Sunday, December 28, 2008

Robes of Righteousness

Readings: First Sunday after Christmas, Year B

I know what you do. You step out of the shower, face the mirror, and check your flaws. You cover them with clothes. Maybe you color your hair, or wear makeup. If you're young, you try to cover the acne, if you're older, the lines. That's human nature. That's biology.

But your inner flaws you can't see as easily, because they aren't reflected in mirrors. They're reflected in the lives and faces of the people you hurt. You cover them with denial. If you're young, you want sex, if you're older, money or power. You attend to the people who can give them to you, and, at best, you ignore the people who can't. But mostly, you just want to believe that you're a good person. So you steal the certainty of your goodness from whatever source you need to, even from God. That's human nature, too. That's psychology. Or, in church-talk, sin.

And yet, as Isaiah says, "You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God."

Isaiah, of course, was talking about the shame and humiliation the people Israel had suffered by being conquered and exiled as powerless captives. They regarded their recent captivity as shameful, like having their nakedness exposed for all to mock. Now the LORD has clothed them with garments of salvation, like bridegrooms and brides. In captivity they were naked, ugly, and dirty. Now they are clean and beautiful, to be admired by all the nations, not for themselves, but to show the redeeming power of the LORD. Isaiah just can't keep silent about this good news.

Psalm 148 raises the level of praise to include all creation, from inanimate things to all people of the earth, even their kings, to the host of heaven. Everyone and everything everywhere dancing and singing together.

This is serious "feel-good" fellowship, here, and there seem to be no phrases of exclusion. Hey, celebrate! "You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God."

Inside and out, you shall feel good, you shall look good, you shall be good. Clothed in robes of righteousness.

And not second-hand righteousness, as if there were such a thing. As the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians, you shall receive adoption as children of God, sisters and brothers of Christ. The Spirit of Christ is sent into our hearts crying, "Abba!" Writing for a Greek-speaking audience, Paul translates this as "Father," but it was probably more like a nickname that a very young child would use like, "Daddy."

Now Paul is writing about whether the new Christian community, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, should observe the whole of Jewish law and tradition, starting with the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible. He is silent on whether Jewish Christians should continue observing the law, but he claims that forcing the Law on Gentile converts to Christianity just adds impediments to their new faith. He argues that we as Christians are not slaves but free with regard to the Law. That we are not God's slaves, but God's children. We may observe the halacha, Jewish ritual Law, if we feel called to do so, but we may not force it on new converts.

This is, mind you, a distinction between Christianity and and Islam in regard to the relationship of the believer to God. In Islam, a believer is God's "willing slave," whereas in Christianity, a person is God's child by adoption as Paul says. We are God's children to be clothed in robes of righteousness.

But the Law is not void. Jesus' earthly parents bring him to the temple, and offer sacrifice, according to the Law. Luke's text is a little vague on this, but he isn't fooling anyone who knows about Judaism. Jesus is there for his briss, his circumcision. While they are getting ready for it, his parents receive two prophecies, one from an old man, Simeon, and another from an old woman, Anna.

Jesus, they say, is God's salvation, the light for revelation to the nations and the glory of Israel. Jesus is like what Isaiah was talking about, only more so. Or maybe, since prophets speak more meaning than they can know, Jesus is indeed what Isaiah was talking about.

The light that will rescue you from yourself, that will clothe you in radiance, that will make glory shine from you.

Have you ever watched the television programs "What not to Wear" or "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style?" Have you noticed how the women become so much more alive, let so much more of their spirit shine, after they have their fashion makeover? How just looking good makes them so much happier?

Who would have thought? Change the outside, and it changes the inside. Look good, feel good. Well, we are all going to get a fashion makeover. We shall be clothed in robes of righteousness, which shall change us into who we were always meant to me, inside and out. "You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God."

And just as the outside is connected to the inside - change one, you change the other - the future is connected to the present. One fine day you will be clothed in righteousness. But who's to stop you from letting a little bit of your glorious future shine from you now? The most it could possibly do is to change the world.

Merry Christmas! It goes for twelve days, all the way to Epiphany! Jump, shout, dance! And let your light so shine...

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