Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 16, 2018
Isaiah 12:2-6 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Note: During Advent the Lectionary occasionally appoints other readings in place of a Psalm.
More than we realize, the Bible is a trove of images, similes, metaphors, and visual depictions. Throughout Scripture God describes himself through a battery of metaphors that inevitably lead you to form a picture in your mind’s eye. Many of the images are, on the face of them, contradictory, until you realize that even to begin getting at the multi-faceted, endlessly rich character of God (and of also God’s works) will require you to hold opposites in a kind of creative tension.
And so God is both a lion and a lamb, God is church and God is home, God is fire and God is water. God is a leopard, an eagle, a mother hen, a bear, a moth, a fortress, a lamp, a rock. God is father, mother, king, judge, shepherd, and lord. Go through the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and you’ll find that God is an archer, a vintner, a barber, a watchman, and a whistler. God is both the great physician and the one who was sick and we nursed him. God is both the liberator of all and the one who was in prison and we visited him. Go through the parables of Jesus and you’ll find God depicted as a landlord, an unjust judge, a farmer, an old woman in search of a lost coin, a waiting father, a banker. Jesus described himself variously as bread, light, a vine, a door, a gate, a road. Not to be outdone, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, reveals himself as the wind, a tongue of flame, a dove, a counselor. And perhaps most famously of all, though we fail to notice this due to our sheer over-familiarity with it, Jesus said that a wonderful way to remember him and to experience his power anew would come through water, bread, and wine.
And so after listing all of that for you, I am tempted to ask, “Get the picture!?” But all of that is also a long introduction to Isaiah 12 and its depiction of salvation as being like water drawn from a well. Or to be more precise, salvation is like water drawn from many wells. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” What kind of picture does that cause to form in your mind?
If you’re like me, you maybe see in your mind’s eye a “classic” brick well, maybe with a wooden little roof built over it. The well is round, made out of gray-colored bricks. There is a bar with a handle attached and from the center of that bar there is a brown, braided rope dangling down, from which is suspended a wooden bucket. In other words, if you’re like me, you picture a well as being sort of like the one illustrators of children’s books draw to accompany something like the nursery rhyme about “Jack and Jill”!
A few of you may be old enough to remember actually using a well to draw water for your family when you were younger. Mostly, though, wells are foreign to our experience now. Even if you live outside the city or have a cottage that has a well, all that means is that somewhere on your property there is an eighteen-inch pipe sticking out of the ground that houses the wires and such of the submersible pump that, in turn, provides you with indoor plumbing. Still, I doubt that many of us would be comfortable updating Isaiah 12:3 to say something like, “With joy you will dispense water from the faucet of salvation.” It just seems less lyric somehow!
And we don’t wish to lose the lyric nature of this brief chapter. Isaiah 12 contains only about sixty words in the original Hebrew and is only six verses long. (The Lectionary once again induces eye-rolls when you notice it skips only verse 1 since, apparently, the Lectionary folks assume we cannot handle a whiff of God’s ever having been angry. Oy!) What’s more, this chapter is often ignored in no small measure because it follows hard-on-the-heels of some far more famous passages. Isaiah 9 gave us the “for unto us a child is born” passage, and Isaiah 11 just wrapped up its well-known words about “the branch from the stump of Jesse.” Given its context, it is perhaps not surprising that Isaiah 12 gets very little attention.
The words of this chapter follow on what was just promised in Isaiah 11. Someday, Isaiah predicts, a shoot from the stump of Jesse will emerge and this Chosen One is going to re-make the world. He will restore the lost fortunes of Israel. But it’s more than just a political turn-of-fortune that is promised. It’s one thing to proclaim that someday the exiles of Israel will be gathered from the four corners of the earth and re-established in the Promised Land. But it is quite another thing to say that in addition to that, shalom is going to break out all over. The shalom that this Chosen One of Jesse will bring will be so grand and so all-encompassing that wolves and lambs are going to curl up together for naps, cows and bears will graze safely together in the same pasture, babies and little children will be able to crawl around near a snake’s nest without the need for any parent to whisk the child away from danger. The work of God’s Chosen One will be so great, Isaiah croons, that there won’t be any danger, any harm, any grief anywhere anymore.
Following those grand promises, Isaiah 12 tells us how we are supposed to feel when all that happens. When that day comes, everyone is going to burst out in song. Throughout chapter 12 the name “Yahweh” pops up over and over again. The salvation that will come will be so stunning, people won’t be able to contain themselves. They will be jumping up and down for joy like a little child. Have you ever seen how a little child responds when Mommy gets back home after being gone for a few days? Maybe Mommy had an operation at the hospital or had had a business trip out of state. Whatever the cause, she’s been gone a few days but now she’s home and the little child bursts out exuberantly saying, “Mommy! Mommy, mommy, mommy! Mommy’s home! Mommy, mommy!”
Isaiah 12 is a little like that when it comes to the name of Yahweh. “I will praise you, Yahweh,” Isaiah writes in verse 1. Then in verse 2 he explodes into still more bursts of praise. “God is my salvation! Yahweh! Yahweh is my strength and song.” The divine names gets repeated twice in a row, as though, like an excited child, he just can’t say the name often enough. He is that thankful, that happy, that overwhelmed.
