The Pastor’s New Clothes
Mark E. Ryman; Third Sunday of Advent, Year B; December 17, 2017
Isaiah 61:1–4; 8–11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24; John 1:6–8; Psalm 126
Fashion has never interested me much. I don’t suppose you’ve been able to tell… Oh… you have been able to tell.
Well, it’s been a long road to become such a fashion plate. When my Dad was to marry his second wife, he asked me if I had nice clothes to wear to their wedding. I assured him that I did. Unfortunately, he didn’t ask me if I had a ride to the church, which was about ten miles from where I lived.
It was 1974 or 75 and I was 19 or 20 years old. And I shopped—when I shopped—at thrift stores. I had recently purchased a pair of red and purple seersucker bellbottom slacks. With roughly two-inch cuffs as I recall. Those were the pants that I wore to Dad’s wedding, first walking ten miles to get there in the summer sun. I was a sweaty, dusty mess when I arrived. He would have thought I looked a mess if I’d ridden there in an air-conditioned Cadillac.
I must have look awfully bad. My Dad was angry and disappointed, and my grandmother was mortified. When my Mom remarried, Grandma bought me new clothes for that wedding.
I have to tell you the truth though: those were some fine bellbottoms.
Let us pray. Gracious Father, sanctify us by your truth; your word is truth. Cover us with your righteousness. Clothe us with the garments of salvation. And make us glad in you, for you have done great things for us though our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, forever one God. Amen.
I didn’t know just how poor I was back then. In fact, I was poor for a long time. When Susan married me a few years after the bellbottom fiasco, I was still poor—and I still didn’t realize it. Fast-forward a decade and I finally realized just how poor I was, how poor my family was. Susan and I were married and had two children. I was the pastor of a church in Ohio, and a first-year student at Ohio Wesleyan University. Part of a Freshmen assignment was to research a topic in the Congressional Record. In doing so, I discovered that there is a thing called the “federal poverty level.” Back then, for a family of four, it was just under $11,000 a year. I made slightly over $8,000 as a pastor. Yep. We were pretty poor. We just didn’t know it.
Yet, we did know how rich we were—and are. And this brings me back to how well-dressed and hip I was back in the 70s. Somewhat further back in time, in the late eighth and early seventh centuries before Christ, Israel didn’t know how good they had it. They wanted something more fashionable, current, culturally hip. This so often seems to be the way of God’s people, always wanting something decidedly against the will of the Lord.
As a result, by the time of the prophet Isaiah, Israel was living under the lengthening and looming shadow of Assyria’s invasion and occupation. They seemed to be waiting on the inevitable. Yet it could have been a different kind of Advent for Israel. They could have been and should have been waiting on deliverance instead. But Isaiah preached to a “deaf and blind” people. He told the people of Judah that God would deliver them if they would change their wicked ways and follow him. For they had forsaken the Lord, even despised him. The first chapter of Isaiah says that they were utterly estranged from God, comparing Judah to Sodom and Gomorrah. He warned them to hear the word of the Lord, to change their hearts instead of simply going through the motions of religious practices. Over and again, Isaiah warned them that their continued sin would bring God’s judgment. Still, that judgment of God by the hand of the nation of Assyria would be for the good of Israel. Eventually God would use King Cyrus to help Judah return and rebuild their land.
Isaiah also told them about someone who would help them far more. He would be a suffering servant, a “man of sorrows” who would be “pierced for [their] transgressions.” Isaiah’s “suffering servant” would clothe the people in garments of salvation and cover them with robes of righteousness. Isaiah likened their clothing to the festive, extravagant fashion of a bride and groom. This is how God said that the Lord would dress his people one day, not as captives but as those who had been delivered into a better land, a better life. He would do so by the pierced hands of an unlikely deliverer: a baby that had to be swaddled in rags and laid in the manger…so that we might one day, be wrapped in the garment of his righteousness.
This is the delightful, eternally elegant fashion that believers wear. We have been robed by God in Christ himself. It doesn’t matter whether we’re wearing the latest fashions or the same outfits we’ve been wearing for the last 50 years. For if we are robed in the righteousness of God’s servant Jesus, we are always in heavenly style. It matters not weather we are wearing loudly colored, seersucker bellbottoms or faded denim, if we have put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14) we are seen by God as having, if you will, better taste, or at least good sense than your pastor did at his Dad’s wedding. If we have been clothed with Christ in baptism (Gal 3:27), we are children of God, well-dressed and pleasing to our Father.
For we are children of the promise, the promise that God made through the prophets Isaiah and John, that one is coming into the world, a Light who would lift up the light of salvation—not just upon Judah but upon the whole earth. This is whom we await in this third week of Advent. This is what we wait for: not an emperor’s new clothes, or even a pastor’s better fashion taste, but the always new clothing of those who believe in Christ the Lord: the sacred garments of salvation, the robes of the righteousness of the Son of God.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. Amen.