In Western Asia two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flow southward into the Persian Gulf. Before reaching the sea, they run through a large, fertile plain. Six hundred years before Christ, this plain was the seat of the Babylonian Empire. Because of the fertility of the land, irrigated by these rivers, and because this plain was located at the strategic crossroads of the East and West trade routes, civilization developed to a remarkable height in Babylonia.
Razors and cosmetics, gold and silver bathroom fixtures, astronomy and higher mathematics – were a part of a daily life in the Babylonian Empire. The glory of Babylonia was its architectural marvels – the most famous being the imperial palace, on top of which, rising terrace upon terrace, was a garden. Babylon’s “Hanging Gardens” was listed among the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
It is no wonder that this culture rubbed off on the poor Jews who were brought to Babylonia as captives following Nebuchadnezzar’s triumph over Judah in the fifth century B.C. Though they were exiles far from home, the Jews actually enjoyed the highest standard of living they had ever known. They were allowed to participate openly in the business and social life of the villages where they were relocated. They owned their own homes. And, before long, many of them became prosperous, first as farmers, later as merchants and bankers.
Despite the prosperity they enjoyed in this remarkable land, the Jews had neither peace of mind nor peace of soul. The wise Jews saw in their defeat God’s judgment of his rebellious people. But the Jews were also convinced that their punishment had been twice as great as their sin. “Does divine judgment mean our annihilation as a people?” the Jews asked. “Has God broken his covenant?”
As the months of exile lengthened into years, the Jews began to wonder if God had forgotten them completely. Brushed daily by the wealth and power of the Babylonian Empire, the captive Jews began to doubt that God was capable of snatching his people from their oppressors. “Maybe God does dwell,” many Jews concluded, “in the elaborate ivory temples of Babylonia. God does not dwell here in the affairs of a captive, scattered, insignificant people.” The Jews were afraid and disheartened: their faith had been shaken.
Onto the stage at this midnight hour in Jewish history stepped Isaiah. Little is known about this prophet other than the time and place where he lived. He was a member of the exiled Jewish community living in Babylonia around the middle of the fifth century B.C.
Certain that God was the living God who always broods over his people and attends to their deepest needs, this prophet pronounced the message of confidence and hope to the demoralized Jewish community. “The idols of our neighbors are nothing,” he reminded his fellow Jews. “They are made by carpenters from wood and are plated by a goldsmith; they have no feeling, no nearness, no grasp of the world and its peoples.” Sharing their dilemma and their sorrow, the prophet assured his people that God had come to show mercy on them: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.”
In addressing God, Isaiah uses again and again the words, “the Holy One of Israel” – the central theme of the prophet’s message is contained in this idea of divine holiness. To speak of the Holy One of Israel is to remember that God is the One who keeps ever close to his people.
Here is what gave pertinence and power to the message declared by Isaiah to the demoralized Jews in Babylonia. To the Jews holiness no doubt, implied majesty, strength, and exaltation. But, at the same time, the faith of the Jews was not an academic faith, but a faith forged by the acts of history – namely, by that central act in which God had acted to redeem his people from slavery in Egypt. Holiness meant, therefore, that God was also near – the Holy One comes down from the high places to invade the everyday world.
The Old Testament scholar, Davie Napier, interprets holiness as the “in-the-midst-ness” of God. The holiness of God reveals itself in the concrete and immediate realities of life – in acts of judgment and defeat, and in acts of mercy and redemption. In essence, the prophet’s message to his people was: “God did not create the world and then withdraw to rest on the ivory couches in the lofty temples of Babylonia. God is very much involved in your affairs now, captive and dejected though you may be. He is near, and he stands ready to re-create and renew.”
In the design of the Christian year, we come once more to the season of Advent. For centuries Christians have turned during the Advent season to these reassuring passages from Isaiah. From the viewpoint of faith, the rationale for such a choice is obvious. The prophet spoke of the God who came into the world to stand alongside his captive, suffering, demoralized people. Likewise, the word “Advent” means “coming,” referring to the coming of God to the world in Jesus Christ.
The Advent season in this year of our Lord finds our world longing to hear once more the prophet’s message of confidence and hope. We long to be assured, as were the Jews, that despite our idolatry and waywardness, God does not desert us. We long for the assurance that the Holy One of Israel comes again in the midst of his people.
The good news of Advent is that we have the prophet’s word and more, for all the prophetic promises of the ages are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus the Messiah. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” What could be more “in the midst” of the world than a birth in a back-alley cowstall? The prophet, in reassuring his disheartened people that the Holy One always stands near to Israel, was, in fact, setting the stage for the pivotal drama of Bethlehem. It was not by happenstance that Isaiah proved to be the patron saint of the preachers of the early church. Jesus of Nazareth was the Holy One near at hand of whom the prophet had spoken.
To turn the story of Jesus’ birth into a romantic “once-upon-a-time” fairy tale and to stress the miraculous is to destroy the message. The worldliness and reality of it all – the indignity and the wretchedness of the birth stories – were inherently a part of the message that the gospel writers were proclaiming. The message foretold by the prophets and proclaimed by the evangelists – and the message of Advent for each of us – is that God chooses our familiar world and the events of our lives as the setting for his judgment, his redemption, and his blessing.
The idea of the Holy One alive and at work in the midst of his people, the central message of Advent, is best captured in the traditional word, “Immanuel.” “Immanuel” means “God with us.”
American Christians in this Advent season should have no difficulty identifying with the experience of the Jews in ancient Babylonia. Like the Jews in exile who suddenly found themselves enjoying a prosperity they had never before known, twenty-first century Americans are today basking in luxuries heretofore undreamed of. Like the lowly Jews in Babylonia, we have been fascinated by the accomplishments of our human hands, by the magnificence of all that our human culture has produced. Like the ancient Jews who were captivated by the marvels of Babylonia, we, too, have been enticed and have concluded in the depths of our being: “Maybe God does dwell there in our chromimum-plated idols, in our steel and brick and glass temples; maybe God is the product of American ingenuity.”
Yet, the parallels run even deeper, for we also share the anguish and the dismay of these ancient Jews. Like the Jews who suffered from a shattered morale, we today are now witnessing an eerie and spreading disenchantment with the marvels of our modern day. The idolatrous worship of the culture gods, both in the prophet’s day and in our own times, yields the same rancid results: cynicism, bitterness, and disillusionment. When the gods fail, doubt begins to pervade all things, distrust begins to pervade all things, distrust creeps into all our relationships, and defeatism tarnishes all our pursuits. More of the same – more property, more affluence, more finery – brings neither the security nor the inner peace that we desire. Is there not a subtle irony in the fact that now, as we stand at the peak of the highest standard of living ever known in history, we are a people menaced by unrest, wearied by boredom, paralyzed by apathy?
Like the homesick Jews in Babylonia, we in the Advent season, despite all our prosperity, discern a homesickness in the depths of our souls. We seem to have forgotten who we are and to whom we belong, and we ask: “Has the Holy One of Israel forgotten us and left us to the folly of our idolatry?”
The advent of God in Jesus Christ settles this question. It is at the point of their agony, their waywardness, their frustration, and their sorrow that God visits his people. As God came to the captive Jews in Babylonia, so God in Jesus comes into our world to renew and re-create us, and to free those of us living today as captives – captives of doubt and hate and fear.
“Immanuel” – the Holy One of Israel – is with us.
O come, O come, Immanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!"