Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Go Tell It On the Mountains - Lectionary Reflection for Christmas (Isaiah 52)


Isaiah 52:7-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
    together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.
    
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                “Go tell it on the Mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” So goes one of our beloved Christmas carols, this one emerging out of the African-American tradition. In another song, emerging from a different moment, the prophet we know as Second Isaiah sings of a people set free from captivity in Babylon. How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim the good news that God reigns, and with that brings peace (well-being) and salvation to Zion (and to us all). The good news goes to a captive people who have been redeemed and set free so that they can return to Zion (Jerusalem), which has lain in ruins. This all occurs due to the reign of God, which returns to Zion.

                The reading from Isaiah 52 is offered for Christmas Day, which falls on a Sunday this year (2016). At congregations that normally don’t meet on Christmas Day, they may gather again for worship on Sunday morning (my congregation is joining with a Presbyterian congregation down the street for a joint worship service). What better day than this to celebrate the good news that God reigns!

                The lectionary provides several readings from Isaiah for the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day services. I’ve already reflected on the reading from Isaiah 9, which we will be reading together on Christmas Eve. That reading emerges from a different era and an earlier prophet (the original Isaiah). When the word found in Isaiah 9 was revealed to the people of Judah, the nation may have been experiencing duress, but the city of Jerusalem and its Temple remained intact. That was no longer true for the recipients of this word from Second Isaiah. Hezekiah’s storied reign, which is celebrated in that song, was more than a century in the past. Things had changed for the people of Judah. Their monarchy, along with their city and their Temple, was gone. Things may have changed over the years, but God still reigned, and a word of hope remains to be shared with the people. Indeed, God has not forgotten them, even in Babylon.        
      
                As for the good news to be shared by those whose feet are declared to be beautiful, the sign that God reigns is found in the victory of the Persian Empire over the Babylonians, who held Judah captive. It would be Cyrus and his army that would free the people. This news needed to be shared, much like the fabled news shared with the Athenian people after the Athenian army defeated the invading Persians at Marathon. As a historian, I find it interesting that the Persian army plays a role in both stories. For Judah, the Persian victory made possible their return home to Jerusalem. 

                As we gather for Christmas, the good news we get to share is not about a battle that has been won. Our good news lifts up a child who is born in Bethlehem. This child’s birth heralds the coming of the reign of God. This is the good news that is to be proclaimed on the mountains. The feet of the messengers are the feet of the evangelists who proclaim this good news.

                As we attend to this news of Christmas, we hear the promise that “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God.” For captive Israel, salvation was found in the return to Zion. Their exile would end with the Persian victory over the Babylonians. The Persians were but another in series of empires that would come and go, but in this case God would use them to restore God’s people. I’m sure that the Persian Empire wasn’t all that different from other empires, but in this case they allowed the Jewish people to regather and rebuild their lives. That is Second Isaiah’s message to the people of Judah. The word to us is a bit different.

                What does salvation look like in our case? What is God up to this Christmas season? Perhaps as we reflect on this passage our hearts and minds can go the Syrian city of Aleppo. It is an ancient city that now in ruins. People’s lives have been destroyed. There is little hope for them. They have experienced captivity and many now look forward only to exile from their destroyed homes and destroyed hopes. What does salvation look like in this case? What is the good news to be shared? We could add many other examples to this list.

                Standing at the center of our question is the declaration that God reigns. While Isaiah speaks of God’s strong arm (Persia?) that has accomplished this work of salvation, in Christ how does God’s strong arm get bared? Triumphalist Christianity tends to forget that the story begins in manger and moves toward a cross. Yes, there is resurrection, which is God’s triumph over death, but is that where we should put our emphasis at this moment?  Turning again to the carol, the third verse declares: “Down in a lowly manger the humble Christ was born, and God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn.” So go and tell the good news on the mountains.

                For Judah, this was a hope fulfilled in time. Their captivity had ended. Even though the Davidic monarchy wouldn’t be restored, they would return to rebuild the Temple, the Temple in which Jesus would be dedicated (per Luke 2:22-24). It would be at this moment of dedication that an elderly prophet named Simeon would declare that he had seen God’s salvation (Luke 2:25-30). And Anna, another prophet, would declare the good news to all would hear that the redemption of Jerusalem had arrived (Luke 2:36-38). Their vision has an eschatological note to it. The fullness of salvation would not yet arrive in time and space. It was something, it is something, that we are experiencing in part but not in full.

                Don Saliers notes that this passage is immediately followed by the Suffering Servant passages. He writes:
Christmas carols sing joyfully, but they are about far more than “Happy Birthday.” They sound the fact that salvation is to be in actual human history, but also that “all the ends of the earth” will see it. This seeing and hearing and singing is for all eternity. This is no mere extension of what we already know. God is born into solidarity with us in all times and places, until history itself shall find its true consummation. Christmas itself is already but not yet. [Feasting on the Word, p. 126]     

As we gather for Christmas worship, let us open ourselves up to God’s vision, recognizing that ours is an eschatological vision. We see signs of God’s work now, but it’s not complete, and will not be complete until the eschaton. Nonetheless, we still have the opportunity to bring good news. We can bring this news to all who experience fear, oppression, anxiety, grief, for this is the gospel of Jesus—the good news that God’s salvation has arrived. Yes, God does reign!  


Picture Attribution: He, Qi. Glory to God in the Highest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46110 [retrieved December 19, 2016]. Original source: heqigallery.com.

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