Keeping Watch with Isaiah

by Marjorie George

They were dark days for the Hebrew people in the centuries before Christ was born. Their promised land, their sacred city, had been overrun by sword-wielding foreigners, their beloved temple burned to the ground, their leaders carried off to Babylon. They were at the mercy of the Assyrian warriors who had taken them captive. In Judah the people mourned. “In Ramah,” said the prophet Jeremiah, “Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted” (31:15).

And into this devastation, came the prophet Isaiah with a message of hope: “Comfort, O comfort my people,” he proclaimed. “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God . . . the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it (40:1-5).

Hundreds of years removed, we recognize those verses as Advent proclamations. But on the ground, even in the midst of the desolation, Isaiah heard a message of hope.  “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (9:6-7).

To be sure, Isaiah had as well delivered a harsh message to his countrymen. “Ah, sinful nation,” Isaiah reported for God. “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me” (1:2-4).  And now the people sat in darkness, strangers in an alien land, suffering the forfeiture they had brought on themselves.

But Isaiah’s message also declared that however unfaithful his children would be, God would ultimately remain faithful to them. Isaiah was the voice of hope in the midst of fear, the voice of calm as turbulence swirled all around him. Because Isaiah listened with a heart of hope. The sixth-century monk St. Benedict called it listening with the “ear of the heart.”

Isaiah saw not only the past and the present; he also saw the future that would be revealed in the person of Christ. Not because Isaiah was a seer, a magician, a reader of Tarot cards, but because Isaiah saw and relied on the unchanging nature of God. And that gave him hope. Isaiah heard not with ears attuned to this world, but with ears that heard God above the voices of the world. He heard with ears that listened for the still, small voice of God. He saw with eyes that looked beyond the fear, the despair, the land laid desolate. He believed with a heart that could not be dissuaded.

Redemption, he knew, would come.  He could believe in the day when “there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (9:1-2).  For us that light has come into the world in the very person of God become incarnate in the person of Jesus the Christ. The light shines over a humble manger in an obscure town, and if we listen with the ear of our hearts we will hear the voice of God in a baby’s cry.

And so we watch with Isaiah. We listen with ears of hope and watch with eyes of expectation. And we sing while we wait and watch:
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel” (hymn 56, The Hymnal 1982).

Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline. Reach her at marjorie.george@dwtx.org

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