God's Gift Exchange
A sermon based on Isaiah 61:1-3
Sunday, December 11, 2011 – Advent 3B
Last weekend, the faculty of Grace Lutheran School had our annual Christmas party at which we have our gift exchange. But we don't just buy gifts for each other. We play a game. I'm sure you've played it before, but for those who haven't, here's how it works: everyone brings a wrapped gift to the party and when it's time to open the gifts, everyone draws a number from a hat No. 1 opens any present they want. No. 2 can either "steal" that gift from number one or open something else.
But sometimes, the game that's meant to be fun, isn't always that fun. I remember one year in college our dorm floor decided to try our hand at the white elephant gift exchange—something I highly recommend you avoid for reasons that will soon become obvious. You see, while I brought what I thought was a nice CD that anyone might want, someone else thought it a funny joke to bring a loaf of moldy bread (and I mean moldy beyond recognition), wrap it up very nicely, complete with gold ribbon and bow, and bring that as their gift to be exchanged. I'm sure you can guess which gift I unwrapped. And while I did find the joke a bit humorous, I would rather have had the prank fall on some other unsuspecting party-goer as no one was going to steal that gift.
This advent season, as we get ready to celebrate Christmas, we're reminded of God's gift exchange—which, odd as it may seem, is somewhat similar to the white elephant gift exchange of my college days. You see, just like I got the raw end of the deal in my gift exchange—giving a nice CD and receiving a moldy loaf of bread—on a much larger scale, God got the raw end of the deal in his gift exchange. We give God something more disgusting than a loaf of mold. We give him our hideous sins. And in exchange, he gives us the best gift there is—he gives us his Son.
Martin Luther once prayed, "Lord Jesus, I am your sin; you are my righteousness. I have made you what you were not; you have made me what I was not." Because of God's gift exchange in Jesus, who became what he was not, he has made us what we were not. Now we are forgiven. Now we are righteous. Now we are heirs of eternal life. Listen Isaiah elaborate on God's wonderful exchange in Isaiah 61:1-3…
61 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
I. We Made Him What He Was Not
The Israelites had it good. God gave them everything they could ask for. He brought them out of slavery into their own land, promised to their forefathers. He gave them great amounts of wealth, every comfort and convenience. He gave them peace and protection from their enemies. And on top of all the physical blessings he gave them the promise of a Savior to come remove their sins and the promise of eternal glory forever.
Yet in spite of all he gave them, God's people rejected him. In exchange for the great gifts God had promised and given, they gave him a horrible present in return. They cheated on him. They worshipped false Gods, blocks of wood, and carved pieces of stone. They "worshipped" these "gods" with obscene sexual acts and even with human sacrifice. It was as if they gave God a box of manure in exchange for the diamond ring he gave to them. And for such ingratitude for God's gifts, for such wicked rebellion against him, they deserved to die.
But instead of destroying them, God in his love only spanked them. He allowed the Babylonians to carry them off into captivity to lead his people to repentance. Now, in captivity, fully aware that God allowed their ruin because of their sin, they were dejected and brokenhearted, prisoners in a dark dungeon, mourning with ashes on their head, on the verge of despair. They knew they deserved no good thing from God and fully earned his day of vengeance against them.
But now that they were aware of their sin and recognized what they deserved, God sent them the comfort they needed. He would give them another great gift—the best one yet. In exchange for their sins, he would send them a Savior to bind up their broken hearts and bring them comfort. He would give them a great exchange. And that exchange would come in the Messiah.
Isaiah writes, "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." Literally, it says, "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has 'Messiah-ed' me to preach good news to the poor." Messiah, or the Greek equivalent, Christ, literally means, "the Anointed One." Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the One anointed by God. In fact, in Luke 4, we hear how Jesus read these very verses in the synagogue and said, "Today these Scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing." "These Scriptures are fulfilled in me." The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord did come on Jesus at his Baptism when he began his mission.
It's Jesus himself speaking about that mission through Isaiah when he writes, "He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…
What a great gift the Savior would bring. What an awesome exchange. He would take away all that troubled them. He would remove their grief, sorrow and pain. He would proclaim freedom and declare the Year of the Lord's favor, a reference to the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25, where every Israelite slave would be set free. He would rescue them from slavery to the Babylonians and from slavery to sin. And he would do it all by taking those curses on himself. He would become what he was not. He would become their sin and take the punishment they deserved in their place.
And dear friends, God makes that same exchange with us as well… While we too have been blessed with every blessing, both physical and spiritual, we often treat those gifts with the same contempt the Israelites did. We too at times use our physical blessings only to serve ourselves. Just look at your bank statements. We too often ignore God's spiritual blessings and don't bother to take advantage of them. Consider how many minutes you've spend in the word this week compared to how many hours you've spend being entertained.
In exchange for all he's given us, do we get him a pair of used, unwashed socks? Do we pull a few scraps out of the garbage and offer that as our gift to him? Do we give him a loaf of moldy bread? No. It's even worse. Though it's often packaged in beautiful wrapping so outwardly we look like great Christians, in reality we give him a bag of manure, a box full of maggots. We give him sin upon filthy sin. And for our ingratitude, for our indifference, we too deserve damnation in exchange.
