This is the time of year we hear much about “good news” and “glad tidings.” We sing about comfort and joy, and we think about hope and peace and joy again! And I want to give my affirmation that these words, and the ideas they stand for, are at that the heart of the Christmas season. I also want to ask a series of questions, like:
Listen to the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61:
1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion--
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
If we listen carefully to the words of the prophet, we know that Jesus himself reads from this very passage as he begins his ministry in Luke 4. I also hear some of the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 and ideas echoed in the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1. Let’s reflect on a few more verses of Isaiah 61:
8 For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.
10 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.
11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations.
So, let’s reflect and briefly answer the questions above:
Who was the target of the good news proclaimed by the prophets and Gospel writers?
The good news is for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, and the mourning -- good news that includes "the day of vengeance of our God." Why is that mentioned? None of these folks would get much good news in the ancient social order unless that order was destroyed and replaced with a new Kingdom. When that order was destroyed, rebuilding God's "ancient ruins" could begin (vs. 4). In the meantime, the prophet rejoices, clothed in the hope this good news brings (vs. 8-11).
Who would have seen this news as not-so-good-news?
It seems fair to notice that those who were considered oppressors, captors, and those loving the life of the world would see the good news as not so good news. When the prophet claims that God “hates robbery and wrong,” I hear more than those who are labeled as thieves, but those whose greed moves them to take more than they need and those whose power allows them to exploit others for their own benefit. If the Lord comforts those who mourn, then we might flip the statement to suggest that God also evokes mourning for those who are comfortable.
Who might have categorized this news as “fake news?”
Well, this isn’t hard to speculate because in the Gospel stories the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees seem to think Jesus is fake and the stories regarding his power and ministry are also false. I think it is safe to say that those who have the most to lose in accepting any “news” are the quickest to label it and try to prove it “fake.” Herod sure doesn’t like the notion that there is another leader and King in town. So much so that he kills John the Baptist, the one who proclaim’s Christ’s coming.
Do I really think that the good news is actually good news?
I think this is the real question…because to answer it I have to admit that I am quite comfortable in my life. I have to admit that my bank account is ok and that I have everything I need—plus some. My belly is full and my wants are vast. Can I truly follow a King who is the leader of the oppressed and depressed, the anxious and the addict? Can I trust in a God who loves justice so much that it confronts my life and calls me to question the ways of my culture, government, and my own mind and will? Do I want to live as an example of the contemporary “American Dream,” or do I want to be an oak of righteousness that brings glory to God? Is there a scenario where I can even try to accomplish both or are these two lifestyles diametrically opposed to one another?
O Lord, help me join the prophet who proclaimed…”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…” Our life in the Spirit of God makes the good news actually good news!
40:1 “Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over
for all her sins.”
3 Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!
4 Fill in the valleys,
and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
and smooth out the rough places.
5 Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
The Lord has spoken!”
6 A voice said, “Shout!”
I asked, “What should I shout?”
“Shout that people are like the grass.
Their beauty fades as quickly
as the flowers in a field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fade
beneath the breath of the Lord.
And so it is with people.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.”
9 O Zion, messenger of good news,
shout from the mountaintops!
Shout it louder, O Jerusalem.
Shout, and do not be afraid.
Tell the towns of Judah,
“Your God is coming!”
10 Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
He will rule with a powerful arm.
See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.
He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.
Hear the 3 cries of the prophet in this verse today:
First, there is the cry to prepare the way for the Lord (1-4). Are you tired? Why? What are the main stressors? Has life been hard? Hasn’t gone the way you wanted? Are you hurting? Another year has come and gone, yet the same old routines and “stuff” are dominating your life? The Lord speaks COMFORT upon us. Not instead of our hurt and anxiety, but in the midst of it. Over and above all the noise and shouting, violence and oppression is someone with the boldness to tell us the truth…the Lord is coming! Not from a throne or your favorite city, not on the clouds or up from the ground…but out of the wilderness. Why? You see, our Lord knows what it means to be tired, hurt, and in pain. Often, from a theological lens that place in which we sometimes find ourselves is known as “wilderness.” Yet, the Lord has survived it and overcame it. Therefore, the prophet speaks hope that since we have a Lord who has overcome, so too can we. When I hear the distant cry of “Prepare the way of the Lord,” I am reminded that God is on the way!
