The hopes and fears of all the years

Pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem preaches during Wednesday Chapel service

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

In this 2018 photo, the Rev. Dr. Victor Makari (left), the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb (center) and the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac greet visitors and parishioners after Sunday service at Christmas  Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. (Photo by Douglas Dicks)

LOUISVILLE — “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” are the words the prophet Isaiah uses to open his oft-quoted 40th chapter.

“It’s easy to forget he spoke those words in times of trouble,” the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac said during Wednesday’s online Chapel worship service, put on by the PC(USA)’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries and attended by about 50 people.

Isaac knows something about comforting people during times of trouble: He’s the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, which has as its mission “Continuing Christ’s mission of preaching, teaching and healing in his birthplace.”

“It seems all hope was lost” at the time Isaiah proclaimed his message of comfort, Isaac said. “When you looked around, you saw only destruction. That’s why these words are so profound. He dares to speak of comfort in the midst of turmoil.”

Christians in Bethlehem light a Christmas tree every Advent season, “and every year we say we hope to celebrate when we have achieved our freedom,” Isaac said. “These are biblical times. They’re times of despair and desperation.” Yet we can take comfort, Isaac explained, for the same reasons Isaiah wrote his own words of comfort even during the Babylonian exile:

  • Because God has spoken. “We are assured God will not be silent for long,” Isaac said, “and when God speaks, there is comfort and a new Creation. Lord, give us these eyes of faith Isaiah had.”
  • God will intervene in our world. It was typical back in the day, Isaac explained, for people to shout in the wilderness south of Bethlehem. Their message would reverberate all the way to Jerusalem. “Who is coming? It is the Lord himself who is returning to Jerusalem,” he said. “He is not merely sending someone. It is God himself! That is what we wait for.”
  • God’s kingdom will be re-established. “That was the messianic expectation back then, and let’s not forget that’s the power of this message — the timing of it,” Isaac said. “It wasn’t spoken in a time of privilege and comfort. The kingdom had just been destroyed, but God is returning to re-establish that kingdom — as a shepherd! The king will care for his people. That is a different kingdom, where the king is actually a shepherd, a suffering servant, as we will discover later in Isaiah.”

Isaiah’s vision reminds Isaac of Mary’s Magnificat, which speaks of God looking with favor “on the lowliness of his servant.” He labeled that a “divine reversal.”

the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac

“Those who have might, riches and pride will be brought down, and those in humble estate will be lifted up,” he said. “Every mountain and hill will be made low. God has scattered the proud. When God comes, it’s good news — but not for everyone. It’s good news for those who are humble and marginalized, and it’s bad news for those who are mighty and proud.”

“We’re not used to speaking of the gospel as bad news,” he said, “but in today’s world I think it’s important to emphasize that. The divine intervention becomes a divine reversal of things.”

“When God visits our world,” he said, “it’s not going to go as expected.”

The divine intervention that Isaiah dared to speak about has already taken place, Isaac said — more than 2,000 years ago.

“God has spoken and has established his kingdom through Jesus, his son, but it looked different,” he said. “It was an inclusive, universal kingdom that welcomed people, especially the poor and oppressed.”

That message resonates this Advent season to this Bethlehemite, he said, “the idea that God would be born in a cave and the first messengers would be shepherds. He would be born not in Jerusalem or Rome or Alexandria, but born in Bethlehem, which people would not have heard of had it not been for the birth of Jesus.”

“It was a silent birth through humility and poverty,” Isaac said. “God is saying, ‘These are the ones who will understand and welcome my visit.’”

Our hope and comfort for today, he said, is more than an inner spiritual experience.

“It is taking part in the kingdom God has established in our world,” Isaac said. “I hope we do that in the same way God did: in humility and working with people in sacrificial love. The world might not accept us, but Herod, who tried to kill Jesus, is a mere memory, and Jesus is still alive and worshiped as a king around the world.”

“May our hope,” Isaac said, “be transferred into active anergy and action. Amen.”


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