YEARS A, B, C: CHRISTMAS DAY 3
From Third-Isaiah in the second alternate reading for Christmas Day we return to Second-Isaiah’s oracles of hope for return from exile in Babylon in our third alternative reading. This passage dates from the middle of the sixth century BCE. A distinctive theme of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is indicated at the start in Isaiah 40:1 – ‘Comfort my people’. That theme is repeated in today’s reading in v. 9. Israel is to find encouragement in the reminder of the greatness of God and in the announcement of God’s presence with them (40:8-31).
The transportation of leading Judeans to exile in Babylon at various times early in the sixth century had culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE. The Babylonian exile was an unmitigated disaster for the Judeans and raised many questions about their faith and the God whom they had worshipped. In time, however, some were to come and see it in a new light. It became a time of new revelation about God and God’s ways. It also came to be seen as a key stage in the divine mission declared to Abraham: ‘through you all will be blessed’ (Gen 12:1-3). It became a time when old traditions, especially the exodus tradition, would be se in a new light.
The theme of good news is at the heart of today’s text. Second Isaiah refers earlier to good news coming out of Zion (40:9), and to an agent of good news whom God will send to Jerusalem (41:27). Isaiah 52 pictures this agent on the mountains. The watchmen in Jerusalem who see him (v. 8) convey the message. The coming of this agent of good news is a beautiful sight to behold (v. 7).
Our familiarity with the words of v. 7 may dull the effect of the striking metaphor of ‘beautiful feet’. The poet-prophet uses this transferred epithet to express the joy that lies in the message of peace. The prophet’s reference to the feet, rather than the voice or the face, draws attention to the journey of the messenger in two ways. First, the agent of God is on the move, but moves step by step. God’s purposes are slow but sure. The evidence of God’s coming may be lowly, even dirty like human feet walking a dusty road, but still God’s coming is a most beautiful event as is the news of it. These are also aspects of the Christian understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus.
Secondly, the news of peace is coming from the mountains. The word ‘mountain’ is common in Second-Isaiah, especially as a place of rejoicing (cf. 40:9; 44:23). The levelling of mountains by God is a common metaphor to represent overcoming obstacles especially in a new exodus back from exile to the land (40:4, 12, 15; 42:15). However, the mountains of Isa 52:7 may have a more literal meaning. Along the eastern flank of Babylonia are the mountains of Persia. It was over these mountains that the liberator of God’s people, God’s ‘anointed’ one, king Cyrus, was to come (45:1). Cyrus is the only non-Israelite who is given the title meshiach ‘anointed’ (‘messiah’) in the Bible. News of his advent and his conquests reached the Judean exiles some years before they were finally free to return home. Those in exile could see God’s action unfolding in the context of imminent political events.
Through poetic parallelism in v. 7 ‘peace’, ‘good news’ and ‘salvation’ are all identified with the key proclamation, ‘your God reigns’. These things define the reign of God. On the other hand, genuine ‘peace’, ‘good news’ and ‘salvation’ are only defined in terms of the reign of God. As the text progresses it is clear that the reign of God will be something visible to all nations (v. 10). During the sixth century, the Judeans were often subject to raids by hostile bands from neighbouring lands. The prophet envisages a new situation where Israel’s neighbours will recognise God at work in the changing circumstances of his people. Second-Isaiah shows that the experience of exile made the Judeans aware that their faith was not just a private arrangement for their benefit alone, but rather part of God’s love and purpose for all people. It had a public dimension and in turn the breaking forth of God into public affairs was indeed good news for all.
The state and fate of Jerusalem are taken in Isaiah 52 as the measure of the work of God among God’s people. The city and the temple had lain in ruins for several decades but now the prophet sees a time coming when the worship of God will be renewed there. It would, however, be some years before Zerubbabel, Nehemiah and Ezra led the returned exiles in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and the (second) temple. (It would be destroyed again in 70 CE by the Romans.) As Christians read the words of v. 10, their meaning is transferred to events in and around Jerusalem at another time, that of the birth and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Verse 10 is even quoted, in combination with other verses from Second-Isaiah, in reference to John the Baptist’s ministry (Lk 3:4-6; cf. Isa 40:5; 49:11). John is seen in the Gospels as the messenger who heralds the coming of the Lord, even as the messengers in Isaiah 52 are envisaged doing. It is important, however, to remember that ‘the salvation of our God’ which is focussed in Jesus belongs to the ongoing work of God in all times and places, and among all peoples. It is our part in this universal love of God that must lead us to ‘break forth together in singing’ again this Christmas.
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