Second, there is the cry that we are here only a little while but the Word of God remains forever (5-8). It might seem strange that after a comforting message of hope to the people, the prophet seemingly pulls the rug out from beneath us. We are like grass…we fade…shout it with me now! It seems…depressing. However, we are summoned by the prophet to build upon the hope we have that the Lord has not abandoned us and that we have beheld His glory. I think we all need a good reminder that the hope of the Lord is not rooted in me or you, but in the WORD that spans the ages and provides life, instruction, and promise to each generation. I remember Christmas mornings when the whole morning revolved around my sister and me. Now Christmas mornings truly revolve around my kids. I look forward to the day when, Lord willing, Christmas morning will center on my grandkids. Why? Because I am fading and my purpose is to pass on the spirit of Christmas and gift giving to my kids and then to their kids and so forth. Moving from the realm of Christmas to the realm of faith, we are fading and the church’s main work to preserve and pass on the WORD so that the glory of God can be revealed to the next generation…until “forever” in this passage is but a memory.
Last, there is the cry to proclaim the Lord’s victory in the midst of a reality of ruins and pains (9-11). Again, it seems strange that while the city lies in a heap of destruction that the order would come to proclaim victory. This passage puts the notions of victory and good news in the context of a people forgotten and oppressed. To whom is the victory given? To whom is the good news proclaimed? I think it is fair to argue that the people receiving the message of victory and good news are those who are outcasts in the world’s system of domination and violence. Listen again to the end of the passage… He will feed, He will carry the lambs—holding them close to his heart, He will gently lead. Hmm…seems oddly otherworldly to me.
Isaiah points us to the coming of the Lord in which we both experience and anticipate, knowing that the victory is secured and coming in full; so we wait for it while we live and rest in it when we die in assurance that the Word of the Lord guides this world out of the chaos of sin and death, and into the Kingdom of God.
You might recall Jesus quoting from the prophet Isaiah when confronted abut why his disciples don’t practice the ceremonial tradition of washing their hands before a meal. The quote comes from Isaiah 29:13 and is a charge that God has against his people, Israel:
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
There are a couple of things that strike me in this passage. First, the obvious is that these people have learned to say the right things, project holy things on the outside…but their hearts are far from God. Therefore, there is little to no relationship with the Lord, they just listen to the holy words and memorize them. They sing the songs they know and go through the rituals, but they do not KNOW God. Second, God charges that the fear they are to have, due to the closeness of the relationship has also been cheapened. This “fear of the Lord” is now something that is taught. Perhaps it is practiced and perfected, and then performed, but the fear of the Lord is not authentic; something that would grow out of real relationship with the Lord.
So, the very things and people God set up to draw his people closer and provide them with a healthy “fear of the Lord” has become a barrier to authentic faith. Now, when we see the “fear of the Lord” we must understand God’s holiness and God’s care to truly engage this phrase. Fear can mean respect, yes, but with the Lord it is that understanding that the holy God who has every right to destroy us and the evil of the world has invited into relationship to care for us. This is more than respect, but the awe and wonder of how this is possible mixed with the responsibility to live in thankfulness for this opportunity.
What Jesus doesn’t share with the Pharisees is the verse a few passages down. Listen to the words of Isiah 29:16 =
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
I sometimes wonder if in our construed way of making God our divine servant who exists to make us happy and content, if we have indeed turned things upside-down. You see, the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders made the mistake that God served them, and I think that Christians have bought into a popular version of American Christianity that does the same thing. How can the clay regard the potter as the clay?
I must admit that it is easier for me to say the Christian things and read the Christian book than it is for me to spend time with God, walk with God, and relate to God. It is also easier to think that God wants me to be happy than it is to live as if the purpose of my existence is to make God happy. God’s priorities are not my priorities, and God’s happiness is not even close to the things that make me happy. This is why we are asked to follow Jesus and learn to be disciples of Jesus; because it was his life, not ours or the Jews or anyone else, that truly glorified God…that is “made God happy.”
So, I want God to please remind me that I am clay and you are the Creating Potter. Help me walk with you and talk with you and never substitute what I’m taught about you with who you are in my life. Help me to bring something that is of worth as I worship you with my life that you may be honored by my life…up close…not from a distance.
I’m not sure if you believe in omens or signs, but you will at least get a laugh out of this one. Yesterday morning I woke up and I have been having some stiffness in my right ankle. As a result, I tend to grab both handrails and gently lower myself down the stairs each morning to make coffee and try to wake up. I managed about five steps before my left foot slipped off and I found myself laying at the bottom of our staircase with a sore little toe on my left foot.
