The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
Isaiah 61:1-7 (ESV)
This was amongst the readings this year in our Advent devotional. I’ve read it many times before, as part of our Christmas preparations. This year, a phrase from verse two burst from the page. In all my years of hearing or reading this passage, I had never seen it before: to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God.
This is not an aspect of the Christmas story I’m used to hearing. It is hard, after all, picturing the traditional image of the Infant in the manger with the vengeance of God. But it is there. In fact, as we continued with our readings, I kept finding that undercurrent of danger popping up. Do we know what we are proclaiming?
The one response that seems to have gripped everyone that first Christmas is fear. No one comes away unscathed.
The Old Testament prophets looked upon the coming of a Messiah with hope, but also an acute awareness that God’s people had all to often blown it. Messiah is an answer to prayer, as well as a rebuke.
Zechariah is struck dumb, which created no small problem for him as a priest. (Luke 1:18-22) Priests after all, were to represent the people before God, which required speaking words. He could no longer serve, until he affirmed the instructions God had given him. Mary, too, is troubled. The world did not take kindly to unwed mothers, and she would have to endure the rigors of her pregnancy largely alone. Her body is literally taken over by God, swelling day by day. (Luke 1:29)
Joseph alone seems to have borne the news with something like equanimity, but of course the risks were pretty obvious. He’s told to marry a woman suspiciously pregnant, and assume parentage over a child of dodgy origins, sacrificing his dreams and business for promise, one he will never see fulfilled.
The angels are terrifying. Our romantic Victorian imagery doesn’t do them justice. Why are they so scary? What are we trying to hide with our iconography?
The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) riffs on these theme, and reveals why Christmas is so scary. God regards the poor and humble, and remembers his covenant with Israel. He scatters, He tears down, and lifts up, echoing Isaiah 40:4. What is this describing but an earthquake? The hungry are filled, but the well-to-do are sent away empty. What if we are deemed rich?
That is the scary thing. We do not know, and the coming Messiah promises to expose all things (Luke 2:35). Paul speaks of God as a fire that will burn through our lives and deeds, stripping away the chaff with which we surround ourselves, laying bare our essence.
Traditionally, Advent was time for the Church to look ahead to the Second Coming, having just celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, even as it was looking back toward Christ’s First Coming. I think they caught that sense of danger in his Coming, that God is out to judge both his friends and our enemies, even as He brings peace, hope and healing. May we recover something of that this holiday season.
Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.
The dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears;
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture,
gaze we on those glorious scars!
Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
high on thy eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
claim the kingdom for thine own.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Everlasting God, come down!
- Charles Wesley