“Promise fulfilled”

“Promise fulfilled”

Wednesday 25 December 2019

I wonder how many of you really listened closely to the first reading this morning from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. I have a very strong suspicion that many Christians switch off a bit when the Old Testament is read. They can think that it is too hard to understand, too complex in what it is trying to say. And Old Testament readings seem to relate to matters about which Christians have not got a very good understanding in the first place.
It is much easier to concentrate on the gospel reading with the well-known account of angels and shepherds and mangers and swaddling clothes. But this morning, I want to explore the reading from Isaiah and attempt to see what it might tell us about the significance of Jesus’ birth, both for the Jewish people of his day, and more importantly, for us in our own time.
Firstly, in order to decipher what the prophet might be getting at, we need to consider the structure of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Scholars generally agree that it consists of three distinct sections. The first section runs from chapter 1 to chapter 39 and consists of the prophecies of Isaiah of Jerusalem who was active in the 8th century BC, at a time when the Kingdom of Judah was threatened by the great Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians actually got to set a siege around Jerusalem, but then had to retreat back to Nineveh, their capital city, because of internal political disruptions threatening the king’s power.
Jerusalem only survived that assault to be eventually totally destroyed a century and a half later by the Babylonians in 587BC. The temple was destroyed, the king and the elite citizens were taken in exile to Babylon, the rest of the populations dispersed through the territories around the Mediterranean sea, from North Africa to modern day France. Chapter 40 to chapter 55 contains the prophecies of a later prophet of the school of Isaiah directed to this people living in exile in Babylon, offering them the Lord’s hope that they would one day return and rebuild Jerusalem and return the Temple to its former glory.
Chapter 56 to the end of the Book, chapter 66, contain the prophecies of an even later prophet of the school of Isaiah directed to the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem fifty years later when the Persians defeated the Babylonians and wanted a stable society in Palestine and saw the Jews as the logical ones to provide it.
And that is where today’s reading comes from – chapter 62.
And the prophet has a message of great consolation and hope:
The prophet puts all of these words in the mouth of God. The Lord says:
Upon your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
they shall never be silent.
You who remind the Lord,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.

You only put sentinels on the walls if the walls and gates of the city are intact. There is no point otherwise. So this is a picture of the Jerusalem’s strength beginning to be re-established. And what is the job of the sentinels? They are not to stop reminding God that Jerusalem needs to be re-established fully. God needs to return it to its former glory

You who remind the Lord,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.

And next, God reassures the people that he has not forgotten his promises to his people:

The Lord has sworn by his right hand
and by his mighty arm:
I will not again give your grain
to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink the wine
for which you have laboured;
but those who garner it shall eat it
and praise the Lord,
and those who gather it shall drink it
in my holy courts.

He will return his people to prosperity and the fruit of their labours will be theirs to enjoy. It will not be taken from them by their enemies. They will not be the slaves of others.

Then God calls on his people to prepare the approaches to the city so that others may stream back to Jerusalem.

Go through, go through the gates,
prepare the way for the people;
build up, build up the highway,
clear it of stones,
lift up an ensign over the peoples.

God then announces the salvation of his people to the whole world.

The Lord has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
‘See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him’.

What will be the final result of God’s intervention? The prophet announces the words of ultimate hope and promise:

They shall be called, ‘The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the Lord’;
and you shall be called, ‘Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken.’

How can we summarise this great poem of promise to the returning exiles? We can say that God is promising them their ultimate salvation and restoration as a people. As the people return to the broken and overgrown city of Jerusalem, the prophet is trying to assure them that God’s salvation is at hand. It is worth their effort to do all of the hard work of rebuilding.

But we know that historically, the re-establishment of Jerusalem and the Temple was never on the scale that previously existed. And furthermore, we know that Jerusalem fell under the control of other foreign powers in the ensuing years – the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Romans.

And that is where they were when Jesus of Nazareth was born in a stable in Bethlehem. And it is that Jesus who is the fulfilment of the prophecy made in chapter 62. It is Jesus who allows the return of the Holy people, the redeemed of the Lord, the one sought out, and who proclaims Jerusalem as a city not forsaken.

Christians often become obsessed with the question of personal salvation. But as this reading from Isaiah and the all of the books of the Old Testament prophets witness, what the people of Israel were waiting for is a Messiah, a king, to re-establish them “as a people”. The salvation that the birth of the child Jesus brings is salvation for his people, the Jews, and subsequently for all people and the whole of God’s creation. We are saved personally because in Jesus, as Saint Paul tells us in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, God was reconciling the world to himself.

This is the cause of our joy at Christmas. God has finally fulfilled in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth his promise to make the whole world at rights with him. And Jesus has showed us what the world would be like if God was running the show, rather than we sinful human beings. We are called this and every Christmas to recommit ourselves to following Jesus, born for us at Bethlehem, and to sharing the good news of his salvation of the world to those with whom we share our lives.

‘See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him’.

Archdeacon Allan Paulsen
Parish Priest

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