I will admit to being a little bit addicted to those YouTube channels that have made an art out of “top ten” or “top twenty” lists. Recently, my attention was drawn to a video list of “The Top 20 Actors Who Saved Their Career with One Performance.” It was a fascinating list of actors and actresses whose reputations were in serious decline, their phone wasn’t ringing, but then the right script, the right role, and the right director (at the right time), changed everything, and they once again were at the top of Hollywood’s A-List.
The Old Testament text for the first Sunday of Christmas (in year B) recounts the redemption of Judah’s name and reputation in the world. The nations of the world viewed Judah’s history as a people of significance as over. For a few decades Judah had a nice run in Jerusalem, but exile in Babylon had seemingly closed the curtain on their present and their future. Yet now, the right redeemer at the right moment had come together to make all things new for them, not just in their own eyes, but in the eyes of the world.
The lection text from Isaiah is admittedly odd because it joins together the end of one poetic piece with the beginning of another. The effect is that the text reads a bit like a responsive reading in which the prophet (61:10-11) – speaking on behalf of the people – announces their hope in God. And then God – through the prophet – responds (62:1-3) with divine promises of redemption.
It is also a bit strange that the lectionary selection leaves out the two better known pieces of chapters 61-62. The first few verses of chapter 61 are the Spirit-empowered prophetic proclamation of the good news of Jubilee upon God’s people. The opening verses of Isaiah 61 are the verses that Jesus reads (and announces as fulfilled) in the Nazareth synagogue in Luke chapter 4. It is the proclamation of “the Lord’s favor” that sets the trajectory and becomes the lens through which Luke proclaims the Lord’s gospel of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is a grace that is at first well received by those in the synagogue, until Jesus reminds them that God’s mercy is not just received but it also must be extended. The new creation does not only come to those closely connected to Jesus and his people, but it also extends to foreign widows from Sidon and enemy generals from Syria. That message nearly got Jesus thrown off a cliff.
The verses that follow this Sunday’s lectionary reading – in Isaiah 62 – are also well known. In these verses, God announces the new names that Judah will be called by the people all around. They will no longer be called Abandoned (Azubah) and Deserted (Shemammah). They will, instead, be called My Delight is in Her (Hephzibah) and Married (Beulah).
It may be necessary for the preacher to acknowledge the existence of both of these missing pieces. Without them it is unclear why the prophet and the people are rejoicing and what the result of God’s gracious proclamation is upon the nation.
It may also be necessary to give some historical context to the passage. It is likely that this text, from the third major section of Isaiah (chapters 56-66), is set in the post-exilic period when the recently returned people of Judah are coming to grips with the huge rebuilding project that faces them in Jerusalem. Like people living in the gulf states returning to the rubble of home after a devastating hurricane, or Californians sorting through the ashes that remain after a wildfire, the Judeans have come home to devastated Jerusalem only to realize how much work lays ahead of them.
Again, the opening words of Isaiah 61 announce a new day upon exiled Judah. What they are experiencing is a do-over from God. The year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) that was inscribed into the Torah but never followed by God’s people, has nevertheless been extended from the hand of the divine. What appears to the uninspired eye as rubble and a great history now laid waste, to the Spirit-empowered eye of the prophet appears as the newness of a blank slate upon which the LORD can now write a new history.
Isaiah 61:10 opens with a response of joy. The prophet uses two different images to express the joy that comes with expectation of newness. First, like a bridegroom clothed in a “robe of righteousness” or a bride “adorned in jewelry,” dressed and prepared for the new beginning of a wedding, Judah is dressed and ready for God’s redeemed future for them.
Second, like seeds in the ground prepared to grow into something new, unexpected, and useful, God’s people are ready to move toward the telos or goal God has for them. When one holds an acorn, it is hard to imagine that somewhere inside that seed is the potential – accompanied by the right elements – for a mighty oak tree. In the same way, Judah and Jerusalem do not look like much. However, within them – accompanied by the right elements of divine presence and blessing – lies the possibility of a city and a people who reflect God’s glory.
Isaiah 62:1 begins God’s response of assurance. Yahweh will not stop speaking and will not stop working until the broken pieces of Jerusalem are put back together and the radiating glory of the divine presence is witnessed and acknowledged by the same nations who once reveled in Zion’s demise. The renewed people will not be a garland or turban on the LORD’s head, for God will remain transcendent. God’s glory is not dependent upon Judah’s existence. However, Judah will be a “splendid garland” and a “royal turban” displayed, protected, and celebrated in the hand of the LORD. No one will ever refer to Judah as Abandonedor Deserted again. They will instead be honored as the Delight of God or those Married to the LORD.
The message of this text, like the central good news of the gospel, is the grace of God that gives to even the most broken and sinful a new start. No person’s past has to be determinative of the future God has for them. There is a Jubilee – a complete do-over of forgiveness and grace – awaiting any who will receive it at extend to others. However, there is not just a new start, there is the very commitment of God to keep speaking and working until that which was even acknowledged by others as hopeless and wasted becomes a life that embodies righteousness and holiness in ways that people see and give glory to God.
This hope is not just a word to individuals but also a word of hope to communities. Here on the very last Sunday of 2020, communities can recognize how devastating this last year – and its many challenges – has likely been on all people, and God’s people have been no exception. For many churches, this year has felt like a devastating flood of chaos, wiping away all of the health, goodness, and momentum that had existed prior to the pandemic.
Perhaps this text can serve as a word of hope, and a much-needed reminder, that God refuses to let rubble have the last word. Could it be that what appears – even to outsiders – as a time of disruption and devastation may also be a moment in which God speaks new dreams and hopes into his people? Maybe, in the midst of laments, the church can also rejoice at the new opportunities and new dreams the Lord is inspiring in his people. At the very least, we can be confident of this: “the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).