Opening The Old Testament
The Hope of Divine Companionship: Reflections on Isaiah 63:7-9
Poets exercise their huge imaginations to offer hope to those who have no hope. This God has acted throughout the long history of God's people, and the poet wishes to remind them of those actions for them, the chosen ones. So, he now "recounts the gracious deeds of YHWH, the praiseworthy acts of YHWH" (63:7ab). One could also translate these lines: "I will remember YHWH's acts of unbreakable love, YHWH's ringing hymns!" YHWH has acted and we have sung in response, because "of all YHWH has done for us, great good to the house of Israel that YHWH has shown according to God's mercy (compassion—Hebrew is literally 'womb'), according to the abundance of steadfast love (or "unbreakable love)" (63:7cd). The poet has here reached into the deep language of the very center of Israel's faith and is reminding them of God's good deeds from the foundation of the nation.
"Because God said, 'They are surely my people, children who will not deal falsely' (or perhaps "who will tell no lies"); so God became their savior in all their distress" (63:8-9a). God's hopes for the people were that they would be truth tellers, trustworthy children for whom God would be a savior in all occasions of pain or struggle. Verse 9bc is very difficult to translate, but it could be read, "There was no anguished messenger; it was God's own presence that saved them." Then, to continue the thought, "In God's love and pity, God redeemed them; God lifted and carried them through all their past days" (NRSV's "all the days of old" is less than clear).
This is nothing less than the kerygma of Israel, its most basic beliefs about their God. And that is why this text is read on the Sunday after Christmas. Now that Jesus has again been hymned and prayed and preached into the world, we want to know who he is, what we can expect him to be and do. And here is the answer: he will continue the actions of the God who sent him to be with his people. He is Emmanuel, God with us, and as that he will call us to himself as his chosen ones. He will ask us to deal only in truth, and in response he will care for us and love us in our deepest distress, will redeem us, lift and carry us as his God has done from the beginning.
Though we will and have rebelled against this gracious calling (see 63:10-19), he will never give us up, because his love for us cannot be broken. When the apostle Paul wrote his unmatched paean to the love of Christ in Romans 8, it was surely this Israelite series of beliefs that guided his thoughts. There is finally nothing that can separate us from such a love. Nothing!
I cannot speak for you, but that message is more than reason enough to show up on the Sunday after Christmas, because without it the hope of Christmas rings hollow and transient and too readily forgettable until the next round of loud hosannas next year. We shout "Hosanna" and "God is with us," but now we know more precisely what we mean and the effects it all can have on our post-Christmas lives.
Read Alyce McKenzie's accompanying New Testament reflection for this week, "The Fear of Competition" here.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.