“The Great Christmas Gift Exchange” (Isaiah 61:1-4, 10-11)
There is a game that is played at this time of year at Christmas parties all across the land. The game goes by several names, but I think most often it is called “Rob Your Neighbor,” and I’m sure many of you have played it. The rules may vary from place to place, but generally I think it goes something like this. Each person brings a gift that could go to anyone in the group, depending on how the game turns out. The gift is wrapped in a package, so you can’t tell what is inside. When it’s your turn, you pick one of the gifts. The thing is, you have nothing to go on, other than the packaging. But watch out, because the packaging, the size of the box and the colorful wrapping–that might be impressive, but the gift inside may not be so great. On the other hand, the best gifts might be in the least impressive packaging. You don’t know. Then, after everyone has got a gift–then everybody unwraps their package and sees what’s inside. At this point, a period of “robbing your neighbor” may ensue. If it’s your turn, you may steal a gift from someone else at the table. But then somebody else may steal it away from you, and so on, and so on. When time runs out, who knows what you’ll end up with?
So that’s one kind of Christmas gift exchange that may or may not turn out so great. It’s all in fun, though, because the gifts are not that expensive, and so it’s not that big of a deal what you get or don’t get.
But today I want to tell you about a gift exchange that is a pretty big deal. And it’s no game; this is for real, as real as it gets. The items exchanged are not all of the same value; there’s quite a difference among them. Don’t look at the packaging; in this case, the best gifts will come in rather unimpressive-looking packaging. And best of all, what gets taken from you is nowhere near as valuable as what you get in return. And so today we’ll hear about “The Great Christmas Gift Exchange.”
Our text is the reading from Isaiah 61. It is a prophecy about the gift-giver, the anointed one to come, who will take some things from you and give you other things in their place. Yes, of course, it is a prophecy about the Christ, the Messiah, who will do the Great Christmas Gift Exchange. He takes the lousy, worthless items you’re stuck with, and he gives you the most beautiful, the most wonderful gifts in exchange.
Listen to Isaiah, as he speaks what Jesus would say: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn. . . .”
This is why Jesus would come at Christmas, to do these very things. This is why he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism in the Jordan, to carry out this kind of messianic ministry. This was his mission, this is his purpose.
Are you poor, poor in spirit, realizing your spiritual poverty before God? Jesus has good news for you. You will share in his riches. Are you brokenhearted, your heart broken by all the damage that sin has done in your life and in the lives of people all around you? Jesus will bind you up and repair the damage and mend your heart. Are you captive to your sinful nature, or in prison in your thoughts, or in debt up to your eyeballs in God’s heavenly account book? Jesus comes to set you free and to pay off your debts. This is the time of the Lord’s favor. Jesus ushers in the great year of Jubilee, when all debts are canceled. Jesus takes vengeance on your enemies, conquering them for you–sin, death, and the power of the devil. Do you mourn the loss of loved ones who have fallen asleep in the Lord, those dear ones you knew and loved and still miss to this day? Jesus comforts you with the words of eternal life, that death is not the end, and that there is a great reunion of God’s saints on the way. That day is coming, when Jesus will come again.
So these are a few of the gifts from the gift-giver Jesus: good news, wholeness of heart, liberty, release, mercy, victory, and comfort. These, in place of poverty, brokenness, captivity, prison, debt, oppression, and mourning. That’s a pretty sweet deal, and that’s just for starters.
Isaiah continues with his prophecy of the anointed one to come, what he will do: “to grant to those who mourn in Zion–to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.”
Now here it’s very clear that there’s an exchange going on. Look at what Jesus takes from you, and look at what he gives you in exchange. He takes away your ashes and gives you a beautiful headdress in their place. Ashes, in the Bible, are a sign of penitence and of mortality. In repentance and contrition, people would put ashes on their head. Ashes betoken that we are dead and dying sinners. Do you know this, do you feel this? Do you realize your sins and your sinfulness? Guess what? Jesus comes to take that sin away from you and give you something better in exchange. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus came at Christmas so he could accomplish just this on Good Friday. The Son of God was born in the flesh so that he could die in our place. Jesus lifts the burden of your sin from off your shoulders and places it on his own. He carries your sins to the cross, and there he sheds his holy precious blood for you, so that now you are forgiven.
And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. With your sins taken away, there is no more barrier between you and God. Now life–resurrection life, eternal life–stands open before you, as sure as the stone is rolled away from Christ’s empty tomb. You are baptized. You believe in Christ your Savior. The gift is yours, with your name on it. And it is a beautiful headdress indeed. It is the crown of life, everlasting life with our Lord and with all the saints in glory.
But now remember: The best gifts may come in the most unimpressive packages. And that’s often how God operates. Jesus himself came as the man of sorrows, the suffering servant of the Lord. As it says in Isaiah 53: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” A man dying in shame on a cross–that doesn’t look like God is doing a great work there. Likewise, in the packages God uses to deliver his gifts today. An ordinary guy preaching some words in a little church–that doesn’t look like God is saving sinners through that. But he is. Somebody pouring some water on a baby’s head and saying some words to go with it–you can’t see that baby being born again as a child of God. But that’s what’s happening. Bread and wine–not even gourmet bread or expensive wine–along with the words, “This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”: The gift is much greater than the outward appearance. So don’t judge the gift by its packaging. With God, the best gifts come in humble wrapping.
Knowing that we have the forgiveness of sins and the crown of everlasting life–that lifts our spirits even now. Yes, look at what else you get in the Great Christmas Gift Exchange: “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.” You see, in a dry and dusty climate, an application of refreshing, fragrant oil will do wonders to replenish your skin and cheer your heart. And so Jesus gifts us with the oil of gladness. The glad tidings of Christ our Savior–this gladdens our hearts when so much around us would sadden our spirits. Gladness in place of sadness. Thank you, Lord! And “the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit”? To sing the praises of our God focuses our mind on all that God does for us, and it engages our emotions as well. It is a joyous thing to sing praise to God, and it bolsters our confidence, it strengthens us in the faith.
Isaiah continues: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. . . .” Rebuilding and repair where there were ruins. Restoration after devastation. Friends, this is why Jesus came at Christmas. This is what he will bring to final fulfillment when he comes again and restores all things.
And so how do we respond, being on the receiving end of the gift-giver’s giving? Isaiah tells us: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
Our response to the Great Christmas Gift Exchange is to greatly rejoice in the Lord our God. Look at the beautiful clothing he has decked us out in! The garments of salvation. The robe of righteousness. A beautiful headdress. Precious jewels. Beautiful! And compare that to what we were dressed in, apart from Christ: Ugly, sin-stained rags. All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. But Jesus robes us with his perfect righteousness, the glistening white robe of his righteousness, which is placed on us in our baptism. This is a quite an exchange, isn’t it? It is a blessed, joyous exchange!
In the game of “Rob Your Neighbor,” it may be fun, but you don’t get rich off of it. However, in God’s Great Christmas Gift Exchange, not only is it a joy, you also get to get rid of the junk you otherwise would be stuck with: sin and death and hell, the bad things Jesus takes from you. And furthermore, Jesus the gift-giver freely gives you the very best gifts in exchange: the robe of righteousness, the garments of salvation, and the oil of gladness! Hey, I’ll take it! How about you?