December 14, 2016

December 11, 2016 - Isaiah 61:1-3

Theme: Christmas Breaks Captivity
1) From earthly enemies
2) From spiritual enemies
3) From eternal enemies

It's better to give than to receive… Is that true? Do we really believe that giving is better than receiving, especially around Christmas? It’s pretty nice to receive. I think when we use that phrase what we mean is that is more important to give than to receive, or maybe it is morally better to give than to receive. Anyone who says that they don’t care about what they receive in life is most likely lying. We do care, and it’s okay to care. Having a desire to live and survive simply means that you do care about receiving. Receiving doesn’t have to be a matter of over-indulgence and selfishness.

Okay, there may be more than one angle to the notion that it is better to give than to receive. But, I’m willing to guess that if I proposed to you that it is better to receive than to give, that would a lot harder to accept. If I went around the public, telling people that, I would be met with some resistance. To suggest that we should be more concerned with getting rather than giving, especially around the holidays, is not very popular. People may act like they care about getting more than anything else, but they probably wouldn’t advocate for it or wear it as a badge of pride.

But, isn’t that precisely what we should believe about God? To receive from God is always better than giving. Without receiving first from God there is nothing of value that I can offer to Him. My life depends on what He gives to me, in fact, my life began with what He gave. If we are not Christians who defend and promote receiving over giving, when it comes to God, we are not Christians. I want you to think about that now, as I read our text for today from the prophet Isaiah, in which He describes what the LORD God gives us:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of our God's vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair. And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the LORD to glorify Him.

Part 1 – From earthly enemies

Isaiah’s message is one freedom. Freedom from oppression of enemies to be sure, but freedom from things like: sorrow, worry, hurt, and any other limitation. This message was important to God’s people for many reasons. First of all, they would need freedom from enemies here on earth. In the immediate context of these verses, Judah was at peace. But, this would not last long. In an effort to protect the kingdom from the threat of the Assyrians, the very nation that conquered the northern tribes of Israel, King Hezekiah became friendly toward a distant nation called Babylon. In a moment of folly, Hezekiah invited Babylonian envoys to Jerusalem and showed them the extent of the kingdom and all the riches they had, probably in an attempt to impress them. Isaiah prophesied a message of judgment because of this in chapter 39. After Hezekiah’s reign, Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians.

The people who first read these words would have had to experience this oppression. A message of coming freedom and liberty would have been most welcome. However, this message of deliverance from earthly foes would also resonate with another generation. In Luke chapter 4 we see Jesus quoting these very verses and at the conclusion saying, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” The people listening to Jesus in the synagogue that day would not have been thinking about the Babylonians, but the Romans. They, like Isaiah’s original audience, were a people under oppression. They desired freedom and they believed Jesus would provide it as the fulfillment of these words. The tragic part of this story, as we know, is that the majority of the people limited God’s liberty to the earthly realm. True enough, with the peace of forgiveness that Jesus brought also came deliverance from all earthly oppressors, but not in an immediate, literal sense. Jesus taught that a person could be free even if an earthly nation ruled over them. True freedom is the knowledge of sins forgiven. If a person’s heart is cleansed and purified by the Holy Spirit, what does it matter what the rest of the world does? It’s the same attitude that David wrote about in Psalm 56: “I trust in God, I will not be afraid, what can man do to me?” That’s freedom.

While Jesus did not come as an earthly Savior, He does neutralize all worldly threats. His promise of “Because I live you also will live” can indeed be true even if our mortal lives come under threat or death. So, yes, this message of a coming Savior, fulfilled by Jesus through His birth and death, is a message that breaks captivity under earthly enemies. But, it only does so by first breaking the spiritual bonds of our slavery.

Part 2 – From spiritual enemies

The fact that Isaiah continually points to the gifts which God will give reminds us that we can’t give enough by ourselves. God is the one who gives us the ability to preach the good news, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty and the year of His favor, to comfort all who mourn, and to console the downtrodden. These are amazing gifts, of a spiritual nature, which come only through the fulfillment of these verses, Jesus Christ. Isaiah summarizes at the end of the chapter by writing, I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness. We rightly rejoice at these gifts but we also humbly remember that we are insufficient before God on our own.

Here we see one of the greatest spiritual enemies that can easily keep us captive. It is the inward feeling or desire to justify ourselves outside of God. Think about that definition. It is the complete opposite of the way that the Bible describes salvation. The Bible says that Jesus, God, justifies us freely outside of ourselves. The complete opposite is that we would seek to be justified through our works outside of God. This teaching, as blatantly false as it is, is still a great enemy to our faith.

