Readings from Isaiah have found a home in the Church’s lectionary for Advent. Devotionally, the whole book of Isaiah is suggested for personal reading in Advent by Wilhelm Löhe (see his Seed Grains of Prayer, page 87) and others. Sprinkled throughout the two volumes of Martin Luther’s lectures on Isaiah are numerous places where the Reformer gives exposition to the motifs of Advent. The following are a few gems from Luther’s reflections which might serve to stimulate the preacher’s thinking and imagination as he comes to the pulpit this Advent season. Indeed, the preacher may set out for himself to spend time with “the evangelist of the Old Testament” and use Luther as a guide into the treasures found therein. Luther tunes our ears to hear the voice of the Lord who comes as both Judge and Deliverer with a passion for those who are enslaved by their flimsy idols, embittered by the sins committed against them, and ashamed of their sin. Luther’s exposition of Isaiah recognizes the scope and depth of the human failure to fear, love, and trust in the Creator of Heaven and Earth above all things. This failure is unmasked by the Law for what it is: Sin. Isaiah does not leave us standing “my shame bemoaning,” to use the phrase from Gerhard’s hymn (Lutheran Service Book; LSB 334:3), but announces and proclaims a Savior who draws to the broken-hearted, the captive, and the fearful with a sure certain promise of redemption and rescue. Faith is not quarantined from affliction, trial, and temptation but is comforted and sustained by the steadfast love of a God who is true to His promises in Christ Jesus.
The Old Testament Reading appointed for Advent 1 is from Isaiah 64:1-9. Verse 1 is the plaintive cry to God imploring Him to rip the fabric of the heavens and come down to earth. This verse is the basis for the hymn, “O Savior, Rend the Heavens Wide” (LSB 355). Luther notes the dual action of God envisioned in the prophetic prayer. On the one hand, the coming of God will be a visitation of His wrath on those who in stubborn unbelief insist on their self-chosen ways. On the other hand, God’s infallible judgment will be the vindication of those who wait in faith. “It is a rule of divine action that God does such things as no one expects” (Luther’s Works, American Edition; AE 17:365). Luther sees the words of Isaiah as “a great text for consoling the faith of the weak” (AE 17:365). God’s promised deliverance might be delayed but it will come according to God’s timing. If the Old Testament teaches us anything, it surely attests to the fact that God does not operate according to a human calendar.
“In the works of God His extreme weakness appears so that the conscience despairs as it were bereft of all help and protection. When God’s help comes, it comes in such a way that no one would have expected it, so that anguish and despair of the heart make their presence felt” (AE 17:364).
Advent announces God’s help comes in the person of a man seated on the back of a donkey. He is indeed a “beggar king,” to use Luther’s phrase, but hidden in His lowliness is the power and dominion of the One who will finally be acclaimed as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Luther sees Isaiah 64:1-9 as a lament-like Advent prayer for those who walk by faith, not by sight. God’s work “looks like folly to the flesh” (AE 17:366), yet it is His very wisdom made manifest in the Savior who comes vested in the utter humility of a servant obedient to the will of His Father.
God did not rend the heavens and come down to collect the righteous for Himself. He came from a lineage of sinners to be their Savior. Commenting on verse 6 saying, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment,” Luther notes how even though we may be outwardly godly unlike those who openly sin, our personal righteousness is polluted and insufficient. We need the righteousness which only the Savior of Israel can donate. “We are not pure because of ourselves, but we are made pure by God who forgives sin” (AE 17:369). Faith lays hold of God’s promise to forgive sins even in the midst of the terror of God’s judgment that rightly condemns our iniquity so “we all fade like a leaf.” In the crucible of divine judgment, God has provided a Savior who erases guilt with His grace and works life out of death. Faith takes God at His Word. So, Luther sees the lament of the prophet’s prayer ending with the confession that God is our Father:
“If we talk about it for a long time, whether You are angry, or we are afflicted. You are nevertheless our Father. Although in darkness our reason thinks that you are angry and a tyrant, our faith nevertheless concludes that You are our Father, because it grasps the promises” (AE 17:371).
God did not rend the heavens and come down to collect the righteous for Himself. He came from a lineage of sinners to be their Savior
Another place where Luther is instructive for Advent preachers is his exposition of Isaiah 40:1-11, the Old Testament Reading for Advent 2. Luther summarizes the whole of the text:
“God’s people need comfort because they have been wounded and terrified by the Law and they are an empty vessel capable of receiving comfort. Only those who are afflicted have comfort and are capable of it, because comfort means nothing unless there is a malady” (AE 17:3).
To borrow an often-repeated phrase from Mark Mattes, preachers afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Isaiah is now proclaiming comfort to those whose wounded consciences are raw and whose lives have been lacerated by sin. There is no scolding here, only the pure and tender announcement of a warfare ended and a permanent peace with God secured. The fight against God is redundant: “Do not fight any longer. Your warfare is finished and ended through Christ, the Redeemer” (AE 17:5).
