As we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, the Church turns for a moment to joy in what is traditionally a penitential season. Despite the challenges and loss of this year, we feel joy because the saviour is drawing near. The words of Isaiah resonate with nostalgia, connecting us to advents past; to the booming cadences of Handel’s Messiah and yet also propel us forward to the joy of Christmas, and to the awe and completion of the eschaton.
Isaiah has been called the “fifth gospel” because of its deep and ubiquitous presence in the New Testament, especially in the gospels and the epistles of St Paul. It is clear that our Lord himself interpreted his own identity and ministry through the prophecy of Isaiah, quoting Isaiah 61 as he began his public ministry. It’s not always straightforward to track Old Testament citations in the New Testament, because the New Testament writers lived and breathed the scriptures to the extent they are often quoting from memory, or from currently unknown Greek versions of the text, and sometimes they let different Old Testament citations fluidly interweave. But for a helpful overview of how much our Christian scriptures are underpinned by the prophet, note the 57 explicit attributions listed by Ron Graham on this website: https://www.simplybible.com/f591-isaiah-in-new-testament.htm .
For Christians, many parts of Isaiah directly and unproblematically point to Jesus, especially the “suffering servant” songs in so-called Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1–4; Isaiah 49:1–6; Isaiah 50:4–7; and Isaiah 52:13–53:12) and the famous declaration of anointing in Isaiah 61 (so called “third Isaiah”). They are prophecies of Christ.
This advent, as we hold that hopeful truth in our hearts, let me challenge you to remember a different perspective, especially as this week we are thinking about how to read the scriptures with love. We share the Hebrew Bible with our Jewish neighbours, in fact, it was their holy scripture first. And to a Jewish person reading Isaiah, these scriptures do not point to Christ. In fact, they are not so much a prophecy of a particular person, as a description of a renewed, strengthened Israel.
I am currently reading “Unto us a Child is Born: Isaiah, Advent and our Jewish Neighbours” by Tyler D. Mayfield (Eerdmans, 2020). In this book, Mayfield encourages us to read Isaiah with “bifocal lenses”, that is: to read it from the perspective of our own beliefs but also to seek to understand how our Jewish neighbours read and interpret it. I highly recommend this book to you, because poor biblical exegesis, sometimes deliberately and many times thoughtfully, has done a huge amount of damage to Jewish people throughout Christian history and continues to do so today. Anti-Semitism is a growing problem in our society: let us take a moment to reflect on the ways in which, as Christians, we can be an active force for love and peace in our multi-faith society, whilst confidently celebrating our belief in Jesus Christ.
The Reverend Sorrel Shamel-Wood