Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

It is quite fitting to preach on this text on Christmas day.

Christmas scene in a 15th-century manuscript (detail)
Christmas scene in a 15th-century manuscript (detail). Image by e-codices  via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

December 25, 2016

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12

It is quite fitting to preach on this text on Christmas day.

The mood is cheerful; there is talk of feasting and drinking wine and praising the Lord (Isaiah 62:9). All and all a joyful celebration that lines up well with Christmas festivities all around the world that involve sumptuous food, family and friends, and Christmas Carols resounding with the words: “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee;” and “Joy to the World, the Lord Has Come.” For as Isaiah 62:11 proclaims: The Divine Word has reached to the far ends of the earth.

Echoing Handel’s Messiah, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” (see also Isaiah 40:9),” we hear the good news proclaimed in Isaiah 62: 11: “See, your salvation comes: his reward is with him, and his recompense before him!” The Gospel texts, centuries later would understand this message in terms of the birth of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth we are celebrating today.

Isaiah 62:6-12, speaks about restoration, about redemption, about salvation. The images used to describe this joyful change in Judah’s circumstances are of homecoming, of God preparing the way for the people, of building a highway for them to go home after being for so long in exile in Babylon (see also Isaiah 40). And it speaks of a change in name.

The city Jerusalem will now be called Dirusha, or as the NRSV translates it, “Sought out.” She will be “a City Not Forsaken,” a sharp contrast with the memory of seeing people violently being forced out of the city. The new name directly addresses people’s experience of being abandoned by God as evident in the heart-wrenching cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This haunting lament that also would be on Jesus’ lips on the cross also captured the people’s experience during the terrible time of the Babylonian invasion and Exile.

However, in this remarkable text is transformation. The people will no longer be rejected; the sinful, despised people that had suffered greatly by the hand of the Babylonian Empire, but now they will be the Holy People of God, who have been rescued and redeemed by God. Truly a situation worthy of praise that resounds throughout this chapter and a message that would have been greatly comforting to a people desperately in need of salvation.

These words “in need of salvation” open up though a crucial aspect that is important for preaching on this text on Christmas day. One should not overlook the fact that this text is directed to a people who had lived through some very dark times. Evidence of this is in the first verses of this pericope reflecting the reality of persistent prayer, of the people pleading with God to save them (verses 6-7), to change their situation of pain, suffering and oppression associated with living under imperial rule in addition to recovering from the terrible trauma of seeing your city going up in flames.

Signs of this time of suffering is also evident in verse 8 in which God swears there will be no more famine caused by enemy invasion. The food and wine they worked so hard to produce will not be devoured by either the enemy forces ravaging their food supplies, or burning down all of the fields and crops in terms of the enemy’s scorched-earth policy.

These painful memories of dark times simmering beneath the hopeful message of a joyful deliverance and restoration remind us as preachers today of the dark side of Christmas. So often our preaching is saccharine sweet in a Hallmark card way that only focuses on the message of happiness and joy and light that marks this Christmas season. However, as we are preaching, we should remember that in our congregations there are many people who do not always feel so happy at this time of year. There are empty places at the holiday table, with loved ones being far away or who have passed away — some perhaps even in this past year. Many people may be feeling lonely and quite despondent, and the holiday cheer according to which everyone seems happy but me, makes everything seems worse.

In preaching, it is important not only to focus on the light of Christmas but to show how the light breaks into the darkness when preaching on this text. Karl Rahner has written profoundly on the birth of Christ: “Christmas is more than a bit of cheerful mood … The important figure in the holy night is the child, the one child, the Son of God, and his birth. Christmas means that he has come. He has made the night bright. He has turned the night of our darkness, our incomprehensible night, into Christmas. The terrible night of our anxiety and helplessness is now a holy night. That is what Christmas tells us”1

This message ought to inform all of our Christmas preaching and aligns well with Isaiah as a preacher of hope amidst dark times. The prophet’s hopeful message of deliverance and salvation occurs when everything is still pretty much in shambles. And yet Isaiah’s words that attest to “Vision over Visibility” to quote one of U2’s songs, draw our attention to the small acts of liberation in the here and now, as evident in the reassembly of the community, the sharing of a meal, the laughter where there had been tears, the candles lighting up the darkness, which are exemplified in the sound of the bells ringing in Christmas.

In theological terms, one can thus talk about the already and the not yet of liberation, in which the small signs of festivity and a return of joy and communion point to a time in which we might expect the ultimate restoration of all things that are broken.


1 Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year, 19-20