YEAR A: CHRISTMAS 1
The selection of Isa 63:7-9 for this week could be misleading if we do not read beyond the verses set. Isa 63:7-9 speak of the gracious deeds of the Lord, all that the Lord did for his people, his great favour, and about how he became their saviour, not just delivering them by means of some messenger acting on the Lord’s behalf, but how he saved them himself and carried them to safety (cf. Isa 40:11). There is a great sense of celebration and thanksgiving in these verses, and that makes them appropriate for the first Sunday after Christmas. But this is a case where context makes a whole lot of difference: the context of 63:7-9 within Isaiah, and the context set up by the Gospel reading for today.
Today’s reading is part of what is called ‘Third Isaiah’ (Isaiah 56-66). The first alternative reading for Christmas Day, Isa 62:6-12, also comes from this part of Isaiah. These chapters are usually dated to the post-exilic period, i.e. from 539 BCE on, when Judeans, who had been in exile in Babylon, had their chance to return home to Jerusalem. After the devastation of the destruction of their homeland, including Jerusalem and its temple, and believing the great promises of a new exodus in Second Isaiah (chs. 40-55), there was a chance to rebuild their homes and lives. But things did not turn out as they had been promised (cf. Hag 1:1-11; Ezra 4).
Far from being a passage celebrating a joyous return to Jerusalem and the land, in its Isaiah context 63:7-9 is what scholars call a motivational clause at the beginning of a long lament (Isa 63:7-64:12). What are they lamenting? It includes the destruction they have seen, especially of the temple (v. 18), their own sin and straying from God (v. 17), but above all, it includes the subsequent silence of God in the face of all this (v. 15). Today’s reading (vv. 7-9) is meant to motivate the Lord into returning as their redeemer. The gracious deeds of the Lord are those associated with the exodus out of Egypt, the ‘days of old’ as they are called in vv. 11-13. The phrase ‘gracious deeds’ in Hebrew comes from the word hesed, which means ‘covenant loyalty’ at heart. Will not the Lord remain loyal to his people and covenant, and redeem his people again? Not even their turning to the Lord in repentance will redeem them, only the Lord’s turning toward them can accomplish that.
The lament goes on and deepens. The people whom God called ‘my people’ in v. 8 are now referred to as the enemy of God (v. 10), so deep is the rift between them. The questions ‘Where …?’ in v. 11 relating to God, echo the many repetitions of ‘How long?’ that we meet in the psalms of lament (e.g. Ps 13:1-2). In v. 15 God is called to look down from heaven. References to God as ‘our father’ are, in fact, rare in the Old Testament, but in v. 16 it is mentioned twice and becomes a forerunner of the popular metaphor in later Judaism and Christianity.
Isaiah 63 ends with a plea for the Lord to ‘turn back’ (v. 17) and Isaiah 64 starts with a call for the Lord to rend the heavens open and come to his people. This people know that only in the Lord’s repentance is there hope for them. It may sound strange to our modern ears to speak of God’s repentance. In our human centred view of the world we so often associate the act with a turning from our own sins, and making a renewed commitment on our own part. At the heart of the biblical text, however, is the recurring theme that only one ‘turning’ will ever redeem God’s beloved world. And that turning is not a turning away from sinful flesh, although that is important for us, but, in fact, is a turning toward it by God in faithfulness and grace.
All this leaves our Old Testament reading in an odd position. Read in isolation, Isa 63:7-9, could be used as a thanksgiving for what God has done for us in the past, and in the context of our Christmas celebrations, it can even give us words with which to celebrate the coming of God among us in Jesus Christ. However, when read in its Isaiah context, the passage becomes a motivation (a polite word for a bit of arm twisting) for God not to forget his people in their distress, mostly of their own making, and to remain loyal to his covenant. It is part of a bitter lament where God has even become his own people’s enemy.
Finally, in the lectionary for today the passage is set alongside the Gospel reading of Matt 2:13-23. There we have the story of the flight of Joseph, Mary with the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s desire to find and kill the child. Then follows the horrible story of infanticide as Herod desperately searches for the one he (prophetically) perceives to be a rival to his power. Lastly, we hear of the return of this small family from Egypt after Herod’s death, although they are still under threat. In Matthew’s Gospel, the coming of Christ as an infant is bound to the most appalling events, and always threatened by those in power. Isa 63:7-9 becomes, in that context, an apt reminder of the need to continue to lament both our past and our present circumstances and call again for the Lord to come. In that sense, an understanding of the context of the passage in the book of Isaiah helps us in our celebration of Christmas.
The coming of the Lord is, at its heart, no romantic story of a cherub-like child born in innocent but rustic surrounds. It is not just the coming of one who is gracious and gentle and who leads us to places of security. The coming of the Lord is always in the midst of the most horrid, bloody endeavours humans can conceive to execute against even the most innocent. The coming is one of judgment on all that is evil, as well as an act of grace and comfort. We have seen over and over again in Advent that the coming of the Lord has a dark side, i.e. judgment, just as it brings light to all. The light that we seek exposes all things that would seek to extinguish or obscure it. Our joyful celebration of Christmas and its message of peace can never be very far from our lament that names what is evil in our world. Our cry for the Lord to come, to be Immanuel, ‘God with us’, is one of lament as much as it is one of praise and thanks.
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