Clothed as God's Priest (Isaiah 61-62)
- Order of Service: Matins
- Hymns: LSB #374, 389, 937
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. (Isaiah 61:10)
As we continue our celebration of our Lord's Incarnation, we look to how Jesus' Incarnation affects our spiritual lives. Jesus' Incarnation forms the basis of your spiritual life. He came to earth as Prophet, Priest and King. Christmas itself focuses on Jesus as King. Epiphany focuses on Jesus as Prophet. Our readings this morning focus of Jesus as our Priest.
As our Priest, Jesus gifts His priesthood to His people. “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” While He offers Himself as the one physical sacrifice, we offer spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise through “a broken spirit.” “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” We offer our sacrifices to praise God for the salvation He has given us through Christ's priestly intercession. Through His intercession, we are His priests. Priests clothed in Him.
Jesus has clothed us “with the garments of salvation” and “the robe of righteousness.” In Baptism, He has clothed us with Himself. However, He makes a distinction through Isaiah. He illustrates these garments through the clothing He commanded His priests to wear in the Old Testament and those that have been prescribed for His New Testament priests. In all, His “garments of salvation” show His forgiveness, righteousness and beautiful.
For His Old Testament priests, He commanded elaborate clothing that set them apart from the common people. These garments represented God's salvation to His people through His priests. As God commands Moses to build the Tabernacle, He also instructs him about the priestly garments for Aaron and his sons. These garments of salvation covered the priest from head to toe. “These are the garments they shall make: a breastplate, an ephod, a full-length robe, a skillfully woven tunic with a fringe, a turban, and a sash. So they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, so they may minister to Me as priests.” The ephod was like an apron made of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet fabric and fine linen. In the shoulders of this apron, two stones were housed where the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel engraved upon them. “So Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders as a memorial.” “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The Old Testament high priest bore the entire nation of Israel on their shoulders so they would remember to pray for the people.
Attached to the ephod was the breastplate. This was woven of the same material as the ephod, but it was doubled over into a nine-inch square. Into this square was woven twelve precious stones in four rows of three. A separate stone for each tribe. Each tribe's name engraved into their stone. The high priest bore the entire nation of Israel over his heart to remind him that he carried the entire nation with him as he went in before the LORD. “Aaron will discern the judgments [of God] for the children of Israel at all times.” Inside the breastplate, the high priest would house the Urim and Thummim, God's revelation and truth.
Under the ephod and breastplate, the priest wore a close-fitting robe of blue. This robe was of one piece with holes for the head and arms. This robe is very similar to Jesus' tunic that He wore to His crucifixion. This robe was the priest's everyday uniform as he did his ministry before the LORD. On the fringe of this robe alternated embroidered pomegranates and bells. The bells were there so that the people might be sure that the high priest was ministering for the people before the LORD. This was most especially important on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the high priest stood face-to-face with God at the Ark of the Covenant.
On top of the priest's head would be a turban with a gold crown holding it onto his head. Upon this crown was engraved, “Holy to the LORD.” Upon his brow, the high priest would bear the guilt of the people in their thoughts, words and deeds concerning the LORD's holy things. Around his waist, the priest wore a sash to illustrate God's love that binds everything together. Underneath all these things, there were linen undergarments so that everything is covered before God “lest they bear guilt and die.”
That was a lot to keep track of. However, God still has these items in mind for His New Testament priests. However, He breaks them up into two categories: clergy and laity. Many of the clergy continue to have similar “garments of salvation” to their Old Testament counterparts. This is especially noticeable with the highly liturgical churches. Your Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests are prime examples. Lutherans aren't without the symbolic vestments.
The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox take their cues for clergy garments from the Old Testament high priest. In a high Mass, you might see the priest dressed very much by the Old Testament priest. Bishops and higher church officials are often seen in their full regalia whenever they are in public. The parish priest will often wear the black cassock as his everyday outfit. Father Parrott was an example of that.
In the Lutheran Church, we've dropped a lot of the symbolism in our priestly garments. We've stripped it down to three basic pieces. Each still has its symbolic meaning. For the most part, you'll see a Lutheran pastor in his white alb. This servant's robe symbolizes Christ's servant heart. The alb is primarily used for celebrations of the Lord's Supper. He wears a stole over his shoulders that comes down like the ephod. The stole's color changes with the season. The colors themselves are symbols of Christ's work and Passion. Advent's blue shows Jesus as the coming King of the Jews who will reign over all mankind. Lent's purple shows His Passion as He took away the sin of the world. The red of Palm Sunday, Pentecost and Reformation shows the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Red is also used to symbolize the blood of the martyrs when they are remembered in worship. The green from the bulk of the year illustrates the Church's growth through the Holy Spirit, often fertilized by the blood of the martyrs. The white of Christmas and Easter shows Jesus' purity.
At other times, especially during midweek services without the Lord's Supper, you will see the pastor in his black cassock. It illustrates the totality of our sinfulness. It's complete blackness shows the state of our heart as sinful human beings. A white surplice is often placed over it to illustrate Christ's righteousness covering the sinner through Baptism.
The everyday wear for confessional Lutheran pastors has become the clerical shirt. Again, it is black to show our complete and total sinfulness. The white tab collar reminds us that we are not without hope. We can be cleansed whiter than snow through faith in Jesus. Its small size causes those who look upon the pastor to focus on their wrongdoings before they see the hope about his neck. These are the New Testament's garments of salvation, as they have been handed down to us through the centuries. God sets apart and consecrates His pastors so that His creation knows where to go for spiritual refreshment.
However, God makes all baptized Christians priests. The Church is “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” God has given you distinctive clothing to wear as well. The “robe of righteousness.” It's not as outwardly distinctive as the pastors' “garments of salvation,” but it is necessary to enter and remain in the Lamb's eternal wedding feast. The “robe of righteousness” is the water of Baptism that covers you and washes away all your sins. Baptism doesn't make you righteous, like you'll never sin again. Baptism declares you righteous in God's eyes as His beloved child.
As a child, you still need to grow in Christ. Baptism begins that growth by planting the seed of faith. Christ softens the heart so that it becomes the “good ground” that will yield abundant fruit. This good ground “brings forth its sprouts.” The more we understand about our Savior, the more we see there is to learn about Him and His salvation. Being in the Word—hearing it, reading it, marking it, and inwardly digesting it—growth in Christ becomes natural. The Word, repeated over and over again, waters the seed that has been planted. Hearing it once is not enough. You need to hear it often so you may grow and bear abundant fruit.
Bearing abundant fruit, you rejoice in your salvation in Christ. Salvation full and free gives you every reason to rejoice. Therefore Isaiah can say, “For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.” Jeremiah has very much the same idea a century later, “If I say, 'I will not mention Him, or speak any more in His name,' there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Salvation causes righteousness to shine forth. You can't help but exude the Gospel being clothed as God's priest. You are like Simeon and Anna, joyfully telling the great Good News of everlasting life. You are clothed in Christ because He clothed Himself in human flesh. His Incarnation is the source of the great Good News you can't help but share. This Good News has clothed you in His priestly robe of righteousness. The clothing of salvation. The clothing of everlasting life. Amen.