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January 20, 2013
Isaiah 62:1-5

The reading for this Sunday, Isa. 62:1-5, is the section that immediately precedes the first alternative reading set for Christmas Day, Isa. 62:6-12. This comment should be read in conjunction with that earlier one (Christmas Day alt. 2). There we noted that the reading is part of Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66), a collection of prophetic sayings from the early postexilic period (c. 540-520 BCE). This section of Third Isaiah builds on the message of Second Isaiah, which foretold the return to Jerusalem (Isaiah 40-55). The prophet of Third Isaiah is concerned with the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the return from exile, but also with the deeper rebuilding of the hope and faith of the people after the exile experience.

Specifically, we noted in the Christmas reading that Isa. 62:1-12 formed part of a series of passages in the latter half of Isaiah that speaks of Jerusalem using the metaphor of a woman. Various female images portray the city as it first suffers, and is then brought back to its former glory after its destruction and the exile of its people in the early sixth century BCE. The image in Isaiah 62, which is next to last in the series, describes the city as a young, beautiful woman who awaits the coming of her groom (62:1-12).

In v. 1, the prophet cries out that he will not keep silent, nor will he rest until the city’s ‘vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch’.  This is a word of hope to a forlorn people, glad tidings to a dispirited community. The prophet uses the metaphor of light to signify the glory of the Lord breaking in. It is like the light of dawn, and like a burning torch in the darkness. In Second Isaiah, the people’s distance from God had been the result of their failure to recognize God’s presence among them. Here, the blinding light of God’s salvation comes like the sun’s early rays or a distant torch to guide them in right paths.

In v. 3, the beauty of Zion is portrayed as a crown, a royal diadem in the hand of God. The royal reference indicates that the reference to a wedding in v. 5 is not just to any ordinary wedding, but to a royal one. None of the grandeur or importance associated with such an occasion in ancient Israel will be spared. The reference would surely conjure images of the grand days of Judean royalty and the Davidic line of kings. But the king here, and the bridegroom, is none other than the Lord himself whom all kings of the nations will acknowledge.

The prophet promises a new name, both for the people and for the land. This name – signifying a new destiny, a new hope – will be given by the Lord himself. While hitherto the city had been ‘forsaken’ (in Hebrew Azubah) and the land ‘desolate,’ now their abandonment by God is to be joyfully redeemed. A new name will be given as a metaphor for their newly restored relationship to God. Now they shall be called, ‘My delight is in her’ (Hephzibah) and the land, ‘married’ (Beulah). The metaphor of marriage is used to suggest an intimate and faithful covenant between the Lord and his people, with God as the bridegroom who comes and seeks out the bride, rejoicing over her.

This reading can link in with the Gospel reading for today, which is the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11), the first of the signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel which ‘revealed his glory.’  Here as well, we see the glory of the Lord revealed in light. Here likewise, there is a joyful marriage as metaphor of the faithful love of God for his people.

In preaching this passage, one might draw out the message of hope that comes to people of faith who feel forsaken, even desolate. It is to just such ones that a word of hope comes, promising that soon they will know again the joy of God delighting in them, of God’s restored relationship of faithful love. In the context of the early years of restoration after exile, there may be resonance in our time for those who have been or are refugees, and are now either returning to their lands or are still afraid to do so. Even as lands and infrastructures are rebuilt, they will likewise need time for hope and faith to be restored as well.

Alternatively, one could reflect on the fact that the lectionary has gone back, as it were, to ‘reread’ Isa. 62:1-5 having already heard the continuation of the passage in vv. 6-12 on Christmas day. Does this not, however, point to a deep paradox which is at the heart of our Christian faith. Now in the season of Epiphany, which is meant to be the season of the ‘appearance’ of the one for whom we looked in Advent, we are still called by the prophet to look for the light which is dawning. In this world of struggle we still look forward to something new. At the same time the Christmas message is that the one who is coming is already here. The promise is in our midst.

Psalm 36

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