The Robe of Righteousness

Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Date: Advent III + 12/11/11

Last Sunday we heard the prophet Isaiah foretell the coming of John the Baptist. In today’s selection he speaks no more of him. Interestingly, even though the reading from John’s Gospel today reports about the Baptist, the Baptizer himself insists that he doesn’t talk about himself but came only as a witness to “the light,” “the Christ,” the “One standing among you who you do not know,” “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” So this Sunday Isaiah also speaks only of the coming Messiah and the joyful kingdom He brings.

The tradition of the one pink candle of the Third Sunday of Advent proclaims joy. “Rejoice always,” says apostle Paul. John the Baptist proclaims the joyous light of glory that was coming into the world. Hope abounds in today’s psalm for “those who sow in tears” for they “shall reap with shouts of joy.” So the Servant of Yahweh, the Messiah brings good news, healing, liberty, the Lord’s favor and gladness. He says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord” as He is covered with the robe of righteousness in order to clothe others, to clothe us for the joyous marriage feast of salvation.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” writes Isaiah. But who is he writing about? Himself? That cannot be. For nowhere else does the prophet speak at such length about himself. Everywhere else Yahweh speaks of and to the One called the Servant of Yahweh, the One appointed to be the mediator of a new covenant, the light of the Gentiles, even the Suffering Servant. No, not Isaiah but the Messiah Himself speaks already. When He came, of course, Jesus Himself read these very words in His hometown synagogue of Nazareth as His own “call document” then declaring in no uncertain terms, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In other words, who is this of whom the prophet speaks? Jesus says, “You’re lookin’ at him!”

This is the calling and work of the Savior. He is “anointed,” literally, “the Christ.” He brings good news to the poor, mercy and the favor of God to all who know their need. “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” as His people have prayed for and expected for centuries in Psalm 147:3. When He comes to eradicate sin it is like throwing open the barred gates of our slavery to sin. These words always refer not to the mere opening of a room but the opening of the eyes. That is, the darkness of the prison cell of sin is invaded by the glorious light of the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, of life restored. Here again is the important, life-giving word repeated from last Sunday, “comfort;” to breathe again, to comfort all who mourn, those who take to heart and can see that sin is the culprit and death the final enemy.

To those who receive the gift of deliverance from sin and death comes beauty, gladness, praise of God and the steadfastness and sturdiness not of their own making but of this wonderful gift of God called “tsediqah,” “righteousness;” “that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.” “Righteousness” means that our relationship with God is restored, like God originally created and intended with Adam and Eve. As they were in a place called a “Garden,” so are God’s people now “the planting of the Lord,” the Church “a garden that causes what is sown in it to sprout up.”

So important and central is it that the word “righteousness” is repeated three times in our text. The Servant Himself is righteousness, the sinless Son of God, even in the days when He took on our flesh. God is His Father both in the same way and yet an even more unique, glorious, mysterious and intimate way than of ours. For He is “the light” as apostle John calls Him. That is, He is as we confess in the Creed, “begotten” and “consubstantial,” “of one substance” with the Father. You can’t get any more intimate than that. In Jesus, God Himself came into the world, not “to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

More than that, even when He became “The Sinner,” on the cross absorbing into His own flesh our sin, our darkness, the sin of the whole world, He remained righteous; so much so that He obliterated the power of sin and broke through the grip of death by His resurrection from the dead. In that power and victory now He clothes you with this robe, the robe of His righteousness. That is, He sets everything straight again between you and God, He makes it so that everything works together for you the way God originally intended. And that original intent is love, worship and eternal life. Even though sin still tries to hang on and death tries to threaten… how did Martin Luther put it in his hymn? “We tremble not, we fear no ill” (LSB 656:3). That’s the job of faith, faith that knows and believes the gift of righteousness, of deliverance, liberty and the light of gladness.

In that faith and righteousness, then, we can, with the prophet Isaiah, take up the Savior’s words as our own and say, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” and with the inspired Virgin’s song, “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.”
How can you express any greater joy than that?

In the garden of Christ’s Church, then, it is always the Lord God who causes “righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.” It was for and in this joy that John the Baptist bravely and faithfully testified of Christ before a world of questions, darkness and unbelief. And it is for and in this joy that we today proclaim Jesus Christ and worship Him as the God who has come to His people and redeemed them.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem.
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.

(Zech. 9:9; Ps. 118:26)