Familiarity breeds…. well, something
It’s been interesting in our preaching classes this term watching students grapple with Isaiah passages. As you would expect, there have been a variety of standards, but always good discussion about the reality of preaching these texts and (this is the really hard part) preaching them Christologically to largely saved people (try Isaiah 1 on for size).
But what interests me particularly is the way that most of us struggle with familiar texts. It’s not that familiarity breeds contempt. We’re not contemptuous about the text. We hold it in high regard; but nevertheless, we’re unable to get beyond certain things. Take Isaiah 7. I once foolishly took this as a Christmas passage. It is incarnational – but there are some hard things going on. “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” is picked up verbatim by Matthew.
But the context matters. And in the context, Immanuel is not just the Lord coming to bring relief. It is the Lord coming to bring disaster too. The sign is judgement and salvation. The old way is ending and is burned up as the Saviour’s appearing functions as a sign to show Ahaz and all who follow him that the earthly kingdom line is no more – it has been replaced with something far superior.
This is all highly nuanced of course. But to ignore the context and how it shapes the text in Isaiah is to ignore the sharpness and shock of application that both encourages us to yield to Christ and rebukes those who do not. There is, of course, no substitute for getting to grips with the words in the way we would do with any other passage. Familiarity does not let us off that hook: in fact it demands we think and pray even more.