Wednesday, 9 December 2009

What are YOU doing here?

It's a fairly familiar feeling for travelling preachers. You see a familiar face in among the listeners but you can't quite 'place' them; they are in the 'wrong' context, probably visiting from another church. I have the same feeling reading some parts of Isaiah. You suddenly find old friends and think 'what are YOU doing here'. This is especially true with those well known Christmas verses. This morning I was reading some of the earlier chapters of Isaiah and came across those familiar old friends such as 'Immanuel, God with us' Isaiah 7:14 and 'unto us a child is born' Isaiah 9:6. Have you ever tried to read them in their context? It is puzzle indeed.

Isaiah was writing for several decades and it may well be that we don't have his writings in what we would call chronological order. This itself is very instructive. The ancient peoples didn't tell 'straight line history', they constantly double back on themselves. Almost always the history has some 'point' and the narrative will continue until that point is reached and then double back on itself. The first two chapters of the Bible do the same. It is a salutary warning for those who try to reduce prophecy to timetables of future history.

In addition to the fact that it is often difficult to follow the 'straight line history' of the prophets, we have the strange phenomena of telescoping. Events over hundreds of years are telescoped into a few sentences giving the impression that the events are synchronised. It is like seeing a range of mountain peaks and not commenting on the valleys that lie between them. This is the explanation of old friends in unfamiliar places. We have seen some of these peaks much more clearly in the New Testament and it is sometimes a shock to discover them in their original environment.

Isaiah's days were tumultous. Super powers were 'slogging it out' and smaller puppet kingdoms were being swept along in the process. In the midst of the political chaos of his day he hears the promise that 'God is with us'. They may seem to control all the levers of power but God is with us. In one sense this was always true but in another more intense sense this fact would be incarnated in the birth of a child. He, himself, would be the embodiment of this assurance. This 'child' would shoulder the government of the nations and of the spread of his kingdom there would be no end.

It can only have been the vaguest of comforts to the people of his day but in the person of Jesus Christ the promise has become flesh and blood. In the continuing chaos of the human experience God has 'just the man for the job'. 'Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given'.

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