The Lord's Favour
Sermon published by Pastor Joel Pukallus
Did you know that January 25th in the U.S. is increasingly coming to be celebrated as opposite day?
Or rather, among some, it isn’t being celebrated, because to truly be opposite day, the way to celebrate it would be the opposite, to not celebrate it, and if you were to celebrate it, it couldn’t really be opposite day. This sort of conundrum makes my head hurt.
But mental gymnastics aside, for those who do celebrate it, they might have their hot meal in the morning and cereal at night, or walk backwards for the day, or put their clothes on backwards, there are all sorts of crazy goings-on.
And why do I mention this? Because in reading this Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, was the first thing that came to my mind was opposite day. Or maybe, opposite year.
But first, a little history.
Isaiah spent most of his life prophesying in Jerusalem. The Assyrian empire had been oppressing the people of Israel for generations, but they had been defeated when king Sennacherib died, and a new force swept in from further east, the Babylonians. King Hezekiah was king in Jerusalem, and when the Babylonians came, some of the surrounding nations wanted him to join them to stop the Babylonians. Instead Hezekiah asked the Babylonian King for help against them, a move which Isaiah condemned, and the unopposed Babylonians carried off many of the Israelites into captivity. This was part of the punishment of God for a people who had forgotten him.
But God had not finished with the people of Israel and Judah, and Isaiah had another message for them. And it was the opposite of anything they were expecting.
The message was that one day God would use another Babylonian King to bring them home, and Jerusalem would be rebuilt.
And so the good news of the opposite of life as the people knew it was here coming from the mouth of the prophet of God: freedom for captives, praise instead of despair, release for prisoners, binding up for broken-hearted, those who had been uprooted would be called oaks of righteousness. Why oaks, what is the symbolism? Oaks are strong and secure, and their roots go deep, no more being uprooted and carried away.
A crown of beauty instead of the disfigurement of ashes, which they used to throw on themselves when they mourned, to show the depth of their sorrow, and my favourite: joy instead of mourning. The same thing John saw in Revelation 21, no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Joy.
The image that is used is the oil of joy, I chased this term around the bible a little bit and found out that it actually had to do with the joy and celebration of a marriage. Aromatic oils poured on the head of the Bridegroom, a symbol of happy times, or exciting times full of anticipation and hope and potential.
And this is what God promises those in mourning.
And don’t we need that promise now.
Advent is the promise of the coming of an opposite year, and Christmas, an opposite day. I mean, isn’t Christmas a day full of paradoxes and opposites?: joy in the midst of sadness, God almighty in the midst of cow feed, hope in the midst of despair, new life (and an important step in God’s plan to secure eternal life) in the midst of the slaughter of the innocents at the hand of an evil king.
We now as much as ever need that God who flips things on their heads, who Paul says “calls into being things that were not”. (Romans 4:17) God, whose “thoughts are not your thoughts, and ways are not your ways” (Isaiah 55:8-9) The God of the sweet swap.
We need the joy that only faith in the goodness of God, (and the truth that I spoke of a few weeks ago, that he who has promised is faithful), we need that joy that only he can give us.
In a year of separation and isolation and distancing, we see an opposite saviour who does not remain distant but comes and lives among us, with us. God with us, Emmanuel.
In a year of sadness, we still look forward with joy because of the sure hope that we have. Hope for this life and for the life to come. Hope that comes from knowing that God has plans for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, as he told us in Jeremiah 29:11
This “opposite of expectations” Messiah came, and as I said put in place an important step in the plan of God.
This opposite Messiah was not only good news back then, but he is EXACTLY what we need right now.
He did not change in form throughout his life. He kept flipping things on their heads.
In a world of teachers who regurgitated the opinions of others, he was the opposite, speaking with authority.
In a political scene that wanted a military conqueror, he came as the opposite, a servant.
In a religious landscape that said you don’t associate or eat with tax collectors or sinners, he did the opposite, inviting himself to their homes, touching them with his radical love.
And on a hill on a Friday where it looked like his mission had come to an excruciating end, he showed us that it was just the opposite, and that love had won.
He applied this prophecy of Isaiah to himself, and the people of his hometown were not ready to hear it.
But he bound up the broken-hearted,
He proclaimed and then secured freedom for the captives
He bought joy in the midst of mourning when he healed the sick and disabled, and even raised people from the dead.
In the midst of slavery to the Romans he proclaimed the time of the Lord’s favour.
And for us who were dead in sin, he, who was exactly the opposite, swapped his life for our death, his perfection for our list of failures, and we received the opposite of what we deserved, and he received the opposite of what he deserved, and he died our death.
And we all know, as everyone who has ever lived has known, that death is the ultimate winner, the devil’s strongest weapon, the sentence we will never outrun.
Except that it wasn’t.
It was just the opposite! It was the best shot Satan had and Jesus got up again!
Christmas Day might be opposite day for us, but it ushers in lots more. We are contradictory people now, people of opposites, we who see Baptism which happens at the start of a life as being about death. We who see death as being about new life. We who can even, in the face of death have a rare gift that most people would think does not belong at a funeral. We have joy.
And so like the people of Israel and Judah coming home from exile and singing while they worked to rebuild Jerusalem, these last verses of our lesson can be about us:
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
This is what we are doing, right now, every day, every year. When we proclaim what to the world? Joy! Don’t worry about how the world looks. Whether it looks like there is no hope, no future. God has something to say about all this, and it is exactly the opposite.
God says: Let Earth receive her King.
It’s not long now.