The voice of the Law reveals the frailty of human flesh which is like the grass. Luther reminds us that flesh does not mean the baser part of man:
“Therefore, flesh does not mean the lowest parts of man but the higher. For envy, heresy, and the like, are the works and fruits not of the lower man but of the higher and they are sins... We leave nothing good in man, nothing but flesh and grass. Let the supporters of free will depart! The Spirit will convince the world of sin (John 16:8). Sin and the flesh will fail and perish but the Word of the Lord stands forever. This Word is the glad news of reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of sins secured by the blood of God’s Messiah whose way John prepares.
John’s preaching finally points to the coming Shepherd who will gather into His one flock both the weak and the strong: “He grazes the strong flock running about, but He carries the weak little lamb.” These are charming words. Here you see that in church there are the strong and weak in faith, and a conscientious pastor looks after them both” (AE 17:16).
An excellent reminder from Luther for all Advent preachers!
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 is the appointed Old Testament Reading for the Third Sunday in Advent. In this pericope, Luther sees Isaiah describing God’s Son and His messianic office:
“Christ is the person sent by God and filled with the Holy Spirit to be the Preacher and Evangelist to the poor, that is, the afflicted. This is not done for Christ’s sake but for our sake” (AE 17:330).
With this text, Advent draws us closer to Christmas:
“As for you, be content with the God incarnate. Then you will remain in peace and safety, and you will know God. Cast off speculation about the divine glory, as the pope and Mohammed speculate. You stay with Christ crucified, whom Paul and others preach” (AE 17:331).
Speculation begins at the top with God and His majesty; faith begins below with God in the crib and on the cross:
“It is because of His humanity and incarnation that Christ becomes sweet to us, and through Him God becomes sweet to us. Let us, therefore, begin and ascend step by step from Christ’s crying in His swaddling clothes up to His Passion. Then we shall easily know God. I am saying this, so you do not begin to contemplate God from the top but start with the weak elements. We should busy ourselves completely with treating, knowing, and considering this man. Then you will know He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). So, He set forth His weakness that we may approach Him with confidence” (AE 17:331).
The One who Himself is lowly comes to rescue and heal the broken hearted and release those held in captivity by sin, death, and the Devil. He comes to those who know the sting of the Law:
“While the Law is done away as far as the spirit is concerned, so that it does not accuse and trouble us, it is, I say not done away as if the Law were no longer there. It is abolished in that it does not sting us, and Christians can say, ‘Although I feel the Law and sin, in opposition to them I have Christ, the Preacher who consoles me.’ Christ is greater than the Law, sin, and death, for it is His special office not to be conquered by them but to conquer them and help others to be free of them. Therefore, you have Christ defined as the Preacher of peace. The poor are the afflicted and well-nigh despairing. Thus, the human heart can learn where to find refuge with Christ, the Meditator alone” (AE 17:332-33).
The coming of this Meditator in the flesh marks the beginning of an eternal jubilee, an everlasting year of the Lord’s favor according to Luther.
“Hence in the midst of good we must not forget the evil, and in the midst of evil we must not forget the good. We must always apply the one to the other, and then we will not become either presumptuous or despondent. Thus, this passage concerning the “agreeable year” is of great help to the afflicted, but it also serves the purpose of wounding the presumptuous. All consolations are addressed to the godly because the Word of Christ consists in this, that in His time, when He will have come into the world, there will be nothing but “the agreeable year,” no terror, no law, no judge” (AE 17:33-334).
This Christ will comfort those who mourn, giving them the gladness of the Gospel in place of the grief of sin. God will cover shame with the garments of His righteousness, His honor.
Luther’s exposition of Isaiah 61 is echoed in the final stanza of Gerhardt’s hymn:
He comes to judge the nations,
A terror to His foes,
A light of consolations
And blessed hope to those
Who love the Lord’s appearing.
O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth Your beams so cheering,
And guide us safely home (LSB 334:6).
 For more on Luther’s “bottom to top” approach to Christology, see Norman Nagel, “Martinus: ‘Heresy, Doctor Luther!’ The Person and Work of Christ,” in Dona Gratis Dona: Essays in Honor of Norman Nagel on the Occasion of His Ninetieth Birthday, ed. Jon Vieker, Bart Day, and Albert Collver. Manchester, Missouri: Nagel Festschrift Committee, 2015. 287-309; Jacob Corzine, “The Person of Christ” in Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications, ed. John T. Pless and Larry Vogel. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2023. 371-375; Steven Paulson, “God, Who Forgives Sins: The Gospel,” in Luther for the Armchair Theologian. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004. 127-145. In Paulson’s work, especially note the cartoon on page 134, “Top or Bottom.”