by Gwen Sayler—
Have you ever seen a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle? Hidden in an illustration of a large group of people is a figure called “Waldo,” identifiable by his distinctive red and white striped shirt, hat and glasses.
Although as a child I had never heard of “Where’s Waldo,” I realize now that I learned to read the writings of the prophet Isaiah like a “Where’s Waldo” exercise. My task was to find Jesus, to prove he was the son of God by locating him in the passages.
Over the years, though, I’ve come to see this approach fails to capture the depth and breadth of Isaiah’s proclamation for his own time, for the Gospel authors, and for my own life as a disciple of Jesus. Far from being simply a set of “Where’s Waldo” texts for Jesus, Isaiah is part of the living, ongoing story of the Bible, the story that—for Christians—culminates in the incarnation of Christ.
Throughout Advent, Isaiah’s prophecies play a major role in our preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the coming of God’s kingdom. By exploring a bit of who the prophet Isaiah was and why the Spirit inspired him to speak as he did in three of his prophecies, we can grow in our understanding of the depth and breadth of his message for his time and for ours.
THE PROPHET AND HIS TIMES
Like the other biblical prophets, Isaiah was called to speak truth to the powers of his day. For more than 40 years (742-701 BCE), Isaiah served as a kind of “secretary of state” to the kings of Judah. Not unlike the times in which we live, Isaiah’s own political and social climate was tumultuous. Assyria, the great superpower of the ancient Near East, extended its oppressive tendrils throughout its territory, forcibly sweeping away small kingdoms and decimating their populations. Tiny Judah, all that was left of what once had been the kingdom of Israel, tenuously struggled to survive in the shadow of this ongoing aggression.
Despite all of this, many of Judah’s leaders believed that God’s presence in the Temple, as well as God’s promise of a kingfrom the line of David, protected Israel from accountability for their actions. Repeatedly, Isaiah challenges this view, warning that ongoing social, religious and political injustice is leading inexorably to disaster. Isaiah warns that there will be serious consequences for the way Judah has treated its most vulnerable people. Not all will be lost, though. Judgment and hope are the two sides of Isaiah’s proclamation. The faithful will remain and enjoy the restoration that God will bring.
When the earliest Christians shared the good news of Jesus with neighbors who had never heard it, they reached back into the Bible’s living story to find language to identify who Jesus was and what it meant to follow him as a disciple. The prophet Isaiah provided much of that language. In seeing Jesus in Isaiah’s prophecies, these earliest Christians assumed that readers would realize that the prophecies talk about what it means to follow Jesus as well as simply identifying who Jesus is.
As we see how Isaiah’s words address several particular situations of hope or judgment in his time, we grow in our understanding of the depth and breadth of their implications for us in ours.
“AND SHE SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL” ISAIAH 7:7-17
Isaiah 7:7-17 contains some of the language we hear often during Advent. In this passage, Judah’s struggle under Assyria’s oppressive reign continues. With Assyria breathing down his neck, King Ahaz of Judah fears that his world is collapsing beneath him and refuses to join a coalition of small kingdoms determined to overthrow the superpower. In response, the coalition declares war on Judah, whose end seems inevitable and imminent.
Although he hears Isaiah reassuring him that God will save Judah and that the coalition will fall, King Ahaz can’t get past his fear. In response, God gives him a sign. Isaiah proclaims that a young woman* is pregnant and will bear a son whom she will name “Immanuel”—meaning “God with us.” Before the child reaches maturity, the coalition that Ahaz fears will be destroyed, and Judah will be saved.
Immanuel—“God with us”— is a sign we encounter again in Matthew 1:23 when another oppressive regime—this time, the Romans—makes Joseph apprehensive about taking the pregnant Mary as his wife. “God with us” is the sign in which we can rest securely in those times when our world seems to be collapsing beneath us, when forces bigger than we are breathe down our necks and frighten us. In Immanuel we rest in the promise of God’s guiding presence through the highs and lows of life in our often tumultuous world.
“FOR A CHILD HAS BEEN BORN TO US” ISAIAH 9:6-7
In this famous passage from Isaiah 9, we witness an elaborate cultural custom. As in many cultures, transitions in Israel’s leadership were marked by rituals.
For more than 500 years, ancient Israel—and then Judah— were ruled by kings who were responsible to Israel’s God. In this passage, with the threat of Assyrian aggression in the background, Isaiah uses the ritual of a new king’s coronation to lay out the ideals of a new kind of king—a king from the line of David—under the leadership of Israel’s God.
To understand the depth of Isaiah’s prophetic words, it is helpful to focus a bit on how those words functioned within the ritual of royal coronation.
Throughout the ancient world, people simply assumed that a king was “reborn” as a child of the gods at his coronation. With that rebirth, his throne name became a long string of words describinghis “father”—in the case of Israel’s God phrases like “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Prince of Peace” would be used.
In this passage Isaiah uses the coronation ritual to remind his hearers and their king how a king should rule. Unlike other societies, Israel’s (and Judah’s) kings were accountable to the covenant relationship God had established with God’s people centuries earlier. Central to the covenant was a commitment on the part of the king and his people to embody justice and righteousness in daily life. Including the imperative to do so each time a new king is crowned was a powerful reminder to the king and the people of the privilege and challenge of covenant membership.
So what do these words mean for us? A “Where’s Waldo” approach in which one reads these texts from Isaiah simply to look for prophecy about Christ misses an important part of the claims the prophecy makes on us as followers of Jesus. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the ideal king, spoke truth to power, upholding justice, righteousness and equity for the vulnerable even in the face of oppressive Roman rule. This is a challenging task, one we are privileged to share with our sisters and brothers in Christ. Imperial Rome, of course, is long gone. In our time, many people try to limit following Jesus to a private relationship between “Jesus and me,” removed from our world in all its messiness.
The prophet Isaiah calls us out of the comfortable cocoon created by this understanding of discipleship and leads us into the complexities of life together in our communities, nations and world. To follow the “child who to us has been born” includes the calling to continue Jesus’ work for justice and peace in the name of the One whom we confess.
“A SHOOT SHALL COME OUT OF THE STUMP OF JESSE” ISAIAH 11:1-9
Our final prophecy, Isaiah 11:1-9, also addresses a situation of war and conflict. Compared to the mighty forces arrayed against it, Judah seems reduced to a tiny stump. Yet, the prophet proclaims, Don’t give up. There’s life in that stump. A new, Spirit-led leader in David’s line will rise. (Note: Jesse, referred to in Isaiah 11:1, was the father of King David). His rule will bring justice and peace in their fullness to all creation.
Inspired by this promise, Isaiah’s original hearers were motivated to continue in their work even in terribly challenging times, trusting in God’s presence and vision for them and all creation. The same holds true for us today. Even (and especially) in those times when we seem so small—like a lifeless stump—the resurrected Christ before us the vision of what will be, giving us courage and confidence to continue his work in our world, to continue his ministry of working for justice, righteousness and faithfulness despite obstacles confronting us.
As we have seen, reading the prophecies of Isaiah in their depth and breadth engage us in a way that a simple “Where’s Waldo” reading cannot do. A “Where’s Waldo” approach that stops with the affirmation “there Jesus is,” leads us away from a truer, deeper understanding of where God is calling us in our times just as God called the people of Judah in theirs. This Advent season, as you ponder these texts in worship and in private devotion, may this understanding lead you with your eyes and heart open as you wait for the coming of Christ.
Gwen Sayler was a distinguished Professor of Bible at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and a proud member of the Valpo Lutheran Deaconess Class of ’71.
This article is from the December 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.
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