It’s safe to say that Isaiah son of Amoz would be surprised to have his words included in a series of Christmas devotions being written by a Gentile Texan some 2,700 years after he lived. I wonder if he might go beyond being surprised and even issue me an old-style prophet’s rebuke, which he certainly knew how to do. The reason he might not see his inclusion here as an honor is because we Christians are often guilty of not listening to what he spent his life trying to say, because we think we already know the point. That is particularly true with the passages from Isaiah most important for us during these twelve days, those that get read and quoted during Christmas.
As I was getting ready to work on this series and spent some time looking at the traditional scripture readings for these twelve days, I was struck by how many of them come from Isaiah. For example, during the three year cycle of lectionary readings, the gospel of Mark never shows up. Four readings are from Matthew. John has six. And even Luke's eleven appearances share the lead for the most common source–with Isaiah.
Though that certainly isn’t the most meaningful analysis in the world, it does indicate how, for a long time, Christians have found parts of Isaiah’s message to be valuable in understanding what it was that happened at Bethlehem. At least from the time that the gospel of Matthew was written, Christians have seen parts of Isaiah as matching and giving a fuller context to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Numerous messages from Isaiah have given shape through thousands of years to the Jewish hope for their messiah’s coming. So, before focusing more completely in the next three days on implications of the incarnation for how we live today, we will follow the lead of centuries of Christians’ and look to their primary source of understanding the Messiah’s birth from before it happened.
Perhaps I can summarize Isaiah’s imaginary bone to pick with countless Christians–perhaps even with Matthew himself–like this: “If you would just read more than a few isolated lines from various passages, it would be obvious that I wasn’t talking about a baby to be born in Bethlehem seven hundred years later!” And indeed, if my imaginary Isaiah would say such a thing to us, he would be right (though he probably wouldn’t say it in the Texas drawl he just had in my mind).
Take, for example, Matthew’s first citation of Isaiah. After Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and had his first dream in which he was addressed by God, Matthew says,
“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’
which means, ‘God is with us.”*
When read by itself, the way that Matthew intentionally used it, that verse seems as if Isaiah had a telescope into the future focused directly on the manger scene in Bethlehem. But, if we read it in the seventh chapter of Isaiah, it's obviously part of a very different story. There, Judah was under threat of being besieged. Isaiah went to King Ahaz with a message from God to say that in a relatively short time-frame, the crisis would be over and the kingdom would survive–at least for a while. The king was encouraged to ask God for a sign to confirm his message, which the king somewhat smugly refused. So Isaiah’s response was:
"So the Master is going to give you a sign anyway. Watch for this: A girl who is presently a virgin will get pregnant. She’ll bear a son and name him Immanuel (God-With-Us). By the time the child is twelve years old, able to make moral decisions, the threat of war will be over. Relax, those two kings that have you so worried will be out of the picture. But also be warned: God will bring on you and your people and your government a judgment worse than anything since the time the kingdom split, when Ephraim left Judah. The king of Assyria is coming!”**
Obviously, you can’t exactly follow up a message like that with, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” Part of Isaiah’s message to King Ahaz was essentially, "this will be over in less time than it takes for a young girl to get married, have a child, and raise him to be able to make good decisions. That will be a sign pointing to the fact that God is with us."
So what are we to make of the gap between the message Isaiah was originally conveying in this and other familiar passages and the ways that Christians have so often “read Jesus into” those passages?
I’m helped with the question by thinking of how–if my imaginary Isaiah were here and giving me his rebuke, my imaginary Matthew would be quick to speak up to my defense and say something like, “I know that Bethlehem isn’t what you were talking about, Isaiah. But the story of the child born there fits your story in too many ways to ignore."
Perhaps it might help to briefly move from the focus on one specific passage, and zoom out to Isaiah’s larger message to get the wider view. An over-simplified outline of Isaiah might go like this: 1) warnings of coming destruction (chapters 1-39), then 2) promises of deliverance while under oppression following that destruction (chapters 40-55), and 3) continued, intensified suffering and promises of restoration (chapters 56-66.) So, again, Isaiah might be saying, “Why am I on your ‘Happy Holidays!’ Christmas cards?”
But perhaps the original recipients of Isaiah’s message weren’t so different in some ways than us. We look back to Bethlehem in faith that those promises of restoration are going to finally and fully be fulfilled, while we also look at the world around us and see tremendous suffering. So the question for us is strikingly the same as the question implicit throughout Isaiah: What do we do with the disappointment of not seeing the great restoration promised by God come to pass? Isaiah continually pointed to God’s deliverance, which gave rise to the nation’s hope for their Messiah. Then, we Christians believe that the Messiah has come–yet even he suffered tremendously, and our world is still very far from "the rod of the oppressor” being broken.
So, what do we do?
We’ll explore that through the last three days of Christmas, as we take a closer look at how the birth of the enfleshed Messiah in Bethlehem opens the possibility of a new kind of Christmas-shaped life for you and me, for Christ’s church, and for all of our world.
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(From The Book of Common Prayer)
*Matthew 1:22-23, NRSV
**Isaiah 7:13-17, The Message