But dear friends, we don't get what is rightfully ours. We don't get it because Jesus did. Jesus became what he was not. On Christmas Day Jesus, the anointed one of God, God himself, became a lowly human. On Good Friday, Jesus became what he was not again, when he, being perfectly righteous, took all our sins on himself. And there he took what we deserve. He became the brokenhearted man of sorrows. He was held captive by our sin, in the complete darkness of hell, abandoned by the Father. He was the mourning prisoner, covered in ashes, enduring God's day of vengeance—the hell of God's full wrath poured out on him.
And because he became what he was not, we will never suffer that hell. He looked around at the gift exchange and saw us stuck with the moldy loaf of bread—with hell—and he took it away from us. And because he took the raw end of the deal for us, we're free of the disgusting mess we were in. And what's more, he not only took away the horrible gifts, but he gave us something great in return. He made us what we were not…
II. He Made Us What We Were Not
God's gift to the Israelites was even greater than taking away their despair and destroying their captors. It was even greater than removing their sins. You see, not only would he take away the negative, the curses that were theirs, but he would also give them positive, incredible blessings, in their place. By becoming what he was not, Christ made them what they were not…
"He has sent me … to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor."
Do you know the difference between mercy and grace? In God's mercy he didn't give the Israelites the punishment they deserved. In his grace he did give them the blessings they didn't deserve. God didn't just deliver them from slavery (mercy), but gave them blessing upon blessing as well (grace). If he'd only delivered them from Babylon, they might have starved to death back in their home land, but God blessed their land and their crops upon their return. Or when they did grow prosperous again they might have been attacked by a new Persian enemy, but God protected them. Or they could have lived a wealthy and prosperous life only to die and go to hell, but God saved them. He not only took away the Israelites' captivity, but gave them freedom in the full sense. They were free from Babylon and free from the sins that brought them there, free from God's punishment, free from their fear.
In exchange for the Day of God's Vengeance which they rightfully deserved, they received the Year of the Lord's favor as his chosen people. Again, this Year of the Lord's favor is a reference to the Year of Jubilee, which happened every 50 years in Israel. Every 50th year, not only were all the Israelite slaves freed, but all land that had been sold was returned to its ancestral owner. They would be released from slavery and blessed with land. They got a great gift—God's favor—in exchange for their lousy one.
Very soon they could celebrate Jubilee again with three more great exchanges… 1) For the ashes they wore in sorrow, God would give them a crown of beauty. 2) He would take away their cause for mourning and give them every reason to be glad, pouring soothing oil of healing on them. 3) In exchange for their despair, he would give them glory and every reason to praise God when he wrapped them up in Christ's righteousness. For as great as the return from captivity in Babylon would be, greater still was the spiritual deliverance they had in the Servant of the Lord—in Jesus. That's the greatest gift God could give to Israel or to us…
You see we too have been freed from a dungeon of darkness. We're no longer held captive by sin. We're no longer slaves to death. We're not lost in the blinding darkness of our own efforts to gain God's love. Instead we've received every blessing from God, having become what we were not in Christ when he became what he was not for us. At Christmas, he was born a lowly human. At his baptism he was anointed by the Spirit of the Lord and from that time on he began his mission: the work of our salvation, by making God's gift exchange.
He lived a perfect life on earth, always obeying God perfectly—and he gave that perfect gift of obedience to us. You see, Jesus not only removed our sins, but he also gave us the perfect gift of his righteousness. He made us what we were not—sinless, perfect, and perfectly pleasing to God, heirs of heaven itself and recipients of every good and perfect gift that comes from God.
Now we're no longer in darkness, but have clear direction in our lives—to serve our God in thanksgiving for the gift he's given, to bring glory to his name. We have God's favor (for more than a year; for all of eternity) with no need to fear God's coming Day of Vengeance. We have comfort in every situation, knowing that if God loves us enough to give us such great spiritual gifts, how much more can't we trust him to take care of our physical lives? We know he will provide for us in all our needs. The wife who gets a diamond necklace from her husband for Christmas can be sure he loves her enough to get her that book she's always wanted too.
Jesus gives us the best gifts. He gives us the crown of life in exchange for the ashes of our death. He gives us gladness, with the certainty that heaven itself is ours, in exchange for the sins that brought us such sorrow. He brought us a garment of praise, Jesus own robes of righteousness to replace our spirit of despair. Because Jesus became what he was not, and made us what we were not, praise God! We don't ever have cause to despair because we are his oaks of righteousness.
At the house Becky and I lived in when I served my vicar year in Austin, TX there were two giant live oak trees. One was in back yard, one was in the front. The branches covered entire property and gave great shade to the house. When someone first told me what variety of tree they were, I thought, "Why 'live' oak? Isn't it obvious it's alive and not dead?" But before long I learned that this particular deciduous tree was really like an evergreen in that it never lost it leaves completely. And while it made for constant yard work cleaning out the gutters and raking the lawn all year round, those trees were awesome. They were so huge they could never be moved. That's what God has made us in his gift exchange. In Christ, we are "called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor."
We can't be moved in our righteousness. Nothing can ever take it away because it doesn't come from us. It's a gift of God in his great exchange. Like a live oak, our spiritual life can never stop spreading its leaves all around and affecting every part of our lives and everyone we meet. Since our righteousness, life and salvation, come outside of us, as a gift of God, we can't ever be shaken.
So no matter what gifts you get from your friends and family this Christmas, even if it's a moldy loaf of bread, rejoice because you have the greater gifts of God's gift exchange. And join with Luther in praising God, saying "Lord Jesus, I am your sin; you are my righteousness. I have made you what you were not; you have made me what I was not." And give thanks to God for his great gifts! In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.