Opening The Old Testament
God Returning: Advent Reflections on Isaiah 61
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The hallmark words for Advent have long been hope and expectation. However, the most common English synonyms for the word "advent" are "appearance," "arrival," "dawn," and "return." Our hopeful expectation then at Advent is not based on vague portraits of cute babies, smiling and tender, on worshipful farm animals, clucking, cooing, and hissing (those camels, remember!), or on humble shepherds, struck mute by bright stars and magic men from afar. On this third Sunday of the season, we are told by Isaiah quite precisely what we are in for as we await this returning appearance, this dawn of something that is old and new at the same time.
There is little use speculating just when Isaiah 61 was written. The usual guess is sometime after Isaiah 40-55, which is plainly from the very end of the exile of Israel in Babylon (the fourth decade of the 6th century B.C.E.) and sometime after the return of some of those exiles to what was left of Jerusalem, perhaps late in that same century.
Haggai 2:3 describes the keen disappointment felt by those returnees after their attempts to rebuild the city and the temple in 515 B.C.E. had resulted in a paltry imitation of their memories of the grandeur of the place. "Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?" It is likely that none of those who returned had ever seen the first temple of Solomon, since Israel had been in Babylon for at least fifty years. However, those who had seen it had certainly filled the ears of their children with its wonders and had instilled in them the surging desire to return to the holy place and rebuild what Nebuchadnezzar and his troops had destroyed. Reality had not begun to match their fervent desires.
But this third prophet Isaiah had his own way of kindling the fires of hope despite the fiasco of the pathetic new temple. He speaks again, like his fellow prophet before him, that "the spirit of YHWH God is upon me, because YHWH has anointed me . . . (Is. 61:1). In Isaiah 42:1 the second Isaiah had said that this same spirit had been placed upon the "servant" whom YHWH had chosen and upheld in order to "bring forth justice to the nations." And now, several generations later, another prophet announces the same promise.
There is of course nothing at all new about this promise. The very first prophet we know anything about is Nathan, who in 2 Samuel 12 shows up unbidden and calls the king of Israel, the mighty David, to account for his wanton behavior with Bathsheba and for his murder of her husband, Uriah. The prophets of Israel have always, from the very beginning, proclaimed that there is a higher authority than kings, and that that authority is most especially concerned with justice that is at the base fairness, impartiality, equity, fair play. No one in Israel, from king to slave, is free from the demands of justice.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.