Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4
For many of us it seems the most popular Christmas songs are songs that have existed for our entire lives, and have histories that go back to Christmases long, long ago. For some songs, such as nearly all of the classic hymns that is true. Songs like Joy to the World and Angels we have heard on high are well over a century old and they are our safely in the public domain. However, there are other Christmas classics that may not be as old as we think they are. For instance, The Little Drummer Boy is a fairly recent song. It was first copyrighted in 1941, and the first commercially successful version was not recorded until 1958. The song that is recent enough to still be under copyright protection that surprised me was Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I had always assumed the song was at least 100 years old, but that is not the case. It was first written in 1932, and instantly became wildly popular. Within 24 hours of being performed on live radio the song had over 100,000 orders placed for sheet music and over 30,000 orders placed for records. It became a Christmas standard, and that song put into musical form the notion of the list. We all know about the list. It is being checked twice. Every boy and girl this time of year wants to make sure they make the nice list. The song dates back to the 1930s, but the notion of a Christmas list is older. Much older. On this last Sunday of Advent, we once again turn to the prophet Isaiah. In this morning’s scripture we see the list that God made, and the question for us to consider is are we on it?
This morning’s scripture is most notable because Jesus claimed this scripture described him. In an incident recorded in the gospel of Luke Jesus teaches at the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. He reads this scripture and somewhat scandalously declared “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This was Jesus publicly declaring that he was indeed the Messiah. He was declaring that the baby born at Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth was God’s greatest gift to the world. Over seven centuries before Jesus made that declaration in Nazareth, Isaiah made this prophesy about that the coming Messiah. In this morning’s scripture Isaiah declares exactly which people the messiah is coming and how the messiah will be a gift to them. According to this morning’s scripture there are three kinds of people that God made sure to include on the list God made for Christmas.
The first group of people is mentioned in verse one. The Messiah has come to proclaim good news for the poor. The word poor is an adequate translation in the NIV, but it may not be the best. In our modern understanding the word poor has a strictly economic meaning. The Hebrew word here might also be translated as impoverished, afflicted, or oppressed. United Methodist author and Pastor Mike Slaughter makes this distinction when he points out, “when poverty is used in the Bible, its meaning is broader than ‘economic limitation’. Poverty in the deepest biblical sense, is any kind of brokenness, whether that be in a personal or cultural context, that restricts people from living in the fullness of humanity that God intends.”
For those who are economically, culturally, or politically oppressed then the gospel is good news because the message of the Bible is that God is on the side of the disadvantaged, and that in the scheme of eternity worldly wealth and earthly power have no value. For those who are privileged, for those of us who have benefitted over the rest of the world just by being fortunate enough to be born in to the most prosperous nation in the history of humanity, there is good news for us as well. Compared to most we may not be economically poor, we may not be marginalized, or politically oppressed. However, many American Christians do suffer from a spiritual poverty. We have heard the story enough times in various forms that it is almost a cliché stereotype. People who finally achieve the wealth, fame, and power they have spent so long trying to accumulate discover those things do not buy happiness and do not create fulfillment. We recognize our spiritual poverty in our liturgy. In the prayer of confession for communion found in the hymnal the prayer we pray states “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.” For the spiritually impoverished the gospel is good news, because it has a cure for what ails us. In a biblical sense poverty is anything that keeps us from living in the fullness of humanity that God intended, and spiritual poverty is caused when we focus too much on ourselves and our own insular little world. The gospel reminds us that God so loved the WHOLE world that he sent his only son. The gospel reminds us that the most important things in life are to love the Lord the God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself. In short the way that we escape spiritual poverty is we put others first. We seek to see and meet the needs of those who are economically impoverished, underprivileged, or truly oppressed.
The second group of people on the list is mentioned a bit further down in verse one. Isaiah prophesied, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisons.” This speaks to the greatest and most true gift of Christmas. It is the reason why we have Christmas, and it is the reason why Christmas is worth celebrating in the first place. The gift of God was his very son, sent to release those in bondage and enslaved to sin. This truth is fundamental to what Christmas is all about, and we can see that as it is clearly mentioned in Christmas carols. We tend to only be familiar with the first verse of the carols, but in the later verses there is some deep theology in there. In Come Thou Long Expected Jesus Charles Wesley wrote, “Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee.” The fifth verse of O come, O come Emanuel declares “O come thou key of David come, and open wide our heavenly home. The captives from their prison free, and conquer death’s deep misery. The third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem states, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in be born in us today.” The third verse of Joy to the world joyfully exclaims, “No more let sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
The reason why we sing noel, the reason why the angels from the realm of glory sing, the reason why we can proclaim Joy to the World is because the Spirit of the sovereign Lord anointed Jesus of Nazareth to proclaim release from the bondage of sin and canceled the penalty of those sins. The greatest Christmas gift ever is not something that we can put on a wishlist or find under a tree with a box. The greatest gift ever given was Jesus, it is why we celebrate, and it is a gift that you can still receive.
The true Christmas list is not one that separates naughty and nice people. It is one that includes all of those who impoverished from living in the full of reality of God’s love. It is one that includes everyone who has made a wrong turn in their life, who has done something they know they should not have, who has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It includes you. The true Christmas list is one that proclaims good news, and it is good news for you. May you celebrate that the messiah has come and that you can be forgiven. May you seek a cure for spiritual poverty, and may this be a different Christmas. May it be one where you care less about what you receive and more about how your actions can show the Lord’s favor to others. May your words, your actions, and your very life proclaims the reason why we can sing Joy to the world.