Each of these sets forges a connection between the prophet Isaiah and the birth of Jesus. This connection is crucial to understanding the significance of that birth, and the Epistle readings from Hebrews and Titus are chosen to make this clear. Thanks to modern scholarship, however, we now know something that the authors of those epistles did not know. Isaiah is really three books. Moreover, the authors of these three books (Chaps 1-39, 40-55 and 56-66) lived and wrote several hundred years apart – before, during and after the traumatic capture and exile of the Israelites in Babylon.
The editing of these materials into “one” book, however, is no accident. Whoever its editors were, they correctly perceived that the three books they stitched together, though composed centuries apart, were animated by the same spirit, and to a great extent the same theme. It is this. How is faith in God to endure across the vicissitudes of time and circumstance? This common theme makes it possible for the Old Testament readings for Christmas to be taken from all three. So, when John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is “the one who is to come”, he is making reference to a hope and a yearning that had persisted over a very long period of time, and across dramatically changing fortunes. This fact carries an important lesson for us about how we should view our own time and place, and the sort of timescale we should take to heart.
“A thousand ages in Thy sight, are but an evening gone” Isaac Watts reminds us in his paraphrase of Psalm 90. It is easy for us to confine the advent of the Messiah to the deeply intriguing and appealing, but brief, event that is the Nativity. While God’s saving work in his Messiah certainly began at Christmas, it was only thirty years later, after his death and Resurrection, that the birth of Jesus could be recognized, dimly, for what it was. Its full significance, Christians subsequently came to see, lay within the immensely vaster time scale of God’s redeeming history.
The key spiritual task at Christmas is twofold. We have to find a worthy way of acknowledging the extraordinary fact that in Jesus, God came to an earthly home. At the same time, we must avoid any inclination to domesticate Him. The theme of Christmas is that “He came and dwelt among us” so that, despite all our follies and weaknesses, human beings can be raised to God’s level. The danger of too 'homely' a Christmas is that, inadvertently, we reduce God to our level. The perfect innocence of Jesus makes our redemption possible, but it is not the innocence of a sweet little baby such as any of us might dote on. It is the innocence of one who turned the other cheek, gave his back to the smiters, and asked divine forgiveness for those who put him to death.
The strange and unwelcome circumstances in which we must celebrate Christmas this year present us with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to mark the birth of the Saviour of the world with due reverence and attention. This is not easy when so much of what we normally do is forbidden. On the other hand, the stripped down form in which we are forced to celebrate Christmas this year gives us the opportunity to focus on it more clearly, deprived as we are of all the beautiful distractions and lovely extras by which Christmas is usually surrounded. The fierce restrictions imposed upon us also serve to give insight into the cataclysmic Exile around which the three books of Isaiah were written. How, the Jewish captives asked, shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?. This Christmas, we too are in a strange land and cannot sing. But we can take hope from the fact that the Exile eventually ended, and that it is possible for a faith that looks to God to persist, even in the greatest adversity.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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