The Israelites are stuck in the Babylonian captivity as the Old Testament reading for the First Sunday after Christmas (Isaiah 61:10-62:3) opens.
Yet the prophet Isaiah speaks happily when he says.
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
The words describe a scene of anticipation using a wedding metaphor.
This sense of hope continues in the succeeding verses as it moves towards a metaphor of Springtime.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations.
After decades of captivity in Babylon, these words seem like a fantasy. They do not seem to relate to the current or foreseeable realities.
Next comes a prophesy of a renewal of the city of Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians when they conquered it.
Jerusalem’s … vindication shines out like the dawn,
her salvation like a blazing torch.
The nations will see your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
From the depths of despair Isaiah’s voice rings out with a poem of stunning hope. In the words of Miroslav Volf, a theologian at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, “Optimism is based on the possibilities of things as they have come to be; hope is based on the possibilities of God, irrespective of how things are… Hope is based on the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promise.”
In addition to the circumstance of Isaiah’s own time, his words addressed the people of Judea who lived under a pagan and repressive Roman occupation at the time of Jesus’ birth. The puppet king Herod, was insecure, manipulative and cruel. This was the world into which Jesus came. It was similar to the world that their ancestors experienced in Babylon except that now the restrictions happened in Judea.
The gospel for this morning (Luke 2:22-40) reflects Isaiah’s spirit of hope despite its circumstance. This spirit was personified in the persons of Simeon and Anna.
Simeon was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.
This passage reminds us of the reading from Isaiah for the third Sunday of Advent which began, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…(Isaiah 61:1) In that passage, too, the Spirit inspired the author to look forward to the day of God’s revelation of the Anointed One.
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
… Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” These words may have assured Mary that her child would live to become a significant person in the biblical history of Israel. Then he added, And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simeon did not explain this last sentence but the words must have struck her because she recalled them to tell others about Jesus’ early life.
There was also a prophet, Anna, … she was a widow …She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming to them at that moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
While the angels had taken the shepherds by surprise on the night of Jesus’ birth, Simeon and Anna were waiting, hoping, expecting to see him. Their appearance in Luke’s gospel is almost stately. For them Isaiah’s promise was personal. This moment was the fulfillment of their dreams. Each of them could speak the opening words of this morning’s passage from their own hearts…
I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.
· Isaiah personifies Jerusalem. Her vindication shines out like the dawn,her salvation like a blazing torch. It is not the stone walls and roads that are saved but the people who live in the city and identify with it. Within the figure of speech, the core idea is that salvation will come. In the gospel today, that hope is fulfilled. Both the Hebrew lesson and the gospel beg the question of us: how would we wait expectantly?
· After the cold we have experienced this last week of December, 2017, we share Isaiah’s sense of hope as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, yet even as we look forward, we know that we have to endure more weeks of winter. Do we see nature as God’s communication to us?
· One enigmatic sentence in Simeon’s words is that through this child the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Does it mean that Jesus could see into the hearts of others? Does this imply that the thoughts of our hearts should be open? Does it describe how the light of Jesus’ words and life will penetrate deep within people’s hearts? What meaning would you attach to this prophesy?