The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and a day of vindication for our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 to provide for Zion’s mourners,
to give them a crown in place of ashes,
oil of joy in place of mourning,
a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.
They will be called Oaks of Righteousness,
planted by the Lord to glorify himself.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins;
they will restore formerly deserted places;
they will renew ruined cities,
places deserted in generations past.
“There were shepherds out in the fields watching their flocks by night” – not necessarily a joy-filled existence. You spent all day and all night with the sheep. You were always on the lookout for predators and other dangers. The days were long and hard – and probably a little monotonous. Then one night it happens. Into the silence of the night an angel appears. “Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” [Luke 2:10-11] The promise is of joy!
Joy to the World! – yet it is sometimes difficult to feel the joy. People don’t experience Christmas all in the same way. Some people have suffered a loss during a Christmas past, and the annual arrival of Christmas reminds them of the loss. Many churches have a service midway through Advent called a Blue Christmas Service. It is a service recognizing the difficulty some are facing, acknowledging the power of the feelings they cannot control, and reminding them of the coming of a Savior.
The candles we are lighting each Sunday and characterized by Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Yet, three of our words this season, “love, joy, peace” are all fruits of the spirit, as I referenced last week in Galatians 5:22, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace …” If joy is a fruit of the spirit, how do we find ourselves joyful? As scripture tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say rejoice!” [Php. 4:4]. But how?
Isaiah the prophet plays a prominent role in the coming of Christ. His prophesy is pointing to Israel’s immediate future and restoration in the midst of the exile. But also points to Christ. Remember that beautiful passage in Isaiah 9:2-6. “A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” That sixth verse is preceded by the acknowledgement that the Israelites were a people sitting in darkness – those in exile. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy. They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice.” It is interesting that joy will be a product of their restoration. 25 times in Isaiah joy is spoken of. In the people’s ‘worship book’ – Psalms – joy is mentioned 55 times. Joy is something that God wants for us.
Here in our passage this morning from Isaiah there is a substitution going on – a trade. Think about trades as a child. Usually a trade was initiated by someone who wanted what you have. “I’ll trade your my liverwurst sandwich for your peanut butter and jelly.” The originator usually comes out on top in the trade. Sometimes the trade is equitable and both parties coming away with what they want. But, then, thinking as a parent and grandparent, there are times when the young child is holding something potentially dangerous. As parent you initiate a trade for something for something that is acceptable to play with. The child would naturally be angry if you just took what they had away. The anger is usually short lived and, as we say, they just have to deal with it. On the other hand if you are in the midst of a church service you may not want an explosion of tears, so, for the good of the child and for the peace of the service you initiate a trade. It is for their own good.
In Isaiah, God is the originator of the trade. The trade here is only for the good of God’s people – for our own good. Three items mentioned. All three are surrounding the human experience of mourning. Think of it as loss of any sort that may trigger the mourning. Hear it again from Isaiah 61:3. “… to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.” A crown, the oil of joy, a mantle of praise. The King James Version translates it, “… to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; … .” There is great symbolism in these three substitutions or trades. Ashes. Ashes were a symbol of mourning. You might recall Mordecai, in the Book of Esther. He puts on sackcloth and ashes at the proclamation by the king (which was instigated by Haman). The ashes were placed on the head, the crown of the human being. He is mourning the coming slaughter of the Jews living in the realm. The sackcloth and ashes were a statement to everyone who passed by that Mordecai was in mourning. In our passage, the trade, according to Isaiah, is a crown (elsewhere translated garland or beauty). The head was significant in antiquity. The head is the topmost part of the body, where symbols of power, authority, and honor were displayed. Kings and priests were anointed on their heads, and this is where their crowns were placed. God wants to honor us in our mourning. Second, the oil of joy. Consider another instance of oil in the Bible. Psalm 23:5-6 “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” In light of the “walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, it indicates, along with the rest of the Psalm, the abundant provision of God, caring for our needs. The results are goodness and mercy ‘pursuing’ me all the days of my life. Anointing the head was a sign of honoring and care. The cup running over indicates that the host – in this case God – is providing more than adequate care. Third, the Mantle of praise. The mantle is like clothing or a cloak. You might remember the exchange between Elijah and Elisha. Elisha asks that the mantle of his mentor fall on him – that he be clothed in Elijah’s ministry and power. Again, the King James Version translates this as “garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” The image is of changing clothes. We remove the ‘spirit of heaviness’ – of mourning – and put on praise. Praise comes from a heart of joy, and is not dependent on circumstances.
Here is where I want to make a distinction. Joy is not necessarily happiness. It is an internal fruit that wells up inside us and keeps us grounded in God. We may not be all smiles and happy, but inside there is a deep and abiding joy.
So, how does this substitution happen – this trade?
Return to Isaiah 61:1-2. “The Lord God’s spirit is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God,… .” Sound familiar? We probably remember it more from Luke 4:18-19 – Jesus claimed it as himself in the synagogue in Nazareth. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” IT is so fitting that we read this passage from Isaiah during Advent. We become part of the great God-initiated trade because Jesus came for us with good news of great joy.
In John 15:9-12, Jesus says, “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” His joy in us, makes our joy complete. Yet, Jesus says just a short time later in John 16:33, “I’ve said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.” Notice the same form in both places - “I have said these things to you … .” This is not a promise of bubbly, happy joy, but of a deep and abiding joy. Not a joy dependent on circumstances, but JOY FOREVER – joy that can conquer this world.
In 1 Peter 1:8 we find these words, “Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words.” The oil of joy is ours as we trust in the one who came – Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus Christ. It fills us with Joy Forever.
How have you been blessed in the last ten months? How has God walked with you through these trying times? Have you been open to seeing God at work – accepting his trade in tough times? This is a true gift of Christmas – JOY FOREVER!
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Pastor Paul Grossman