Unto Us a Child Is Born: Isaiah, Advent, and Our Jewish Neighbors

Tyler D. Mayfield
Eerdmans, 200 pages | June 09, 2020

Given the pressure of preaching the familiar lectionary passages prescribed for Advent and Christmas, it is refreshing when an academic can enliven ancient texts and turn the head of a seasoned pastor to look! and believe! that God will yet give her a sign. Perhaps Tyler Mayfield’s book is a sign for all Christian preachers in their consideration of how to faithfully render the book of Isaiah with our congregations, even as we share and honor this shared sacred text with our Jewish neighbors, for Isaiah knows our story.

In this most unusual season of our lives, hoping to live through and return from the exile of pandemic proportions, we are cautioned first to pay attention to Isaiah’s words as they fit into his world, second as they gave meaning to the birth of Jesus and third as they now impart meaning to the faiths of contemporary Judaism, as the “holy root” and Christianity, as among the “holy branches.”

Each of us knows all too well what we’ve experienced in our churches during Advent seasons under normal circumstances. “Show me the carols,” they say — and more than one church member has opined that “John the Baptist times two is just too much.” After all, the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth is the one Bible story they seem to know by heart. It is, after all, the reason they venture out, even on the coldest of nights. But this year more than any other, our congregants are primed by the desire to experience joy. Admitting this reality, Mayfield still holds the line for the faithful Advent proclamation based on two theological themes, joy and remorse: to prepare joyfully for the first coming of the incarnate Lord and to prepare with penitence for the second coming. He claims: “We are pulled in different emotional directions. No wonder we are so confused about Advent celebrations!” Yet our hallowed call as pastors to our congregations is to bring both testaments together in conversation in order to bring God’s full word to the people. As retroactive readers” of both testaments, we must remember that neither testament takes precedence over the other. They must be acknowledged to stand alone before they can stand together.

Chapters one and two explicate the need for a “bifocal vision” of the Isaiah texts both as “near vision” in regard to misunderstandings of the assumed prophecy-fulfillment paradigm, and of “far vision” as our need to love our Jewish neighbors even as we love the text first given to them. In the remaining eight chapters, Mayfield does a masterful job of setting each of the eight Isaiah lectionary pericopes for years A, B and C within the originating historical-Jewish background, first-century contexts, rabbinic interpretations, theologians and theologies, linguistic translations, politics, the arts and the contemporary situations in which they still speak.

As you read Mayfield’s book and preach Isaiah more confidently, may the bumpy terrain of Advent become smoother for you and yours.

Presbyterian Outlook supports local bookstores. Join us! Click on the link below to purchase Unto Us a Child Is Born: Isaiah, Advent, and Our Jewish Neighbors from BookShop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. As an affiliate, Outlook will also earn a commission from your purchase.

Want to join our monthly newsletter for book lovers? Sign up here.