Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord

Last night’s Old Testament lesson came from First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) that covers roughly the 40-year period of the latter half of the Eighth century.

December 25, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12

Last night’s Old Testament lesson came from First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) that covers roughly the 40-year period of the latter half of the Eighth century.

We now jump to Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) which is situated in Judah after 537 BCE, that is, after the fall of Babylon. In the context of the realities of both hope and disappointment upon the return from the Babylonian Exile, chapter 62 looks toward the restoration of Jerusalem.

To preach on this text on Christmas Day would read chapter 62 in its entirety. The first five verses set the stage for hearing the promises in the rest of the chapter. These verses express God’s love for the city even though the present state of Zion is nothing like what was expected upon the return to God’s holy city and holy land. Verse 1 looks forward to verse 6. The watchmen posted in Jerusalem reinforce the fact that silence is no longer possible when it comes to the vindication of God’s holy city. Moreover, the sentinels will even remind God of God’s promises of the redemption of Jerusalem to “proclaim to the ends of the earth” (verse 11). The announcement of Zion’s salvation cannot be kept quiet.

Terms symbolizing light in the darkness (“dawn,” “burning torch”) call to mind the theme of light and darkness from last night’s reading from Isaiah. Verse 2 is also a critical verse against which to hear the rest of the chapter. Zion will be given a new name, no longer “Forsaken” or “Desolate,” but “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.” “Forsaken” and “Desolate” are the terms used to describe Jerusalem’s future in the face of Assyrian conquest, the fall of the southern kingdom and Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and the Babylonia captivity (6:11-12).

The new names given to Jerusalem indicate God’s extraordinary love for God’s people and God’s desire for a union, or, for that matter, a reunion, that is described with the very intimate metaphor of marriage. Moreover, the chapter ends with the promise of more new names to follow, “Holy People,” the “Redeemed of the Lord,” “Sought Out,” “City Not Forsaken.” One direction for preaching this passage from Isaiah on Christmas Day would take its cue from the text itself and imagine what it means to be renamed: to move from “Forsaken” to Holy People,” from “Desolate” to “Sought Out” made possible for us by the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

62:11 is the most likely reason why this lesson is always the Old Testament reading for this day. “See, your salvation comes,” is rendered, “behold, your savior comes,” in the Septuagint. While we cannot help but hear this announcement on Christmas Day as referring to Jesus, we are reminded in the context of Isaiah, here and throughout the entirety of its witness, that God is a God of salvation. The Message translates this verse, “Look! Your savior comes, ready to do what he said he’d do, prepared to complete what he promised.”

On Christmas Day, when the preacher wonders what on earth can be added to the story of the night before, Third Isaiah can provide several avenues by which to imagine our reaction and response to this good news. Isaiah calls for a “silence-breaking.” How can we conceivably continue on as if nothing has happened? Will we allow the events of these last days to fall again to the backdrop of our lives?

To celebrate Christmas every year is not just about remembrance — it is about resolution — a resolve not to keep silent about the good news of the fulfillment of God’s promises. There is also the sense that God needs our response and resolution, not only for the sake of “the nations,” but also for God’s sake. Why does God need reminding that no rest is possible until Jerusalem is established and renowned throughout the earth? No rest for the wicked, as they say?

Perhaps there is a pointed reminder here of the mutuality of relationship. They, God and God’s people, have been through a lot. In this reestablishment of their union, it may be important to call to mind that relationships are about reciprocity. To what extent does even God need reminders of what and who God has promised to be? As we leave the manger behind, sometimes all too quickly, we are reminded that God becoming human commits God to mutuality, reciprocity, and relationship –hallmarks of the incarnation– and commits us to the same.