’s point in this reading. The world around us would have us find our joy in so many other things that take up our time this time of year—and in all honesty, many of those activities are perfectly fine and wholesome in and of themselves. But amid everything else that clamors for your attention, remember where you will find your true joy this time of year. Brothers and sisters, find your Advent joy in Jesus. Amen.