Isaiah 61:1-9
Pastor Chris Tweitmann

As we move ever closer to the arrival of Christmas, the volume begins to be turned up on the songs of the season.

Christmas music fills our ears as we step into elevators and walk through grocery stores and shopping malls.

Christmas music reverberates from the radios in our cars and the crafted playlists we play on shuffle and repeat through our sound systems at home.

As December 25th draws near, we might even find ourselves not just listening to Christmas music but even singing along to our favorite carols and seasonal anthems.

The question is, in the midst of all those holiday classics – and let’s be honest, there are a lot of them – are we singing God’s favorite Christmas song?

“God’s favorite Christmas song, you say? Not sure if I’ve ever heard that one,” we might be thinking.

Well, after today, we’ll be able to say that no more.

And more importantly, once we catch not just the words but the music; we won’t be able to stop singing its beautiful melody so that everyone can hear it.

Now for those who think they’re already in the know, they might perceive God’s favorite Christmas song as being first sung somewhere in the Nativity story contained in the early chapters of the Gospels of Matthew or Luke.

But hopefully by this point in our Advent sermon series focused on demonstrating how what we celebrate as Christmas began to emerge long before the pages of the New Testament, we’ve learned to start looking a little farther back in our Bibles.

For indeed, as we’re about to hear, the very first recording of God’s favorite Christmas song was laid down in our passage this morning from the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61. (TEXT)

Sometimes we can idealize the past – “the good old days” so that we remain stuck in the past rather than moving forward.

We can become so fixated on things not being the way they used to be that we lose sight of the possibilities of something greater, something better, coming on the horizon.

This is the backdrop against which God authors the song of Isaiah 61 through the prophet Isaiah.

For the people of Israel, it is a time of great expectation that is being eclipsed by their growing disappointment.

After decades – almost a century of living in exile and watching their once great nation split in half and then gradually fall one kingdom after the other, the people finally find themselves free to return to their native land.

But as the saying goes, “You can’t go home again.”

While we may fondly remember the days of the past, we can never recreate or relive them, no matter how hard we try.

For the Israelites, the hopeful idea of their return – of finding their salvation in coming back to where they once were – immediately begins to crash against the reality of what they cannot rebuild.

As many do not return and join the family reunion as expected.

And those who do come back labor in vain to restore back to their former glory the Temple – the centerpiece of their sense of identity and community – as well as the walls around the city of Jerusalem.

In addition, while they have been freed to travel back to their homeland, their country is one that still remains under occupation – under Persian rule.

But to a discontented and questioning people who lament the loss of their past, God, through the prophet Isaiah, breaks out into a song about the future being prepared for them.

And as we look more closely at the lyrics the Lord begins to sing, we quickly notice its theme is a familiar one.

Into the fatalism that so often can overtake our view of not only today but also tomorrow,

before the continued cynicism of a broken world that insists the way it is now is the way that it will always be – nothing ever changes, that we ought to accept the way things are because they could always be worse, the Lord sings a counter-narrative –

“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,” -Isaiah 61:1

one of things getting better, one of hope amid perceived hopelessness; of the assurance of victory before the presumption of defeat.

God expresses in verse 3,

“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.” – Isaiah 61:3

this alternative vision of mourning turning to joy, of despair giving way to praise, through a succession of vivid images – the most compelling of which involves using ashes as a metaphor.

In the ancient world, ashes were something people would place on their head – covering their face – and perhaps even their whole body – serving as an expression of their overwhelming grief and profound sense of loss.

Back then, ashes symbolized the sting of death – of being utterly devastated, of having suffered a mortal blow.

To a people who see themselves covered in ashes – as having completely burned out, of their life being over – finished – done,

the Lord, through Isaiah, sings of

“to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion —to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes…” – Isaiah 61:3

wiping away those ashes and replacing them with a crown of beauty.

The beautiful crown envisioned is a garland woven from either laurel leaves or meadow flowers that is shaped into a beautiful headdress.

Picture the sort of crown in the ancient world placed on the head of the winner of an athletic contest or upon a bride on the occasion of her wedding day.

To a people waving the white flag, ready to call it quits, preparing to give up, God sings not of impending defeat – but of coming victory – of triumph that will rise up out of the ashes of failure.

However, if we go back a verse or two in this divine anthem, something important to notice is the freedom being promised, being offered through this victory is NOT the freedom to go back to the way life once was.

