This year’s Advent candle-lighting readings come from Isaiah. Isaiah is notoriously difficult to categorize simply. Most scholars believe that the Book of Isaiah was written by two or maybe three separate authors. Perhaps the first author was named Isaiah and the subsequent authors were in the tradition of Isaiah (disciples). Perhaps it was something else.
Isaiah spans several centuries in the life of the people of Israel, from after the times of King David through the times they were subject to other nations and exiled to Babylon. The final chapters of Isaiah are written to those returning to the land of Israel from exile. In short, Isaiah spans a troubled time of great change in the life of the Israelites as kings and countries overran them in quest of power and land.
One theme stands out for me, particularly in the first 39-chapters. It is a summons to trust in the Lord. Kings and people are reminded to neither fear nor trust nations (even their allies) nor their armies. Instead, they are to trust in the One who has authority over all things (Isaiah 31:1). Ultimately Isaiah is a call to trust God, despite the recommendations of kingly advisors and others.
Matthew was primarily written to Jewish-Christian believers who were in similar turmoil centuries later. During the life of Jesus, the Temple was the center of Jewish life; it served as a constant reminder that God was in the midst of their everyday life. Many believed that the Temple was God’s home. Over centuries, the Jewish people came to understand that the Temple guaranteed God’s relationship with them.
In the 6th century BC, large sections of this First Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians, yet even in the ruins, parts of the Temple remained. One hundred years later, the Second Temple rebuilt upon King Solomon’s foundation. In the years that followed, during Alexander the Great and his successors, the Jewish people held fast to their beliefs…and their temple.
In 63 BC, Syria and Palestine were absorbed into the Roman Empire beginning a brutal occupation. There were riots and revolts, but the Empire firmly remained in control. Yet, the Second Temple was expanded and completed in 50 AD. This Temple was believed to be permanent and fueled the belief that the Messiah would soon come.
In 70 AD, a full-scale revolt appeared imminent. Newly-elected emperor Vespasian decided to strike a preemptive blow. The Roman guard marched into Jerusalem and completely destroyed the Temple. Thousands of Jews were killed. When the Roman Guard was finished, all that remained of the Temple was a flat platform and the western retaining wall (which also held up the Roman fort). That massive retaining wall exists today, called simply “The Western Wall.”
After the Roman attack, the Temple, all of its authorities, and all of its worship ceased to exist. The remaining Jews fractured into sects…one of these sects was the Messianic Jews, the early Christians.
Matthew wrote his Gospel to these early Christians. He quotes Isaiah more than any of the other Gospels. He wanted them to understand that the new Temple was within the heart of each believer in a direct and personal relationship with God, supported by the community of the faithful. No longer were they to look for a temple building as God’s home…God was with them (Emmanuel).
Matthew answers the question: How do we face change? Matthew reminds his readers that God is at work among God’s people, even amidst the unwanted change and so much loss. As former-Jews-now-Christians, the readers/hearers of Matthew knew the Old Testament…especially the book of Isaiah. I am not surprised that Matthew quotes extensively from Isaiah. He knows his audience. He also knows that they will take comfort in looking back in their history and seeing how God has acted (often in surprising and unexpected ways). Matthew inspires them to have faith that God is at work again (probably in surprising and unexpected ways again). I am not surprised to read of angels and miraculous births and strange visitors from afar in the first chapters of Matthew. These are signs of God at work.
With that reflection that we enter Advent…looking for signs of God at work. Do not be surprised to find God at work in unexpected places among surprising people. Watch and wait.