The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
I’ve only ever been in one fight. I don’t mean a sibling argument no, I mean a fight where punches were thrown. I say ‘punches’, really it was only one punch and it hit my 9-year-old nose square on. I don’t think I cried but it hurt a lot and my eyes watered and the fight was over. Choristers at Hereford Cathedral weren’t as angelic as they looked and I can’t for the life of me remember why my fellow chorister hit me: I do remember that we were getting ready for evensong which was possibly not the best time to choose for a fight.
In the Old Testament lesson this evening we heard that ‘the Lord has bared his holy arm’. Two choristers wearing full cassock and surplice fighting might not have been a particularly edifying sight for those arriving to say their prayers but I suspect (if our fight hadn’t ended so abruptly) we may well have ended up wrestling on the floor looking like a ball of blue and white washing rolling around in a tumble drier as opposed to two prize fighters slugging it out in the ring: Flowing robes (cassocks, surplices or ancient middle eastern garments) need to be pulled out of the way to free up the movement required for any serious action. So the phrase, ‘the Lord has bared His holy arm’ is a way of telling us that God has rolled up his sleeves because He means business. But what business? What is He up to?
Isaiah’s first hearers were Jews descended from those dragged off as slaves from Israel as forced labour for the Babylonian Empire. Though their lives had been hard they were the lucky ones – those they left behind had been forced to eke out a living in a country that had been devastated by war and famine. For decades now we may have struggled to imagine what this might be like but this year we have our own desperate images from Ukraine to feed our imaginations: life in Israel had been like trying to rebuild Mariupol or Bucha. For those far from home any thought of return had died with their grandparents and parents and holding on to any sense of faith in God had been just as hard. The exiles’ experience was that God had abandoned His people – they felt as if they had been cast out of His presence, that they weren’t good enough for Him.
And then Isaiah started to write and preach, and His message introduced the possibility of a new world order coming into existence. On the surface the kings and emperors of the world might strut their stuff (and they do indeed have power) but the herald’s message proclaimed to Jerusalem (a city still in ruins as Isaiah wrote) was ‘Your God reigns’. ‘God is King’.
Christians have made the phrase ‘good news’ their own. But before we came along the ancient world – particularly the Roman Empire- also used the phrase. ‘Good news’ was something announcing a royal or imperial decree. ‘Good news’ was news from the top of the political tree. ‘Good news’ was brought straight from the mouth of the emperor to his people through his heralds. The ‘Good news’, proclaimed by these heralds, was that which informed the ancient world as to who was in charge. So in announcing that ‘Your God reigns’ Isaiah is also saying that any others claiming to rule are just pretenders. ‘There is a kingdom and there is a king’ (as the song says) – serve Him.
The ’good news’ is that the Lord is ready for some hard work – He bares His Holy arm- and His business is to bring peace and salvation. ‘Salvation’ is a word which carries a whole bundle of meanings, but these include ‘healing, forgiveness, rescue, freedom, the lifting of oppression, wellbeing, wholeness, shalom’. The Lord means business, He brings salvation, and He has come to live amongst His people again.
And who is this salvation for? Well, the verses we read said ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God’ which rather implies that the Jews have it whilst everyone else looks on. But the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy fills out the vision and makes clear that God’s business is to bring redemption to all people – to the whole world: that no one is to be excluded from His kingdom.
For Isaiah’s first readers the work of God would be experienced in the miraculous return the Jewish exiles were able to make back to their land after the collapse of the Babylonian Empire. But, after the first flush of enthusiasm in their land, the people’s dream of living in God’s presence soured as the nation was conquered yet again by the world’s super-powers, Greece and then Rome: God’s salvation still seemed distant.
And then an angel appeared to Mary announcing ‘good news’: news that she would give birth to a child who would be called ‘Son of the Most High’ and ‘whose kingdom would have no end’. And at this child’s birth a host of angels appeared to the shepherds proclaiming ‘good news’ that a ‘Saviour, Christ the Lord’ could be found ‘lying in a manger’. ‘Good news’ to challenge a world wedded to the assertion of power through violence. ‘Good news’ to overturn the pretensions of those who think they are important. ‘Good news’ that will put down the mighty and raise up the ‘humble and meek’. A new King born who calls us to live in a new way, treasuring the small and the weak, lifting up those who are struggling, affirming the dignity of all and making room for everyone. This is the work of God. Now the Lord has bared his holy arm in the form of a newborn-child reaching out to us, inviting us to take Him to ourselves. Here, in the manger there is hope for the world. Here there is salvation, a new start, the chance of healing and wholeness, the possibility of God-with-us (not just then but now). It seems hardly enough but there is great strength here: an undying love that can never be overcome. The love of God for His creation – for you and me.
So, Sing for joy, the Lord has comforted His people. Unto us a child is born, a Son given who will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace – the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. God has rolled up His sleeves to show us the strength of His love.
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