“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…” – Isaiah 61:1-2

No, to a people who are fixated on looking behind them and returning to what they perceive as the good old days – which weren’t as good, which are never as good as we remember,

God beckons, the Lord pledges to deliver their freedom, their release not to go back to the way life was but instead to move forward and to live life as it always was intended, as God created it to be.

What is anticipated in this divine ode to joy is NOT the resurgence or restoration of the perceived former greatness of Israel; it is the reimagining and transformation of
the people’s conception of what true greatness is – of what humanity’s understanding of the good life is.

And from what the Lord lays out,

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” – Isaiah 61:1,8

the good life – true greatness – is marked by freedom for all persons and a shared commitment to justice, where the scales are particularly balanced in favor of those most in need.

Not coincidentally, the exact commission given through this song to

“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives…
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” -Isaiah 61:1 – 2

“proclaim freedom for the captives,” “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” is direct language lifted from God’s earlier directions given generations ago for observing what was called the Jubilee.

Recorded all the way back in the book of Leviticus, the year of Jubliee was part of the Lord’s instructions for how his people, the Israelites, were to live together in their new home, the Promised land, after having formerly been enslaved in Egypt.

Set down as a practice to be observed every fiftieth year, that is once every generation, the year of Jubilee involved the forgiveness of all debts, the release of all those working in bondage, and the equitable redistribution of the land among the people.

The Year of Jubilee was intended not only to be a reminder of the way life was supposed to be but also to serve as a practical, forced reset – for beginning again – in actually living life as God created it to be.

Curiously, tragically, there is no recorded evidence in the Bible that the year of Jubilee was ever practiced by any generation of Israel.

But what humanity has repeated failed to put into action – whether by forgetfulness or willful ignorance, the Lord declares will now become a reality – the recalibration and perfect balancing of social and economic relationships among humankind no longer observed once every fifty years but practiced permanently and celebrated perpetually.

What sounds like the start of some strange, radical world order is in fact nothing new under the sun.

For the song Isaiah sings on God’s behalf harkens back to the original harmony built into the fabric of all creation – what in Hebrew is known as “shalom” – the universal wholeness, mutual prosperity, and abiding peace of all life – as it was meant to be, as it was – before we divorced ourselves from our Creator and ended up reducing the sum of the human experience to the survival of the fittest, to a never-ending division and an ongoing rivalry between the haves and the have-nots.

Let us also pay close attention to exactly how this song progresses.

The power to rebuild and the potential for restoration and renewal in our lives and communities are inextricably linked to first embracing and then sharing the freedom God offers on his terms – freedom not to live only for ourselves – in pursuit of our interests – our safety, security, and prosperity;

but the freedom to live together – looking out for each other’s interests – advocating for the safety, security, and prosperity of all persons – especially the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, the prisoners, as well as those who mourn and grieve.

Now perhaps we’re thinking, while this is all well and good, what does this song, as wonderful as it may be, have to do with Christmas?

It’s a good question.

And the answer is, we know this is a Christmas song because this is the anthem both Zechariah and Mary were separately prompted by sing in response to the angelic announcement of the coming birth of Jesus.

On the other side of his initial doubts about the arrival of the Lord’s salvation, after a divinely imposed silence covering the nine months of his wife, Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zechariah belted out this same song

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago)…to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” -Luke 1:68-70, 77-79

as he held in his arms his newly born son, John, who would become the forerunner of the Messiah

Mary, like Zechariah, could not keep from singing.

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant…

…His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” – Luke 1:46 – 48, 50-53

In response to her cousin’s Spirit-filled proclamation that the child Mary was carrying to term was the long-promised Messiah, Mary burst out in her own magnificent rendition of this same song.

And while the words of their individual, divinely inspired choruses of praise and promise may be different, if we look and listen carefully to the melody, the overarching theme of their songs are exactly the same as the one first heard here in Isaiah 61.

Beloved, we know this is a Christmas song, dare we say it, it is THE Christmas song – because these words and lyrics encompass the fullness of what Christmas is all about – all humanity’s deliverance and reclamation by our Creator.

In a much deeper and wider way, Isaiah 61 conveys what the great company of the heavenly host of angels heralded once upon a midnight clear to shepherds watching their flocks by night – peace on earth and goodwill to all people.

And yet, the sticklers among us might still ask, but how we can know this is God’s favorite Christmas song?

The immediate and obvious answer is this is the only Christmas song that our Creator wrote.

