Hard times, a song of joy, and the meaning of Christmas

Today’s news seems bad all around. Pollsters find an unprecedented level of pessimism and anger at the ineptitude of our national government. Besides the sour economy and a bipartisan failure of leadership, we are beset with a number of foreign challenges. Do we have to shut out current events in order to find anything to be glad about this Christmas? Probably so for people who only celebrate the season. Not at all for people who understand the meaning of Christmas and celebrate the birth of the Savior.

The prophet Isaiah lived in bleak times. Early in his ministry an ungodly king, Ahaz, made a cowardly alliance with the Assyrian empire, which reduced the once proud kingdom of Judah to vassal status. The next king, Hezekiah, restored true worship, but tried to be politically and diplomatically clever instead of relying fully on God to protect him. Assyria, which had overrun the northern kingdom of Israel and forced all of its people into exile sat poised to punish any hint of resistance to its harsh demands. Meanwhile the entire had become corrupt, with the strong oppressing the weak and otherwise ignoring the law of God.

Isaiah tirelessly pointed out how far the entire society had fallen from the knowledge of God. He proclaimed that God’s wrath at the people’s sin would result in destruction and exile–not at the hands of Assyria, but Babylon, a rising power that Hezekiah had allied himself with. But when Isaiah looked at the future, he saw not only the coming judgment, but the grace God had ready for after his wrath had accomplished his purpose. The brief 12th chapter sings about the coming grace in the face of all the trouble that faced the kingdom

In that day you will say:
“I will praise you, O LORD.
Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust and not be afraid.
The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.
In that day you will say:
“Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done,
and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things;
let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”

The song begins with an individual voice: I will praise; I will trust. Then it continues with the same voice addressing a group using second person plural: you will draw; you will say. And those imperatives? Give thanks to the Lord; sing to the Lord; shout aloud. Those are plural, too. It is impossible to have a transformed community without saved individuals. It is also impossible for saved individuals to flourish in the absence of a transformed community.

Only an individual can experience salvation. Only within a community can anyone really enjoy it. What’s more, the community cannot hold the joy within itself. The only proper response to salvation is to share it and make it known to the whole world.
Centuries after Isaiah wrote this song, angels appeared to a group of shepherds and proclaimed that the Savior, the Christ, the Messiah that the nation had long awaited had been born that very night. Those shepherds lived in a time with its own threats and looming troubles. A Christmas season to celebrate was many more centuries in the future. But the shepherds could and did rejoice anyway as they witnessed the nativity.

They celebrated the birth of the Savior. They had no notion of what he would do. We have the whole New Testament to tell us what Jesus did. Christians who know Jesus personally also know what he has done not just in history, but in their own lives. They have relived the progression that Isaiah sang about. No wonder Christians can rejoice, at Christmas and always, regardless of the perils confronting them or the society around them. Songs of joy in hard times? They come spontaneously with understanding of the meaning of Christmas.

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