Notes for a Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 3 2016
For the Epistle, Isaiah 61: 1-3 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 2:19-23
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. Isaiah 61, Jubilee and the gospel
1. The Second Sunday after Christmas is one of a handful of feasts on which the prayer book has an Old Testament lesson for the epistle (BCP 106). Isaiah 61 promises that the gospel will be preached to the poor, the blind will see, the brokenhearted will be healed and the captives will be set free. The promises of Isaiah 61 are clothed in the Old Testament concept of the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25). Every fiftieth year was to be a year of Jubilee. Leviticus says, “You shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land…and proclaim liberty throughout all the land” (25:9-10). In the Jubilee year, land that had been sold to pay debts was returned to its original owner; those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts were given their freedom; and, in various other ways, people were given a fresh start.
2. Isaiah 61 is the passage Jesus read and preached about in his first act of public ministry in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. He read Isaiah 61 and said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21). The jubilee provides the framework for understanding Jesus’ ministry. Jesus set people free through the forgiveness of sins and various forms of healing.
3. Jesus proclaims to us the promises of the Jubilee Year. When we turn away from sin and put our faith in Jesus, we are set free from captivity to sin and are able to “walk in newness of life” through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the central theme of Christmas. Jesus comes as the New Man to renew our human nature so that we can live new lives.
B. Jubilee and the New Year
1. The theme of Jubilee is appropriate to the New Year. People make resolutions to break free from old patterns and live in a new way. Too often these resolutions fail. The pattern of the secular New Year: Great resolve for new things followed by a return to the same old thing.
2. Our identity as Christians tells us that it should be different for us. Unfortunately, for many this is not the case. Many Christians experience the same failure and frustration as the world; there is the hope of newness, but the reality of the same old things. How can things be really new and different for us?
C. The Christian life is different because of the Holy Spirit
1. The pattern of the Christian life vs. the pattern of the world. The world is always striving to do better, but never quite getting there. This futility is experienced by people in their everyday lives. People try hard to do new things, fail, feel guilty, make new resolutions, then try harder. It is a vicious cycle.
2. The Christian life is different because it begins with grace, rather than with human striving. Jesus proclaims, right now, “Your sins are forgiven. There is nothing in the gospel message that tells you that God will accept you only once you accomplish certain things.
3. The grace of God changes things. We are able to do by God’s grace what we are unable to do by our human nature. The new pattern of faith: We receive God’s grace for our failures, then we practice new behavior. As we stick with this pattern over time, we are changed.
The Power of the Holy Spirit is experienced through prayer
1. We experience grace through prayer. This is why the main resolution for a Christian in the New Year should be to establish prayer as the foundation for life. Unless we are willing to order our lives around patterns of prayer, we probably won’t grow as efficiently or effectively as we would like. Without constant and habitual prayer, our lives will not be rooted in grace, and we will end up striving on a merely human level.
2. The life of prayer is the cultivation of the habits of grace, not just religious activity. We begin life each Sunday at the altar of God, we being and end the day with the Daily Office, we strive to prayer without ceasing, in order to constantly remember who we really are, and constantly experience the grace of God.
3. Your life of prayer. We must establish some pattern of habitual prayer that continually bring us back to grace. As John Charles used to say, “Pray the way you can, not the way you can’t.” But pray, and change your schedule for prayer.
E. Things to work on in the life of prayer
1. With regard to the behavioral changes we pray for, we should focus on things that matter to God rather than worldly success or appearance.
a. Focus on healthy habits—moderation and self-control rather than appearance—fasting is a discipline to develop self-control, not to lose weight.
b. Focus on virtue rather than result. “Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be added.” Do you like the person you are becoming? How do you want to be better? Pray for that, practice that, receive grace for the way you are not yet that.
c. Look outward rather than inward. Stop staring at the mirror and start asking how God want you to use your gifts to help others.
2. Resolve to not be so hard on yourself. If you have done something wrong, confess it, receive God’s forgiveness and grace, and practice doing new things. As you follow this pattern, you will change. If you haven’t done anything wrong, stop feeling guilty!
3. Focus on growth in the context of grace. We are children of God growing toward maturity. As with all children, there will be moments when we fall and moments when our immaturity surfaces is ways that frustrate us. We do not reject our children when they struggle, and God does not reject you.
4. Jubilee is the constant pattern for life in Christ. This is what makes us different. Our pattern is not striving and always failing. Our pattern is the continual experience of grace that leads, continually, to a new pattern of life. Here we are again at that altar. Jesus is still here. Once again our sins are forgiven. Once again, God makes all things new.