Every other good and true Christmas song is but a derivative of this one.

But we can amplify the certainty of this answer with even more evidence.

Consider this. Many, many years later after his birth in Bethlehem, as Jesus began what he was born to do and the news about him – his teachings and his works were spreading, as Jesus came back home to where he grew up in Nazareth and the time came for him to place himself and his ministry within the framework of the biblical story,

Jesus intentionally turned to this passage and began to sing this song from Isaiah 61.

“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day, he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” -Luke 4:14 – 18

Jesus sang this song – the same song that his mother, Mary, joyously caroled while he was in her womb.

But as Jesus serenaded the hometown crowd with this well known tune, he made it his own, as when he finished, Jesus declared this song, that previously had been sung as a means of hopeful protest, now became a promise fulfilled through his coming.

In other words, Jesus presented this song as being about him – explaining both why he came, what he was doing, and therefore revealing who he is – the long-promised Messiah.

Beloved, Isaiah 61 is God’s favorite Christmas song because the words of this song are the words that become flesh in Jesus Christ.

For the One who comes in the Spirit of the Lord, the One who arrives not only to proclaim the good news of our salvation but to enact the inauguration of not our year but our life of Jubilee

the One who comes to bind the brokenhearted, to release those imprisoned in darkness, and to comfort all who mourn is none other than God Himself.

Jesus is the incarnation – the realization of the full, abundant, and everlasting life repeatedly envisioned and tirelessly proclaimed all those many passing years by the prophets of old.

For what we witness through the life of Jesus is more than just talk about changing the world for the better.

In the posture, teachings, and actions of Jesus we witness the embodiment of the life we were meant to live, of the relationship we long to have with our Heavenly Father,
with each other, and with our very selves.

For in a broken world predisposed to conflict, Jesus lived peaceably.

In a broken world predisposed to draw lines of separation, Jesus crossed every boundary and barrier that keeps us at a distance.

In a broken world predisposed to fear and judge those who are different, those who have failed, and those who are perceived as enemies, Jesus continually modeled acceptance, extended forgiveness, and practiced loving service.

In a broken word predisposed to elevate and admire the rich, the successful, and the famous all the while labeling and neglecting the average, the poor, and the sinners, Jesus treated all persons with dignity and respect while still elevating and advocating for the poor, the abused, and the forsaken.

In a broken world predisposed to compromise for the sake of laying hold of power and exercising more control – often in either the name of the State or of God, Jesus humbly surrendered taking matters into own hands – daily offering his will even to the point of giving up his life by trusting in the ultimate power and control of our Heavenly Father.

In living and dying this way – out of the divine truth of unconditional love and unbroken reliance on heavenly grace, Jesus rises from the ashes of this broken world and offers us not just the model but the means for our lives to be healed, and for all creation to be transformed – forever and ever.

For on the other side of His resurrection – his victory over death, Jesus gives to us the Spirit that was first upon Him, the Spirit that sets us free, the Spirit that releases us from the darkness, the Spirit that can turn our mourning and our despair over what we have lost in the moment into everlasting joy and praise through the assurance of our eternal redemption.

Beloved, God is still singing this song over you and me.

For while we live on the other side of the inauguration of God’s promises – while the opening lines of this song are being fulfilled all around us, we have not reached the crescendo of this anthem – the final resounding note of its conclusion – of all things once and forever being made new.

That is why we keep celebrating Christmas – not simply to look back towards the first Christmas, Christ’s birth into our broken world, but also to keep our eyes forward anticipating the last Christmas, the fullness of our rebirth in Christ into a completely changed world, into a fully transformed creation.

It’s not the best analogy but perhaps an insightful way to conceive where we find ourselves in the story of our salvation is to think about ordering something online – say from Amazon.

How many of us have ordered a gift for somebody off of Amazon this Christmas season?

Whether we have or haven’t, this is what happens.

When we order a gift off of Amazon, we get an initial response via email that says our order has been placed.

A little while later, we get a follow-up email that says our order has been fulfilled.

Having been fulfilled means whatever we’ve ordered has left Amazon’s processing center and is on the way.

Do we have the package yet? No. It’s not on our doorstep, but it’s on the way. It’s coming.

So this is where we find ourselves.

In one sense, Christmas has come – God has come down and through the birth – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has fulfilled His pledge to be with and for us.

