Last week we heard Zechariah sing a song of hope for his newborn son John. He talked of blessing and promise and peace – SHALOM, God’s peace. He told of redemption – for individuals and for the world – and he set a mission for believers to prepare a way for the Messiah to come into the world to redeem it. Today we return to the words of Isaiah and hear a hymn that bursts with joy and the promise of God’s presence. Today our excitement builds as we come closer to the reality of Christ in our midst.
Let us pray…Lord, during this Advent Season we wait for your peace and we long to shout for joy. Be with us today as we listen to the words of Isaiah and hear his message for us today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
As Christmas gets closer, many of us are buying games as gifts, both for children and adults. Certainly, the best-selling and most expensive games are of the electronic variety, like: Mortal Kombat, Game of Thrones, and Grand Theft Auto. It is encouraging to note that people are still buying and playing classic board games like Sorry!, Life, and Monopoly. These classic games gather people together, face-to-face, to play, to compete, and to have real conversation without texting. When families get together to play these games, all sorts of things can happen. Stronger relationships are built and valuable lessons are learned. Think about Monopoly, for example, the #2 most popular board game of all time. I’ll bet that nearly everyone here this morning has some memory of playing Monopoly with family or friends. I remember playing the game when we would often bend the rules significantly for the youngest players. Maybe the kids got extra money to play with or maybe some rent collections went unnoticed. You might also remember that, as the youngest players got more savvy, they exploited their unfair advantages. There are a couple lessons we can draw from this game scenario. First, life is lived on a competitive, but unequal playing field in which winning and losing is based somewhat on merit but also significantly on the social benefits of being born of a certain class, race, gender, and a certain amount of intelligence, and physical prowess. Second, God is somewhat like the Dad who gives extra Monopoly money; an uncommonly generous giver of very good gifts, the benefits of which we often exploit and misunderstand. [i]
When playing a game, winning and losing can be fun and both sides can leave the table in good spirits. In life, however, where possessions and the privileges they carry, are often exploited, winning and losing can be devastating. Maybe that is why the non-competitive generosity of God’s grace is so hard for us to grasp. We are so accustomed to winners and losers; so in-tune with getting what we earn; so against anyone getting anything we think they don’t deserve; that we simply cannot comprehend God’s unmerited favor – GRACE.
Isaiah reminds the people of a familiar ancient metaphor for God’s grace in salvation: WATER. (v3) “With joy, you will draw from the wells of salvation.” This metaphor is found in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Psalms; water brings God’s grace to individuals and to whole communities. This is the same water Jesus offers to the Samaritan woman at the well; the water of forgiveness and liberation from souls captive to sin. “The wells of salvation,” the water of God’s gracious presence, are bottomless and endless. We might use our recent weather patterns to helps us grasp how this metaphor works. Parts of the country are parched; dry for so long that farms are without crops and animals are in danger of starvation and dehydration. Other areas have been overwhelmed by so much water that homes, crops, businesses, and whole communities are devastated by flooding. Isaiah’s words speak to both groups. To those who suffer through dry, parched lives, where the water is absent, God’s grace can flow in and quench their thirst for God’s presence. To those overwhelmed by the flood of hard times, disease, and destructive behavior, God wades through the waters, offering life-supporting grace.
I think it is helpful to remember that Isaiah spoke to the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than 2,700 years ago, when the Assyrian Empire was the dominant power and they lived in its shadow. Foreign invaders, political instability, and an endless string of crises formed the context for Isaiah’s proclamation of joy. The people to whom he was sent lived in a world that was unpredictable and out of control. Yet Isaiah told them to give thanks and to shout for joy. Visit any news outlet or watch any news broadcast and you cannot help but sense the similarities of our world with theirs. The details are different: Isis was not a threat to ancient Judah; the Assyrian Empire is not in our headlines. BUT, the news reminds us that there are always events happening on a global scale, out of our reach and beyond our control. There are always threats to the global economy and our national security. There are also personal dangers, such as disease, job loss, and the loss of a loved one. Always, there are things that try to dominate us and remain outside of our control. It is no small challenge, then, to face these forces and proclaim: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and I will not be afraid.”
It is also important that we notice the structure of Isaiah’s words in this passage. The “you” in verse 1 is a singular pronoun. “In that day YOU will say…God is my strength…and I will not fear.” The image here is of an individual who faces daunting odds and finds strength and courage in the realization that nothing here is strong enough to defeat God. In verse 4, the “you” is a plural pronoun, suggesting that we do not stand alone in our struggles. We are joined by a chorus of voices, fellow believers, who give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, and shout for joy! Together we can “make known his deeds to the nations and proclaim his name is exalted.” It is our association with a community of faith that witnesses to God’s saving deeds in the world. Being part of a group that has shared feast and famine, elation and loss, laughter and tears – this strengthens us all and knits us together. This communal witness draws others to us who also need and want to “draw from the wells of salvation.”
In its historical context, the image of drawing from the wells of salvation probably refers to some ancient ritual that no longer survives into our context. We should see this image as tying together the songs of the singular “you” and the plural. It reminds us that God’s salvation is fundamental to life – all life. It is a basic necessity like water and air. It is offered to everyone, without exception. God’s offer of saving grace makes it possible for people to choose trust over fear when the day brings events out of their control. The “wells of salvation” overflow with the waters of grace to soothe tongues parched from fright. This saving water refreshes dry lips so they might proclaim the Lord’s exalted name.
During this season of Advent, as dark nights grow longer and media outlets continue their relentless proclamation of the world’s bad news, we wait – like the people in Isaiah’s time – we wait for “that day” when God’s salvation will come to us in all its fullness. “Do not be afraid,” the angel will say, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). We are drawn toward that future, ready to “shout aloud and sing for joy” together with the whole people of God who will proclaim, “Great in [our] midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:6)
We began this morning talking about the lessons we learn from games, realizing that real life is not a game with clear-cut rules and a level field of play. We talked about how our sense of winning and losing hinders from understanding the unmerited favor of God’s grace – offered to us without price. We then saw how Isaiah urges us to draw from the wells of God’s grace and live without fear in the face of that which seeks to destroy us. It’s all about waiting for God. While we wait we can, without fear, proclaim that God is our salvation as we sing, Joy to the World…Unspeakable Joy! In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Gench, Roger J. Pastoral Commentary on Isaiah 12:1-6 found in “Feasting on the Word”, Y-C, V-1, P-56. © 2009, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.