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What would make you really happy? Your first thought might be, the end of the pandemic. That would make everyone happy. Getting to be with family for Christmas, especially those in places where no visitors are allowed. That would make lots of people happy. What about opening the one gift you were really hoping for on Christmas? Those things would make us happy, but how long would that happiness last? There are always going to be sicknesses and diseases. There are always going to be times when we aren’t able to get together with family, whether it’s work, or finances, or distance, or illness, or a snowstorm. Very often, that visit with family isn’t as enjoyable as you had hoped; that one gift you thought you really needed doesn’t turn out to be as exciting as you thought it would be and it gets buried on the bottom of the toy box, or in the back of a drawer, or put up for sale on eBay.
But Pastor, I thought the theme for today was Rejoice! It sounds like you are pouring cold water on our joy, giving us all kinds of reasons to be sad instead of to rejoice. No, the point is that the things we think are going to make us rejoice may give us temporary joy, but they cannot give us everlasting joy. Temporary things can’t possibly give us everlasting joy because they are not going to be there forever. Isaiah reminds us that everlasting joy can only come from what the Lord, the everlasting God, has done and will do for us.
Israel had reason to think what we are tempted to think when we hear the word “Rejoice” today. “What reason do we have to rejoice?” They were afflicted. They had been defeated in battle. They had been taken captive to a foreign country. When they heard that, not only the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed, but even the temple of God itself, they were brokenhearted. Those who were believers were brokenhearted not just because of the loss they personally had experienced, the physical loss of home and freedom, but also because they realized these things that had happened to them were a consequence for the majority of the nation turning their backs on God. They were just what God said would happen if they rejected him as their God. God allowed these things to happen to remind them that he is the one and only true God and to call them to repentance. Only then could they have a reason to rejoice in time and through all eternity.
When we begin to feel sorry for ourselves because of all the restrictions we are facing, the inability to celebrate last Easter and now Christmas the way we would like to, remember what Jesus said to the people of his day. It’s easy to try to find fault and point the finger at others and blame them for the problems we are facing, but, Jesus said, unless you repent, you too will perish. Any bad thing that happens is a reminder that we are sinful people living in a sinful world. It may not be our specific sin that caused a pandemic, or an accident, or some other problem we are facing but, Jesus says, instead of trying to find fault with others, look in the mirror. Use the pandemic as a call to personal repentance, as a reminder that you are a sinful mortal who deserves a lot worse than anything that can happen to you in this life.
The one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord God rests, Jesus, promises wonderful things to all who mourn, to all who acknowledge their sins. He promises to provide them with a crown of beauty in place of the ashes of mourning. He will enable them to wash off those ashes of mourning and rub rejuvenating oil on their dry skin. Instead of a faint spirit, a feeling of hopelessness and despair that makes you want to stay in bed in pajamas all day, he would give them a reason to get up and get dressed in fancy clothing and be seen in public displaying a joyful spirit.
How will he accomplish this?
What is it that God demands if we are going to be able to have everlasting joy in his presence? He demands righteousness, perfection. Paul spends the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans making it crystal clear that no one on earth, no matter how good you think you are, has the righteousness they need to have everlasting joy in his presence. There is no one who is righteous, not even one. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Because we don’t have the righteousness God demands we all deserve everlasting sorrow, not everlasting joy.
But Isaiah says, I will rejoice greatly in the Lord. Not just a little, but greatly, with everything that is in me. My soul will celebrate because of my God. He is rejoicing and celebrating because of something the Lord his God has done for him.
What has he done? He has clothed me in garments of salvation. With a robe of righteousness he covered me. Instead of the torn clothing of regret and the ashes of mourning he gave him a beautiful turban like the high priest wore and jewelry like a bride dressed for her wedding.
Ah, there’s the righteousness Isaiah needed and didn’t have. There’s the righteousness we need and don’t have. Notice, it’s not that Isaiah had worked hard and earned the righteousness he needed. He was mourning and hopeless because he knew there was no way he could earn it. There’s no way we can earn it. The Lord God gave him what he needed. He gave him the wedding garment. He covered his torn clothing and the stains of his sins with a pure, white robe of righteousness.
We sing about that robe of righteousness in the hymn. “Jesus thy blood and righteousness. My beauty are my glorious dress.” That robe of righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Jesus, his perfect life lived in our place. It is his innocent blood shed for us on the cross that washes every stain of our sins away. Through faith in Jesus, we are given the righteousness God demands. Jesus covers us completely with his righteousness so that when God looks at us, he doesn’t see any spot or stain of sin. He only sees the righteousness, the perfection he demands.
Because Jesus robes us in his righteousness, God sees us clothed in the garments of salvation. We have everlasting joy because instead of giving us the punishment we deserve; he gives us the eternal pardon we don’t deserve. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we have a complete makeover. When we look in the mirror, we no longer see a defeated captive in mourning clothes and covered with ashes. In Jesus, when we look in the mirror, we can’t believe our eyes. We see a bride, dressed in purity, bedazzled with jewels, beautifully dressed, filled with Joy and excitement, just waiting for our bridegroom to appear and wisk us off to our eternal honeymoon in the place where joy will never end. That’s a real reason to rejoice. That’s the kind of joy that is yours no matter what happens in life, no matter what kind of trial or tribulation you are facing. It’s the kind of joy that never ends because it’s given to us by God who is eternal.
How certain are these things that God has promised? Well, isn’t he the one who created the earth and everything in it? Isn’t he the one who commanded the earth to produce plants and trees and all kinds of vegetation? Has that continued to happen ever since? That’s how certain it is that God will do what he says and that he will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up in the presence of all the nations. Believers are a planting of the Lord to display his beauty. No matter how bad the earth gets God will always have those who are righteous through faith in Jesus and who proclaim his praise to others. Even in the days of the flood, God had Noah who was righteous through faith and who was a preacher of righteousness, even if no one believed him.
Paul says, rejoice always. In everything give thanks. That means even in the midst of a pandemic, even in the midst of persecution, even in the midst of illness, even when the whole world seems against you. Remember, the Lord is near. He is near to bind up the brokenhearted… to comfort all who mourn. He is near to clothe you with garments of salvation and cover you with the robe of Jesus’ righteousness. The grass, the flowers, earthly gifts, people, everything earthly withers and fades. But the world of the Lord endures forever. His promise of salvation and forgiveness in Jesus is forever. Rejoice! In Jesus, you have something that gives you everlasting joy! Rejoice in the Lord Always!