At the same time, Christmas is still coming, – for through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to born anew as Christ works both in and through us- growing us and cultivating all creation into the fullness of the restoration and renewal God promises.

We find ourselves in the middle of the song our Creator continues to sing over us, receiving indications – catching glimpses of how the Kingdom of God is inbreaking into this world – of the arrival, of the change, the transformation, the Lord is bringing in and through us.

Beloved, the song isn’t over yet.

There are still more choruses to come in God’s favorite Christmas song.

Some of us need to hear that today – to hear these words of promise, the assurance that the music is playing.

It may be your faith that is in shambles these days.

Your doubts – about God, about yourself, about others – have become greater than your convictions.

It may be your joy that is hard to come by right now.

While everyone else is making merry, while for others this may be the most wonderful time of the year, for you it’s nothing but a blue Christmas – capping off what has been a hard and disappointing year.

It might be your hope that is starting to fade, that’s nearly gone.

You’ve tried everything you can think of, you’ve exhausted all your perceived options, you’ve called in all your favors, and things just aren’t getting any better. And you are beginning to think, they never will.

If that’s you, if that’s us, the good news is the song isn’t over yet.

There are still more choruses to come in God’s favorite Christmas song.

Jesus is about to be born anew into our lives and world.

God is coming once again in Christ to set us free from whatever is holding us captive.

Into the captivity of our chronic lack of faith, God sings, Jesus will deliver the forgiveness and peace, the assurance and courage which we cannot muster from within ourselves.

Into the captivity of our debilitating lack of joy, God sings, Jesus will release us from the darkness of our grief – our sense of loss, from any guilt or shame that may be burdening us.

Into the captivity of our frightening lack of hope, God sings, Jesus will rebuild upon all the rubble of our broken dreams and failed opportunities and restore our vision and our confidence in putting the work and weight of our lives upon something that lasts, something that will stand the test of time.

There are still more choruses to come in God’s favorite Christmas song.

And how we see the future shapes the way we live in the present.

It doesn’t take much, if we are not paying attention, if we insist on trying to make Christmas happen ourselves, it doesn’t take much for us to end up exchanging our birthright thanks to Jesus of assured redemption and continual renewal for a bowl of generic holiday platitudes and wishful thinking.

For the future that Jesus extends to us isn’t something for us to put on layaway for tomorrow; the future that Jesus extends to us is intended to be claimed – for us to begin living into here and now.

How we see the future shapes the way we live in the present.

And we are to live in the present – individually and corporately being shaped by the future God is preparing for us.

Allowing old mindsets and bad habits that pull us away from abiding in Jesus to give way, by the Spirit, to regarding our time on this earth, to regarding others no longer from a worldly point of view but rather an eternal one,

to embody practices that reflect the new creation that is ours, that we are becoming in Christ.

Beloved, the reason why it is so important that we recognize what God’s favorite Christmas song is – that we know the words, that we become familiar with the melody, is not only so that we listen to hear it being played in our lives but also so that we join the chorus.

For the message of the song, the meaning of Christmas, is not just to receive but also to give – to share with each other, with the world around us – the faith, the hope, the love, the joy, and the peace of Christ.

We cannot, we must not act like Jesus isn’t here – somehow hidden or removed from all that is happening around us – because to believe in and follow, to sing God’s favorite Christmas song is to recognize we are the Body of Christ.

In the same way that Mary carries Jesus and delivers him into the world, so too, we carry the Spirit of Christ and we get the sacred opportunity, day after day, to deliver Jesus into the arms of this world.

All it takes, by the grace of God, is reflecting the character of Christ in all that we say and do

– releasing others into the freedom God offers rather than holding them captive to our desires and expectations

– rebuilding and restoring broken relationships instead of causing division and tearing others down

– choosing to forgive and extend mercy rather than holding a grudge and choosing to retaliate

– offering comfort and acknowledging, making room for those who mourn instead of pretending not to notice or trying to rush them through their grief

As the year comes to a close, the days shorten and grow cold, and as we continue to light candles in the dark anticipating Christmas that once again draws near, let us hear the lyrics and music of Isaiah 61 as the assurance that there never is and there will never be a moment when God is not with and for us – singing over us and making flesh His promises of freedom, comfort, and restoration.

Let us not only hear and take God’s favorite Christmas song to heart, let us also add our voices to the divine chorus as the Spirit of Christ stirring within us beckons not only to change us for the better but working through us aims to remake this world into the very best it can be. Amen.