There I was, on the floor, and all I could do is laugh at myself, get up, and wonder what in the world would happen during this week…because when you fall down the stairs on Monday morning, it can’t be a good sign! (about a half hour later I hear the thud, thud, thud, sound again and my daughter yells, “I’m OK.” on Monday, my family had a 50% chance of falling down the steps…we were 2 for 4 that morning—Not Good!
Now, that was a funny story, but the Advent reading from Isaiah 7:10-16 is in the middle of a very serious political landscape. I will not take the time to go into detail here, because if you can navigate to this page on a computer then I am sure you can look up the background of this text explained by far smarter persons than yours truly. However, one point is necessary here. Ahaz, the King of Judah (the southern portion of a divided Kingdom), has trusted other kings and given his allegiance to the Assyrian king meaning that Ahaz has not trusted God or sought God’s guidance as Judah was being threatened by Israel (the northern portion of a divided Kingdom) and Aram. Yet, God offers Ahaz a sign to help him in his distress, and well…here’s the way Isaiah tells the story…
10 Later, the LORD sent this message to King Ahaz: 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.” 12 But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test the LORD like that.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Listen well, you royal family of David! Isn’t it enough to exhaust human patience? Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well? 14 All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). 15 By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt (more like curds or butter) and honey. 16 For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted.
For Ahaz, this is a bittersweet sign from God. We connect to the first part in that the birth of Immanuel means that God will continue to be with the people and God has not forsaken them even in the midst of Ahaz poor decisions. This child is the hope of the future of the Kingdom (Judah) for sure. However, Isaiah also indicates here and later in chapter 8:1-4 that Assyria will be violent with Ahaz and Judah, and this happening is God’s judgment against them.
Immanuel, God with us, such a reassuring image in that the virgin will conceive and bear a son who bears that name. This passage is a Messianic prophecy, that is it points us toward Jesus and is picked up in Mathew 1:22-23 because there is a connection between this image and the image of Mary as virgin conceiving and bearing Immanuel. It is a beautiful image, but we must not forget the continuing image of Messiah through the book of Revelation in which Jesus is portrayed as the king whose return we long for, coming in full apocalyptic glory, as both judge and savior. At this time, we are invited to hope, pray, and long for this revelation—but also to evaluate our faithfulness and allegiances and make sure that we are ready for such an event.
It is hard to believe that a baby being born might actually save the world. I mean, where was Satan when the baby was vulnerable and helpless, when he squirmed in the arms of that pre-teen mom of his? What happened to the evil kings and the lords that saw him as a threat? Surely Hell noticed…I mean, if we have the boldness to still claim there is one. Perhaps because I grew up knowing the story, I forget how bizarre it is…how hard it is to not believe, but to live out on a daily basis.
There are so many other, more tangible things for me to hope for and thank God about…for example the fact that I live in the most powerful nation in the world, the beacon of freedom and liberty. I have a job, a family, a group of friends, a house, a car, and I could keep listing. And therein lies the rub of this story I’m living, in the midst of my comfort I am supposed to long for something greater, purer, and better than what I have.
I am convinced the Bible wasn’t written to me. I know this because it was written to people who lived a long time ago and their names, stories, and dreams are found in the pages I read. And they, unlike me, often longed for a better life free of war, famine, hunger, and pain. Sure those things exist in our contemporary world, but I have to search for them because they are not at my door (well, at least on in this moment).
But, eventually, the things I like so much about this life I live and this story that is me will change…something will happen that is unexpected and perhaps even tragic. That may be where you find yourself right now as I write this. Often, and you can read it to be certain, but often the Bible doesn’t allow us long to wallow in the reality of our vulnerability and weakness before it shows us a vision of God’s Kingdom…the place we hope to call home. This is the case in Isaiah 34, in which war is being described and then without hesitation we get this in chapter 35:
1 Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days.
The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses.
2 Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers
and singing and joy!
The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon,
as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon.
There the Lord will display his glory,
the splendor of our God.
3 With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
and encourage those who have weak knees.
4 Say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, and do not fear,
for your God is coming to destroy your enemies.
He is coming to save you.”
I would advise you to read the whole chapter, because it is all good! You see, there is a day coming when “the Lord will display his glory, the splendor of our God.” This will reconstitute our existence and recreate our world. It isn’t a government that was the signal of this change, it wasn’t a family, or a house, or car, or money…the signal of God’s Kingdom was a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Satan was bound by Him, evil was defeated by Him, kings and lords were limited by Him, and Hell only does what Jesus says to do! For those who need it, there is always hope to be found in the Bible, especially in the darkest most dreary times. Live hope today!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.