For those who want a change from the Gospel
Christmas Day – Isaiah 62:6-12
We have a wealth of choice for our Christmas readings, and I have randomly chosen the OT from Set II, initially, I must confess, because I was fascinated by the ‘sentinels’. This passage comes from part three of the book we call Isaiah, known as ‘Trito-Isaiah’ – chapters 56 – 66, and is probably set during the early years of the nation having returned from their Babylonian exile. Ten years ago next year I spent two weeks in hospital following major surgery for oral cancer. The first 48 hours I was in ITU, still feeling the effects of the operation and the massive amount of morphine they had pumped into me, but then I had another couple of weeks of gradual recovery and constant monitoring. All I wanted was to go home, preferably in time for my birthday (which didn’t happen, so we celebrated in the Costa Coffee in the hospital lobby). But the next day, when I did go home, I can remember the initial relief turning quickly to the boredom of a long road to recovery, via radiotherapy. If you’ve experienced anything like that, you’ll understand the prevailing mood of this period of Israel’s history. Although the people have come home, the glowing promises of health, wealth and prosperity have not quite worked out as Deutero-Isaiah (the writer of chapters 40 – 55) suggested they would. Once the immediate danger to life and limb had passed, a kind of general ennui seems to have settled on the people. They had rebuilt their city and the Temple, but they had not really rebuilt their relationship with God. Into this situation the prophet spoke.
Our passage feels like a bit of a mish-mash, but there is a coherence, even if some parts of it need a bit of exploration.
So why Christmas day for this reading? There is a well-known phenomenon known as the ‘blue Christmas’, a realisation that beneath the sometimes superficial jollity there can lurk all kinds of pain and sadness. The first Christmas since my husband died, or since my girlfriend dumped me; questions about whether I will live to see another Christmas, the pain of separation from family far away, or even the pain of being with family. What ought to be a time of peace, joy, goodwill and all the rest of it is in fact an anxious, fearful and disappointing time for many. In that sense our mood might not be that different from that of the returned exiles. So how does God speak into this situation?
He promises to hear
Just who the ‘sentinels’ or ‘watchmen’ from v.6 are is not clear. Previously Isaiah has referred to the leaders of Israel as watchdogs who can’t bark, as they persistently ignored the threats from nations around them and the prophets’ calls to repentance. But now things have changed, and God has placed new sentinels on the walls to cry out to him tirelessly until he hears and answers. This echoes the parables of the friend in the night and the importunate widow, which tell us that God wants us to pray without ceasing for the justice which so often eludes us. Like the watchmen, God will not rest until evil has been defeated, and that includes the evil which so troubles us at times.
He promises to restore
In another reversal the prophet alludes back to the message of Amos maybe 100 years earlier. Because of the nation’s corruption they will not live in the houses they have built for themselves, nor will they drink the wine they have grown and produced. But now God says that this will no longer be the case. This picture, of enjoying the fruits of their own labour, may be merely an illustration of all kinds of injustice which marred the land. Because of the intercessions of the watchmen God is going to act against corruption and selfishness, and in favour ow his own people.
He promises a mission
Here’s the twist at the end. There’s one little Hebrew word which is very easy to miss, but which I believe gives shape and purpose to the glowing promises of restoration which have made up our passage so far. God’s intention is to raise up a banner, a nes in Hebrew, a technical term in Isaiah particularly, which speaks of the restoration not just of Israel but also the nations. We have seen this motif in recent weeks: the flag is raised and the people flock to it, not just Israel but also those who have realised that God was right after all, and who want to learn righteousness from him. It is part of God’s gift of restoration to us that we are also called to be restorers, just as part of Elijah’s healing after his breakdown was a list of jobs to do for God. We have a mission, and many Christians will know that there is nothing more designed to blow away the blues than seeing people come to faith because of our ministry to them.
Christmas is a time when we have more opportunities than usual to raise the banner of Christ, as many people will come to our services and events in search of ‘atmosphere’. Isaiah calls us to be confident in God’s purposes, longing for his plans for restoration, and so to raise a banner of good news to those who most need to hear it.