There’s a great danger present in our lives from this enemy for two reasons. First, we are all captive to the enemy of self-righteousness as soon as we enter this world. We are born into sin and therefore corrupted by it immediately. You can’t state it any simpler than Paul did, “There is none who is righteous, not even one.” The second danger is this. We may be freed by Christ from the clutches of this enemy through baptism and faith, but it stays near us for all our days. The fallen nature is an enemy that sits on the doorsteps of our hearts and the only thing to keep it at bay is the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament. So, even after being set free, we can at any time slip up and fall victim to the unregenerate flesh. We cannot let up or get any feeling of self-confidence or that could be it.

The Christmas season has its own peculiar variety of this ancient enemy. We know it as the danger of materialism. Isn’t materialism the reason why we remind ourselves that it is better to give than to receive? We don’t want to become selfish or greedy, for good reason. In this way, giving is a good protector against materialism. But, it’s not a total fix. Swinging too far into the domain of what we must do in order to protect ourselves can lead up right into the trap of the sinful flesh; namely that we block out any thought of what God has done for us and we focus only on our good merits instead. In the end, it doesn’t matter if our thoughts today are centered on greed and desire or the more pious options of giving and humility; if we do not have Christ in our hearts nothing matters and nothing is fixed.

To have strength and power against spiritual enemies, whether work righteousness or materialism, we need to receive what God gives us – Good news, healing, liberty, comfort, and consolation. Isaiah’s message is a far cry from what we typically hear in Christianity, especially in America. Today, the emphasis in so many churches is on those things which you must give to God. Prayer, Praise, Thanksgiving, Time, Talents, Money. It’s not that any of these things are bad, not at all. It’s not that we shouldn’t be doing any of these things. The problem is when they become the focus of your faith.

Simply put, the Christian faith is not about what we do for God. It’s about what He gives us. If we are conditioned only to give and give and give, and we never think about receiving anything, we have a major problem. Isaiah says, “It is better, it is necessary to receive, rather than to give.” If we don’t take this to heart and believe it, we will remain captive under our spiritual enemies. Only Jesus can liberate us. Only He, the Child born on Christmas, can set us free, as He Himself has said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 "And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. 36 "Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:34-36).”

Part 3 – From eternal enemies

Isaiah first wrote to a people who would be captive under the Babylonians. Jesus spoke these words to those who were oppressed by the Romans. Physical captivity was a reality for God’s people and He promised to free them. Jesus also made clear that His mission was of a spiritual nature; that He sought to free people from the bondage of sin and the prison of their hearts. These things are true of Isaiah’s message, but he also warns us of one, final enemy, the one who would hold us for eternity - Satan.

Thoughts of eternity enter our minds as we read Isaiah’s warning of the Lord’s day of vengeance. God can certainly bring His righteous vengeance to the world in many ways, but there is going to be one final day. I heard a pastor speak earlier this last week about how every belief ultimately is concerned with death. Not in the sense that death is the sum and substance of all beliefs but rather that all beliefs seek to answer something about death. We don’t buy into things and trust them for no reason. We do so because they resonate with us or they answer a question we have. What bigger question exists than what happens after death? Whatever is believed in life, even if it not considered religious, will have something to say about death.

That’s because death is a certainty. No one can escape it and everyone knows it coming. Death is absolutely true no matter what one’s religion is. How amazing it is then, that people choose to believe so many things about death that ignore the matter entirely. People choose to believe that death isn’t important. People willingly plead ignorance about death. People choose to ignore the problem entirely, even though there will come a day that they no longer can. People choose to believe things that can’t be proven in order to help them cope with something that can’t be denied. It’s fascinating in one sense, but also sad. 

Death is Satan’s greatest tool. He was successful in deceptively slipping it into life through Adam and Eve’s sin and ever since it has wreaked havoc on mankind. So much so, that even as wise and advanced as people are today they are nevertheless more dumbfounded over death than ever before. Death, and its eternal consequences, indeed comprise the deadliest prison ever.

What a miracle, that in these few words, and in the humble birth of a Savior in Bethlehem, we have the answer for the questions of eternity. Isaiah gives us the gift of freedom and it’s so simple. All of these amazing promises of God are given to us in Jesus Christ. It’s so simple you can feel it in the words of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus unassumingly enters the synagogue, reads them, sets the scroll down, and says, “Today, these words have come true.”

Do you recognize and believe what that simple sentence means for you today? You are free, to preach, to proclaim, to heal, to comfort, and to console. What wonderful gifts we can give, both to others and to our Lord. But, it all starts as it does in our text, by receiving them in your own heart. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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