Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

We are called now to be that ensign raised up

December 25, 2021

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12

This reading from Isaiah 62 is filled with striking and preachable bits and pieces. This is not to say that this passage is incoherent, rather that there are any number of places from which a sermon might spring.

Take the opening verses:

Upon your walls, O Jerusalem,
    I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
    they shall never be silent.
You who remind the Lord,
    take no rest,
and give him no rest
    until he establishes Jerusalem
    and makes it renowned throughout the earth.

The sentinels, elsewhere read as “watchmen” (see also Psalm 130 in older translations), were literally “ones who watch,” guards meant to look over the city. Earlier in Isaiah this idea is used as a metaphor for Israel’s leaders, whom the Lord describes as “blind,” “without knowledge,” “silent dogs that cannot bark” (56:10; compare Ezekiel 34). 

What we find here is something different, with the sentinels called to “bark,” but to bark not in warning to the people, but to bark at God, to remind God that God must establish and empower Jerusalem. The word translated here as “remind” is probably not strong enough. This is a participle, mazkirîm, naming the ones who, literally, “cause to remember.” In this case it is the LORD who they are to make remember, to forcefully call to mind God’s responsibility—taking no rest themselves and giving no rest to God, keeping at it all night if need be. I might suggest that “demand that the LORD remember” carries the intensity of the sentinels’ “barking” better. This insistent, repeating, demanding calling out to God would be well compared to the psalms of complaint, or to Jesus’ own description of insistent prayer (see the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18), the kind of prayer which we, too, may pray.

Another preaching possibility is in the reversal of (mis)fortune in verses 8-11:

The Lord has sworn by his right hand
    and by his mighty arm:
I will not again give your grain
    to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink the wine
    for which you have labored;
but those who garner it shall eat it
    and praise the Lord,
and those who gather it shall drink it
    in my holy courts.

While the first part of Isaiah would have been a contemporary of the prophet Amos, this reading from Isaiah would have been somewhat later, and offers a strong contrast with Amos 5, which call sinful and corrupt Israel to task:

 They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
    and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
    and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
    but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
    but you shall not drink their wine.

According to the LORD in Amos, because they have despised God’s truth and have exploited the poor, they will not live in the houses they have built, or drink the wine produced by their vineyards. But Isaiah 62 reverses this misfortune. Never again will this happen, that Israel’s grain and wine (and homes) are given to their enemies. The theme here is of restoration, of God, not unlike in the Exodus story, hearing the people’s groaning and remembering the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 2:24). What we have in the restoration, in the invitation to return to Jerusalem (verse 10), is recompense, a sort of re-exodus, introduced by the phrase that is universally evocative of the exodus event, “by his right hand and by his mighty arm.”

Either of these first two possibilities could prove ample fodder for the sermon. But further, these two ideas—that it is ours to demand that God be God and keep God’s promise, which in turn gives rise to hope in the promise of the restoration from diaspora to the Promised Land—move surely into what is another powerful vocational description of God’s people.

When salvation comes—and it will because it has been promised by the Lord—then the people shall be called:

“The Holy People,
    The Redeemed of the LORD”;
and, “Sought Out,
    A City Not Forsaken.”

These designations are reminiscent of Moses’ charge at Sinai to tell the Israelites who they are, and what they are to do/be:

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).

Which is picked up in in 1 Peter 2:9:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 

This is how God’s people are called, both that which they are called, “holy, redeemed, sought out, not forsaken,” but also the manner in which they are called. There is an important word used in verse 10 that might be easily overlooked, but which draws out eye and ear to the calling by which the people are called back to Jerusalem and God’s presence. That word is “ensign” (Hebrew, nēs). The nēs is a critical concept in the book of Isaiah, frequently employed as sign or signal of, and a call to restoration. 

5:26 He will raise a signal for a nation far away,
    and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth;
Here they come, swiftly, speedily!

11:10, 12 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal (nēs) to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

12 He will raise a signal (nēs) for the nations,
    and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
    from the four corners of the earth.

49:22 Thus says the Lord God:
I will soon lift up my hand to the nations,
    and raise my signal (nēs) to the peoples;
and they shall bring your sons in their bosom,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.

Standing on the brink of a new year, the proclamation of the Gospel, beginning now with the story of the Christ-child’s birth, the time is right for the raising up of a nēs, pointing forward. 

As the great Christmas hymn has it, 

“Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.”

This is the ultimate (as in final) nēs inviting us to see that, “your salvation comes; his reward is with him.”

And so we are a holy people, redeemed, sought out, and never forsaken, called now to be that ensign raised up, pointing to the One who brings salvation.