Old Testament: Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalter: Psalm 148
Epistle: Hebrews 2:10-18
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23
Isaiah remembers, and as he does, the prophet begins to stammer. His reason yields to praise, and remembered history turns to worship. There are times, however rare, when words, concepts, and systems are not grandiose enough to be the cradle of the gift.
In Isaiah 63 (RSV), the prophet strains to capture the scope and the grandeur of God's "great goodness," God's praiseworthy acts, all discovered within God's mercy and all given "according to the abundance of his steadfast love." God comes down from a distant heaven to stand with the people in all their distress. We overhear the Holy One of Israel: "Surely they are my people, sons who will not deal falsely" (63:8).
The prophet who speaks oracles to his hearers begins to sing, and his song blends into prayer as he says, "In all their distress, he was distressed." God in no way holds himself aloof from hurting humanity. Rather, God enters into the human dilemma and takes our distress upon himself. That surely is what the Incarnation finally points toward.
Isaiah could not have predicted what the "enfleshing" of God in the Incarnation could mean, but given the boundaries of the prophet's experience, he came as close as was possible to being able to fathom the eternal mystery of God's self-giving. Isaiah stresses that God did not send someone else but rather entered into our hurting firsthand, to share our grief and to lift it from us:
In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
The imagery of the prophet reaches back to the earliest recollection of Israel's past. God, who has always been their faithful Father, is now pictured as their nurturing mother eagle. The writer of Deuteronomy picks up on the theme of God lifting up his people:
The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.
The same image is used in Exodus: "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself . . ." (19:4).
Isaiah's penetrating insight moves beyond perceiving God only as the architect of creation; the designer of Israel's history; the moral governor of the universe. These descriptions are most certainly true, but God is also like a nurturing mother eagle who has carried her beloved young to safety and to protection time and time again through their mutinous history. This image is also reflected in one rendering of Acts 13:18, which reads, 'As a nursing father bare he them in the wilderness." What an illustrative mixing of the nurturing images!
Living with Isaiah in Advent and Christmas can only assure us that in his depths he is so close, and yet so far. The prophet touches the hem of the divine garment. He edges us through his images to that moment when images become reality and the promise surrenders to fulfillment.
For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
"All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," Lane
"Hasten Swiftly, Hasten Softly/' Kountz
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," Lorenz
"Love Came Down," Simeone
"Love Came Down at Christmas," Sowerby
"Nativity Carol," Rutter
"O Christians, Sing with Exultation," Franck
"O Lord Our God How Excellent Is Thy Name" (trio or 4-part) Marcello
"O Lord, Our Master, How Glorious Is Thy Name," Tebmann
"The Noel Carol," arr. Calwell
(Note: Many other suggestions for congregational and choral music based on Scripture lessons for this Sunday are included on page 32-33.)
For the Children
Show the children a wind chime, and ask them to explain how it works. "Can you see the air that makes the chimes sound? No, but you know it is there. When the chimes are silent, does that mean the air has gone away? No, you know air is always there, just like you know God is always there."
Tell the children that in today's Scripture the prophet Isaiah says that God is always with us and is always taking care of us. He will keep us safe from danger, just as a mother bird keeps her babies safe.
Then close by reading these wonderful words of promise: "God will never abandon you. God's steadfast love will be you with always."