Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)

“I will trust, and will not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). These words were spoken by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than twenty seven hundred years ago, when the Assyrian Empire was the dominant power, and Judah lived in the shadow of its might.

December 13, 2009

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Commentary on Isaiah 12:2-6

“I will trust, and will not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). These words were spoken by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than twenty seven hundred years ago, when the Assyrian Empire was the dominant power, and Judah lived in the shadow of its might.

Foreign invaders, political instability, and crises of one kind or another formed the context of Isaiah’s proclamation. The people to whom he was sent and those for whom this book was originally composed lived in a world that was unpredictable and out of their control.

The front page of the newspaper and the crawl at the bottom of the television newscast suggest that in many ways our own world is quite similar to theirs. To be sure, the details are different — the Taliban was not a threat to Judah in the days of Isaiah, and Assyria does not dominate our own headlines — but the news of the day reminds us that always there are events happening on a scale far beyond our reach and our ability to control them. Whether the threat is widespread, such as the worldwide economic crisis, or whether it is personal, such as illness, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, it is no small thing to stare the menace in the face and say, “I will trust, and will not be afraid.”

Isaiah 12 is composed of two songs, each beginning with the phrase, “You will say in that day” (12:1, 4): “that day,” when the pride of everyone shall be humbled and the Lord alone will be exalted (2:11, 17); “that day,” when people will throw away their idols of silver and gold (2:20); “that day,” when God will bring judgment against the women and men of Zion (3:16-26), when those who remain are called holy (4:2-3). “That day” is a day of judgment and salvation, a day that calls God’s people forward, beckoning us to live into its reality in the present moment, no matter the circumstances.

The first song in this passage (verses 1-2) is sung by an individual (the “you” addressed in verse 1 is singular, as are the pronouns in verses 1-2), offering thanksgiving for deliverance by the God who is “my salvation” (verse 2). Although the individual is not identified (could it be Isaiah, whose own name means “God is salvation”?), the end of the song hearkens back to the deliverance from Egypt, quoting Exodus 15:2: “The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (verse 2b; cf. Psalm 118:14). The image is one of a great warrior, one who is strong enough to defeat even the armies of Pharaoh in order to free the people from slavery in Egypt. To anyone who is caught up in fear, this echo from the Exodus and all the events attending it is a reminder that earthly powers cannot defeat the power of God.

The second song (verses 4-6) offers a refrain of Thanksgiving to the “Holy One of Israel” (verse 6b), the one whose “name is exalted” (verse 4) and who “has done gloriously” (verse 5). Isaiah calls on the people to lift their voices in praise to God: “Give thanks…sing praises…shout aloud and sing for joy!” This is a communal song (“you” is plural, as are the verbs in this section), as if a whole choir has joined voices with the soloist who sang in the first two verses. No longer is there a lone voice singing out against fear, as though whistling in the dark, but rather a chorus of voices offering praise for all that the Lord has done. “Make known his deeds among the nations,” they will sing, and “[the Lord] has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth” (verses 4-5). This reminder of past experience with God, how the Lord has already acted for the benefit of God’s people, is a strong defense against the grip of fear. So, also, is our association with a community of faith that witnesses to God’s saving deeds. How much easier it is to “trust and not be afraid” when a whole community is present to join together in the refrain!

The verse that ties these two songs together is addressed to the gathered community: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (verse 3). In its historical setting, the verse probably refers to a ritual activity, most notably during the Feast of Tabernacles. As it connects the two songs, however, verse3 is a reminder that God’s salvation is fundamental to life, as basic to survival as the water that falls from the sky and springs forth from the earth. God’s offer of salvation is what the Lord “has done gloriously” to be made “known in all the earth” (verse 5); it is this saving power that makes it possible for God’s people to choose a stance of trust instead of fear when the day brings situations and events beyond their control (cf. Isaiah 41:17-20). The “wells of salvation” suggest an abundant supply, spilling over to soothe tongues that are parched from fright, moistening lips so that they might sing melodies of praise to “proclaim that [the Lord’s] name is exalted” (verse 4).

During this season of Advent, as dark nights grow longer and media outlets continue their relentless proclamation of the world’s bad news, we wait — like the people of Isaiah’s time–for “that day” when God’s salvation will come to us in all its fullness. “Do not be afraid,” the angel will say, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). We are drawn toward that future, ready to “shout aloud and sing for joy” together with the whole people of God who will proclaim, “Great in [our] midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:6).