The Old Testament reading for this First Sunday after Christmas is a delightful little snippet of poetry commemorating what God has done to save his people. It’s neat and clean and lovely and it fits this liturgical season perfectly.
The only problem is that its context is anything but neat and clean and lovely. This recital of God’s kind and praiseworthy deeds is part of a prayer for deliverance that is part of a community lament (Isaiah 63:7-64:12). And just before this recital of salvation, there is a bloody picture of God coming to judge Edom which serves as a representative of all the nations that oppose God’s chosen people. “I trampled them in my anger…, their blood spattered my garments (verse 3).”
Immediately after all that bloodshed, the poet/prophet speaks of “the kindnesses of Yahweh.” The juxtaposition is jarring, but it fits the pattern of judgment/salvation that runs throughout Isaiah and the Old Testament. God can be either tender or tough, compassionate or crushing, depending not on God’s mood (this is not about a temperamental God), but on God’s covenantal faithfulness.
In his lovingkindness (Hebrew hesed), God has said to Israel, “Surely, they are my people (verse 8).” Yahweh called Israel to “walk before me and be blameless (Genesis 17:1).” He promised to bless those who blessed Israel and to curse those who cursed them (Genesis 12:3). So it was throughout the centuries. Opposition to Israel meant terrible judgment from God and sinful rebellion by Israel meant stern chastening for them, followed by loving restoration.
In our text, the prophet reminds a chastened and restored Israel of all the kindness God has shown them over the centuries (and possibly in the recent past if the provenance of this text is post-Exilic). Scholars differ on the question of dating this text, largely because of the long controversy over the authorship question ( Deutero-Isaiah and Tritero-Isaiah). Though some scholars think a discussion of that issue is crucial to preaching on this text, I would encourage you to focus on the words, not on the possible author.
Here Israel is being called to remember all that God has done for them. His kindness is measured not in emotion, but in deeds, actual historical actions on Israel’s behalf—“the deeds for which he is to be praised, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel according to his compassion and many kindnesses.”
Central to all those good deeds was entering into covenant with Abraham and all his children throughout their generations back in Genesis. “Surely they are my people.” Everything flowed from that cutting of the covenant. Later verses in Isaiah 63 recall the Exodus as God’s most dramatic saving act (cf. verses 11-13). And God led them through that vast and howling wilderness providing for their every need (verses 13-14). And depending on how we date this particular part of Isaiah, the return from Exile might be in the prophet’s mind as a “deed for which Yahweh is to be praised.”
In all these deeds, Yahweh “became their Savior.” This, of course, is where we can connect this text to Christmas. The birth of Christ was the ultimate saving deed of which all the preceding were types and shadows. He was “Immanuel” who came “to save his people from their sins.” When God chose Israel to be his family, he expected that they would be “sons who will not be false to me… (verse 8).” But, alas, it was not to be, as this prayer of lament confesses in 64:5b-7. Thus, God has been very angry with his sinful children. In the end, however, he has saved them again and will do so conclusively by becoming their Savior in Jesus Christ.
Thus, this ancient recital of salvation history can help us continue our celebration of Christmas, especially because it uses some unusual and dramatic language to describe God our Savior. First, verse 9a says, “In all their distress he too was distressed.” While some scholars translate “distress” as “afflictions” or “oppressions,” suggesting that God entered into our troubles in some deep way, I like “distress” because it implies that God in Christ was actually distressed by what distresses us.
God does not sit far above the fray and then dip down in mercy to pull us out of it. Rather, God suffers with us, experiencing our emotional turmoil and physical pain. I know that this “suffering God” theme troubles those who hold to the traditional doctrine of God’s simplicity, but it surely fits the New Testament hints that God in the flesh suffered in every way we do. For example, he “wept” and he was “a sympathetic High Priest.” On this First Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate a Savior who was like us in every way, including our distressed emotions.
The next phrase in verse 9 is puzzling but promising homiletically; “the angel of his presence saved them.” Undoubtedly, that is a reference to Exodus 23:20-23, where God tells Israel to follow his angel through the wilderness and to pray to that angel, and to Exodus 33:14, 15, where Moses pleads for God’s presence. God responds with that lovely promise. “My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” The first text is puzzling because of the command to pray to an angel, unless this is one of those mysterious places where the pre-Incarnate Christ appears on the scene. Long before he became Jesus of Nazareth, the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth as “the angel of God’s presence” to save God’s people. Salvation has always been in Christ alone. Now, of course, after Christmas, the Presence of Yahweh is with us always in the person of the Incarnate Christ.
Continuing to pile up words to help us celebrate what God has done to save us, the prophet says, “In his love and mercy he redeemed his people.” Stephen Reid helps us not to race over those familiar words about God’s “love and mercy,” when he says, “The suffering of God is an outgrowth of the love of God.” In a day when Christians quail over talk about God’s wrath and Jesus suffering a violent death, Isaiah reminds us that the whole drama was driven by God’s love and mercy. We may not be able to understand it all and smooth over all the rough edges, but let’s never forget that we are saved because “God so loved….”
Finally, our text ends with a tender image—a father lifting up a child and carrying that child on a long journey. Later in this long sad prayer of lament, Israel says, “But you are our Father (63:16).” Even though we have sinned terribly and you have punished terribly, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father… (64:8).” This picture of God picking us up and gently carrying us will evoke many childhood memories of being tired or sad or hurt, and Daddy bending down to scoop us up in his strong arms and carrying us. That old memory gives Israel strength, especially when the prophet turns in the next sentence to the memory of Israel’s rebellion and Yahweh’s hard response (verse 10). In the end, God our Savior took little children in his arms and blessed them, even when they had been very naughty children.
So, as I said in opening, this lovely little snippet of salvation history is set in a complicated and difficult context. But then, Christmas happened in a complicated and difficult context. To celebrate what God did in that tiny baby, and to celebrate deeply, it helps to see the darkness into which he came. God’s wonderful deeds are all the more wonderful when we remember how complex his salvation is. “God has become our Savior,” but there’s a lot more to it than that.
The intermingling of God’s toughness and tenderness, his love and the violence that fills the Bible, challenges our faith and tempts us to shave off the rough edges of Scripture. How can a loving God be so violent? I was helped a bit with this issue when I saw the movie, “Taken,” starring Liam Neeson.
It is an exceedingly violent film about an ex-CIA agent with a “special set of skills,” whose lovely but foolish teenage daughter is kidnapped by sex traffickers while she was on vacation in Europe. When the girl drops her phone on which she has been talking with her dad, the kidnapper picks it up. Neeson hears him breathing and asks him to let his daughter go. “If you do, I will forget about this and let you go. If you don’t, I will find you and kill every one of you.” The sneering kidnapper laughs and says, “Good luck.”
Well, Neeson doesn’t need luck. He has that “special set of skills,” which he uses with lethal results. In the end, every single member of the gang of sex traffickers is dead and Neeson frees his daughter. It ends with her in his arms, sobbing in relief.
The movie is too violent for many church goers. But for me it raised the question, how far would I go to save my children if they were in terrible danger? Would my love lead me to violent action? If a sinful father with special skills would risk his life to save his daughter, how much more would a holy Father risk violence to save his foolish, sinful children?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 29, 2019
Isaiah 63:7-9 Commentary