Back in the time of Isaiah, something fantastic had happened. King Cyrus of Persia had conquered the Babylonians. The Babylonians had a generation earlier conquered the Israelites and destroyed Jerusalem, taking many of the people into exile. A few people were deemed as inconsequential and were left behind. These ones guarded over the ruins as best they could since the walls around the city had been utterly destroyed; they intended to keep out those who might further pillage the remnants of the temple.
A Christmas Sermon on Isaiah 52:7-10.
Unlike the Babylonian rulers, Cyrus wasn’t intimidated by his subjects living in their homelands and worshipping their own gods. And so he set the Israelite exiles free, allowing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. You can imagine the excitement there in Babylon when all of this happened. It took some time to gather together all the people and their things, in order to transport everything back home some 500 miles away. So the leaders decided to send a messenger ahead, someone to carry that good news all the way back across the desert to the ones who remained.
As someone who walked 500 miles eighteen months ago in the summer heat, I know that trip likely took three to four weeks. While we LaBelles had places to stop and rest, fresh food and water, and many companions to help us if we needed it, this messenger likely had to carry all of their essentials, as well as insuring to stay out of the intense sun during the day. And that whole time, the messenger had good news to share. Good news to proclaim.
And that same time, those back in Jerusalem stood over the ruins not knowing their lives had been changed forever. Those few weeks from the time Cyrus made his decree to free the Israelites to the day the messenger appeared on the mountain, they would have continued to live in fear and uncertainty. A little like Schrödinger’s cat, the people are both in a state of captivity and also freed. They live among the ruins, but that same rubble will soon be restored; they just don’t know it yet.
Until the feet of that messenger had carried him up the Mount of Olives just outside the city of Jerusalem, and the sentinels standing guard realized that it wasn’t some invader standing there but one of their own kinsman. The prophet proclaims, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Jerusalem, ‘Your God reigns.’” Imagine that moment when their instinct of fear kicked in wondering what horrible thing would happen to them next with the arrival of what they had presumed was a scout planning an invasion, and then to have all of it morph into joy when they hear the words being proclaimed by the messenger. “We are free! We are free! We are free!” Peace and salvation and good news! The God of Israel reigns!
According to theologian Leslie J. Hoppe, St. Luke the Evangelist certainly had this scene in mind as he retold the birth story of Jesus on that first holy night so long ago. He began making the connections himself. First just as the messenger came to sentinels standing guard in Jerusalem so the angel came to the shepherds on the hills. (And in the Greek, the word for angel is also the word for messenger.) Both the sentinels and shepherds were watching over something: the ruins for the one and sheep for the other. Each messenger brings good news, and that news includes royal language, God as the king who reigns, and the Christ Child born as the Messiah, the ideal King promised to David.
In Isaiah there are shouts of joy, and in the Nativity Luke describes the angel bringing good news of great joy for all people. The ruins of Jerusalem are pictured as breaking forth into song, while a multitude of the heavenly host joins the angel proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace and goodwill to all people.” Prof. Hoppe writes, “The writer of [Luke]… did not see Jesus as simply fulfilling the prophetic word but fulfilling it beyond the wildest dreams of the ancient visionaries of God’s people.” The Lord brings salvation and comfort and peace beyond anything that you can imagine. Hear the good news, for it brings great joy for all people. A savior has been born, and he is Christ the Lord.
The shepherds didn’t have to wait nearly as long as the sentinels to receive that good news; the angel showed up moments after that little one took his first breaths there among the cows and donkeys. The sentinels had to wait for the time it took the messenger to make it across the wilderness. And I can’t help but think about us. How much might we be like the unknowing ones there back in Jerusalem still living in fear and captivity even though everything has changed? How often do we live as if the good news of Jesus has never come our way, as if we don’t truly hear or know the message of great joy for all people?
Because that is the beauty of this day. To proclaim once more that there is indeed much to be joyful about. For Christ the Savior has been born, and through his life he ushered in the way of love that overturned the pre-conceived notions people held about God. His radical acceptance and generosity brought hope to those who had long since given up any idea that God cared about them. His death and resurrection provided for us a way out of sin’s clutches, and offers us a fulness of life that is hard to comprehend.
So indeed how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who announce peace, and bring good news, and announce salvation, for our God reigns. Let us hear that good news and believe it anew. Let us come ourselves even now to Bethlehem to see all that has been told us, and let us sing with joy when we see this one who is wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. For God has been born into this amazing and majestic world of ours and that is good news indeed.