As usual I’ve slipped away for a few days’ retreat before Advent and Christmas are upon us. I’ve often taken the opportunity to read a commentary on the theme Gospel for the coming lectionary year, but this time I’ve chosen one on the “Fifth Gospel”, Isaiah, whom there will be no getting away from over the next few weeks. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” “Unto us a child is born.” “His name shall be Immanuel.” Great promises of hope, but great predictions of disaster as well.
My chosen commentary is the longer one by Alec Motyer (IVP), and it is solidly but sensibly evangelical in approach. The unity of the book is affirmed and made sense of – the cut and paste approach of an earlier generation is now less appealing across the board, and dating methods for individual passages are treated with more suspicion than they were. But that unity is seen as a consummate work of self-editing, a sort of prophetic retrospective, by Isaiah himself, as he draws on his corpus to get his main message across.
That main message is shown to be very much a prophetic inhabiting of the Gospel. Writing either side of 700 in the last years of Judah before the exile, it is the year that King Uzziah dies which is that of his call, but it is his meeting with King Ahaz some years later as he inspects the way supply that will be needed in the event of a siege that is determinative. Ahaz will decisively commit Judah to a political solution to its survival, not one founded on trust in God, and from that point the foreseen future will inexorably play out.
Isaiah sees equally sharply, and sets against each other sharply, both the judgement of God and the mercy of God. There will be catastrophic destruction, but a remant will survive, the nation will one day be reborn and God’s good rule established among a people of faith. So the mercy trumps the judgment. But this is no cheap grace: it will take God’s personal presence among his people to achieve it, a “prince of peace” but also “almighty God”.
So Isaiah prophetically grasps both the incarnation and the need for the incarnation. This is a salvation which we cannot and must not suppose we can accomplish for ourselves. Even as we celebrate the (in truth oh so fractured) feel-good of family and community, we will look to the one we believe can alone give it a future. Even as we celebrate the coming of the Chris-child, we will also be proclaiming the cross.