In this same context, then, come the words about finding delight and joy in drawing water from the wells of salvation. Again, though, this is an image that is doubly foreign to our experience. It’s not just that the very notion of using a well seems old-fashioned to us, though that is part of it. We may regard drawing water from a well to be quaint, maybe even charming in its own way, but we’d be hard-pressed to feel joy over it.
But this image is doubly foreign to us because it’s not just the literal lack of wells in our lives but also the fact that we probably cannot appreciate how precious water was for people who lived in hot, arid climates. We open our faucets thoughtlessly. We waste no small amount of water, letting the shower run for a few minutes so the water is nice and hot even before we get in, flush the toilet just to get rid of a single kleenex, and so forth. Most of us have never known a truly thirsty day in our lives. True, sometimes we have a medical procedure coming up at 10:30 one morning and so the doctor orders us to be “NPO after midnight,” meaning no food or water until the test is finished. In the grand scheme of things, those few waterless hours are nothing and there is not even a remote chance we will become dehydrated. Yet even so we can complain loudly about how thirsty we are and oh won’t it be great to get a glass of ice water once that ultrasound is finished!
But the people in Isaiah’s world did know what real thirst was like. They didn’t buy bottled water, couldn’t open any taps, didn’t have an icebox with a pitcher of nice cold water in it. They had wells, and if the wells went dry, the danger was real. So in that era if you could find a reliable well from which you could draw good drinking water, that was potentially a source of joy indeed.
But in this chapter, the wells are not just sources of water but are the very “wells of salvation.” This was living water. This was saving water. This was the fountain of life. But even so, we may still have a hard time accessing the full joy of this because perhaps we’ve never been thirsty enough for salvation, either.
Not only have we rarely, if ever, experienced truly life-threatening physical thirst, we’ve also maybe never experienced genuine spiritual thirst, either. How many of us can honestly say that the lyrics of a hymn like “Amazing Grace” really describe our past? Have any of us ever felt genuinely lost only to discover the joy of being found? Have any of us really felt spiritually blind only to discover the joy of being given our sight back? And how many of us have felt so parched, so bone dry in our souls, that the sudden upwelling of salvation’s waters revived us into a rapturous joy we didn’t even think was possible?
Some of us maybe can answer those questions by saying, “Yes, that was me once upon a time. Been there, done that.” But for a goodly number of us, we have been raised with access to the waters of salvation just as surely as we were raised with access to water from the tap. So is there any way we can appropriate the joy of Isaiah 12 for ourselves?
We should surely hope that we can gain access to this joy, if not fully now then most certainly when the kingdom fully comes. In the meanwhile, perhaps we would do well to think long and hard about the great gift of salvation, find real comfort and joy in it, and then celebrate that with the kind of exuberance we find in Isaiah 12. Somehow we can and must find a way to tell the nations, tell all peoples, that in Christ Jesus all of Yahweh’s plans have marched forward decisively. God really is our strength, our salvation, and our very song.
Because one day the promised world of shalom will be the home of all creatures (if they have a home anywhere, that is). That’s another interesting aspect of this image of the well. Wells don’t create water, they tap it. If you need the well-drilling people to come out, what they will do is plunge their auger into the earth until they hit a water-bearing stratum and they will then sink the well down right there to draw up out of the earth what is already there. But that means that if one day there are wells of salvation available for all, that will be true only because the creation of our great God will be so complete at last, so shot-through with mutually edifying inter-relationships of shalom, that the sustenance we need to nourish us for eternal life will, by grace, be contained right in the very soil beneath our feet.
Creation itself, reconnoitered by the Chosen One of Jesse’s line, will finally become a source of life in the dearest, most permanent sense–which is the purpose for which God made creation to begin with. Gone will be the days of entropy, decay, death, and diminishment of all kinds. Gone will be the days when the stuff of creation could threaten life or when even the cells of our own bodies can turn against us in cancer. The day will come, Isaiah says, when the living earth will be a living source of eternal life.
In this Advent Season, we can see the first indication that all of that is not just a pious wish but the gospel truth. Because where do we Christians say salvation is to be found? Where did it come from? Are we saved the way some of the Eastern traditions claim; that is, by transcending this world, rising above the tawdriness of flesh and bone, soil and air by working ourselves up into “higher” realms of pure thought and ethereal energy? Does salvation get beamed to us from almost another planet, another world, delivered to our doorsteps by some wildly non-human creature like an angel?
No, Advent says that salvation emerged from the sod of this earth. However it was that a virgin conceived a child, the fact is that it was a human egg that got fertilized and it was a human uterus that bore within its tiny confines that Lord of Life for nine months. It was a human larynx that eventually said things like, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” And it was a human body that emerged alive from a tomb on a Sunday morning in Palestine. This creation, and our lives in it, are what need saving. But thanks be to God that he has found a way to save this creation from within this creation. The very method God used to save us tells us that picturesque descriptions of lambs and wolves lying down together are not mere symbols of what will one day be just a wispy spiritual idea but a literal description of what will happen to this very creation because of what has already happened within this same creation into which God’s Son has already advented once and into which he will advent yet again.
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