The LORD laid bare his arm, in plain view of the nations, to ensure our salvation.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of a herald,
who announces peace and preaches good news.
He announces salvation and says to Zion, “Your God is king!”
The voice of your watchmen – they lift up their voices.
Together they shout for joy,
because with both eyes they will see it
when the LORD returns to Zion.
Break out, shout for joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem,
because the LORD is comforting his people.
He is redeeming Jerusalem.
The LORD lays bare his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation from our God.
Isaiah 52:7-10 (EHV)
(In advance, I’ll credit my good friend Aaron Frey, who originally preached this sermon on Christmas Day 2006, as the source of much of what is written following the break, and as the inspiration for the rest of it.)
If I balled up my fist and started rolling up my sleeve, you’d know what that meant, right?
Now, I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I’m not entirely sure that Israelites in Isaiah’s time used to roll up their sleeves to show that they were ready to fight, especially because they often wore robes not too different from those that pastors wear! I can tell you, however, that the word for baring in “the LORD lays bare his holy arm” definitely expresses the same idea. That is to say, when the text says that the LORD “lays bare his holy arm” it is using the same imagery we use when we say “roll up your sleeve.”
And this Christmas morning, as we meditate upon Isaiah 52, we consider what it looks like to mankind when the LORD rolls up his sleeve and gets serious with us. We look at the manger and say, “Behold the Bared Arm of God!” At least, you may say that after we’ve considered the manger from Isaiah’s perspective.
But before we apply this directly to the manger, I want you to put the text we just read out of your mind. Take your mind off the presents and the decorations and the meal you’re likely to enjoy today. I even want you to clear out the images of the Christmas Eve program from last night and any scenes you might be imagining from the Christmas story. Mangers, shepherds, wise men – all of it, out of your head!
In its place, I want you to picture a simple, undecorated, empty room. Got it? Don’t worry about Christmastime. In fact, don’t worry about any time at all. Time is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter, because all we have now is a big, empty room with you standing at one end of it.
Got it? Got your big, empty room with you standing at one end of it? Good.
Now put God at the other end. And, again, we’re not talking about Christmas, so don’t think of the little baby from Bethlehem. In fact, don’t think of Jesus from his time on earth at all, because that was his state of humiliation. He was God, but he was not appearing in his glory and majesty. It’s different in this room in which you have come to meet God.
Think in terms of the way God would appear to prophets of the Old Testament. Think blinding lights and seraphim all around. Think glory and fire and trumpets and quaking. The form of Jesus is fair game only if you picture the Jesus of Revelation, the ascended Jesus in all his glory, with the white hair and the blazing eyes and the double-edged sword coming from his mouth.
In this room in which you have come to meet God, he veils his glory only enough so that you don’t actually die from looking at him – a very legitimate fear that some prophets had when they were alone in a room with a vision of God, because he burns with holy fire and light! Naturally, you avert yours eyes and retreat to a corner in your end of the room, but, somehow, even with your eyes closed, you can still tell exactly what he’s doing. He steps forward, balls up his fist and starts to roll up his sleeve. You look up to confirm it. Behold the bared arm of God!
Is this so far beyond the imagery of Isaiah 52? It starts with “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of a herald, who announces peace and preaches good news,” but, paying special attention to the imagery suggested by the Holy Spirit’s carefully chosen words, you have to bear in mind that those feet are running home from a battle. These are the feet of a herald bringing home news from a war before the days of telephones and satellite broadcasts. He proclaims peace and good tidings because the enemy has been defeated in battle outside the city and the people are now safe.
But who is the enemy? Who has been defeated? You cannot ask that question too carefully because of how important it is to determine which end of God’s bared arm you are on – the protected end or the “business” end.
Prior to this verse in Isaiah, the enemy is foreign nations who broke down the nation of Israel and deported all her inhabitants into foreign lands. The context quickly expands following this verse, however, to include all enemies of God’s people and his plans. Notice again what the last verse says: “The LORD lays bare his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation from our God.”
So, the question is whether you stand on the side of those whom God has included in his plans of salvation or are you living a life in opposition to (or in disrespectful ignorance of) his will. You must determine which side of the bared arm of God are you on.
For that, we go back to that empty room where God was stepping forward to meet you one-on-one. He had balled up his fist. He was rolling up his sleeve. Now I have just one question to ask you: Why do you think this is a Christmas text?
No virgin birth. No star in the east. No Bethlehem Ephrathahs, or Immanuels, or manger beds. Why are we studying this today?
Because Christmas is where God rolled up his sleeve and bared his arm. The LORD sat alone in a big, empty universe and saw in it with him a world full of people living in rebellion and indifference toward him. He considered the destruction, the violence, the senselessness and coldness. He gazed in hatred upon every lie, every betrayal, all the gossip and manipulation, all the dishonesty with which we manifest our sinful natures. And, being a God of perfect justice, he got angry and began to ball up his fist. He took a decisive step toward us and rolled up his sleeve so that the world could taste the raw, naked power of his holiness. He cocked his arm back and plunged it into the world and . . . what happened?
Jesus was born. Did the earth quake? No, but there were labor pains and ordeals, just like it was when you and I were born. Did the heavens split wide? No, but the LORD sent messengers to a chosen few, just as he did when he called us by his gospel. Did his glory blind us? Did we feel his wrath? Did anyone burn? No, no, and no. That’s what the baby would be for.
So what happened? How is it that God got so mad at our sin, but, when he revealed his arm to the world, all we saw was a little baby, a poor baby without even a place to stay for the night? Because he decided in his grace, in his undeserved love, that he would not put us on the business end of his bared arm. He put us safely behind that balled up fist and turned it instead upon Satan and upon the sin that Satan used to bring death into the world.
You see, it’s not as though God got ready to attack the problem of sin on earth and then got soft at the last second. The baby is the attack. He may not look like much lying there in the hay – and, indeed, his whole life through there would be plenty of people who would look at him with a considerable lack of awe, even though they truly were beholding the bared arm of God. Nonetheless, that baby was the atom bomb that brought Satan’s power structure to its knees and forced its surrender.
Oh, how different that bared arm would have appeared to us if the LORD had not promised to make us enemies of the ancient serpent who came into the world in order to sign us up for a war against God! Then there would have been quaking and fire and death, just as there will be for the enemies of God who still oppose this baby when he returns in all his glory and might.
But that’s not Christmas. Christmas is the bared arm of God appearing for our sake and with our salvation in mind. And so this raw power attacked as a baby, a true human being. In this form, the arm of God can provide the righteous life of humble service that God demands from all of us. In this form, the bared arm of God can receive all of God’s own wrath against sin. It can be tortured and die as our substitute.
The arm of God appears humble and small because it is here to save us. It is the same with the gospel when it comes to us through normal, sinful human beings. It is the same with the simple waters of baptism or the Lord’s Supper. They appear to us in these forms only because we are on proper end of God’s powerful arm. Our sins, however, are on the business end of these powerful interventions. Our sins, then, are destroyed.
“Break out, shout for joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, because the LORD is comforting his people. He is redeeming Jerusalem.” God rolled up his sleeve and made sure that our sinful world knew it was going to pay. Then he gave us a fortune wrapped in swaddling clothes. The Arm of God came here to save. Merry Christmas. Amen.