“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:2-7
I received a Christmas card in the mail this week from a school in Africa where some of my colleagues have worked. It included a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during WWII – one of the few clergy who had the courage to take a stand against Hitler, and he paid for it with his life. He wrote a good deal before he died, and one of the things he wrote was a poem called The Turning Around of All Things. The card quoted it in part:
We are talking about the birth of a child,
not the revolutionary act of a strong man,
not the breathtaking discovery of a sage,
not the pious act of a saint.
It really passes all understanding: The birth of a child
is to bring the great turning around of all things,
is to bring salvation and redemption to the whole human race.
What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists,
founders of religions and moral teachers vainly strive for,
now comes about through a newborn child.
This is what our reading from Isaiah is all about. Isaiah 9 is a big-picture view of God’s kingdom breaking into our world in the form of a child – “to us a child is born” – and what that will mean in our world and our lives. In just seven verses God addresses every level of human life: our selves, our relationships, the work world, and relationships between nations. All the things Jesus preached in the Gospels, all things promised by the prophets of old, all summed up in just seven verses.
To try to get a handle on something this big, I’d like to take a look at four aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy:
- The Personal – what do Isaiah’s words say to us?
- Our relationships, particularly where it comes to career or work
- International relationships
- What does it mean when we say “God’s Kingdom has entered our world”
So starting out on the personal level. Isaiah says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Of course Isaiah is saying this metaphorically – he is talking about spiritual darkness. But if you’ve ever had the experience of being physically in total darkness, the parallel is a good one. I remember one time teaching a class in the old Isaly’s building out in Oakland. It’s part of Magee Women’s Hospital now, and it’s mostly offices, but they have classroom on the 2nd floor that used to be, at one time, the freezer that warehoused Isaly’s ice cream. So you can imagine there are no windows in this room, and the walls are very thick and insulated. Sitting in there you feel like you’re in a cave. (I was sorely tempted to bring in a can of paint and paint a window on the wall so it wouldn’t feel so closed in.)
Anyway one day I was teaching there and all of a sudden we heard a loud bang and everything went totally dark. We didn’t know it at the time but a transformer down the street had blown and all power went out in the building. And the emergency lights were way down the other end of the hall. My class and I couldn’t see a thing. (This was before everybody had flashlight apps on their cell phones.) Fortunately I knew the layout of the room and was able to guide the class out by following the sound of my voice, otherwise someone could have gotten hurt tripping over something or running into someone.
Metaphorically speaking this is how we follow Jesus. Our world is dark, spiritually, and we need to be led by the voice of the one who knows the lay of the land. It’s no mistake the Bible says “faith comes by hearing” – not by sight. In a dark world we follow Jesus by his voice. Jesus said “My sheep know my voice… and they follow me.”
Speaking of darkness in the world, a few years ago psychologist M. Scott Peck began his best-selling book The Road Less Travelled with these words:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth… because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult […] then life is no longer difficult…”
With all respect to Dr. Peck, I disagree. I mean, I agree that life is difficult. I disagree that once we know life is difficult, it’s no longer difficult. Knowing life is difficult may help us shift our expectations a little, so we’re not so disappointed, but that’s about it. Life is difficult from beginning to end. Being born is difficult. Growing up is difficult. Being a teenager is difficult. Having a teenager is difficult. Finding a life partner is difficult. Launching a career is difficult. Dealing with illness is difficult. Getting old is difficult. Facing death is difficult. There is nothing easy about life. And knowing that doesn’t help (much).
So on the personal level Isaiah tells us we are all walking around in a dark world.
But God doesn’t leave us there. Isaiah tells us “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, the light has shined on us.
Have you ever had the experience of walking from darkness into bright sunlight? It takes you aback for a moment. It’s too much. When people meet Jesus for the first time we tend to have a similar reaction. Jesus is too good. His light is too bright. It takes time to adjust. But as we do – which is part of the process of sanctification – the world never looks the same again. We experience great joy. “Like people rejoice at the harvest” Isaiah says. Most of us don’t live on farms any more, but back in the day when people had to grow their own food and so much depended on the crops doing well, bringing in the harvest was a time of great celebration. We still celebrate Thanksgiving, remembering those times.
Isaiah says there will be joy “as people exult when dividing plunder”. Generally speaking we don’t go around plundering any more… but anyone who’s ever gone to an after-Christmas sale, and found something they’ve been wanting for years – at 80% off – knows the feeling. “Look what I found! It used to be $100 and I got it for only $20!” That’s the joy of the plunder!
So light and joy – these make up the personal, individual aspect of Isaiah’s message.
The second aspect of Isaiah’s message deals with relationships, particularly the kinds of relationships we have during the work week. While there are exceptions, much of what we do during the week – especially for those of us who work – goes to increase the power and wealth of people who don’t necessarily honor God and who don’t necessarily treat their workers with dignity. Here in Pittsburgh, where labor unions started, I don’t need to go into detail on that. But even unions can’t guarantee proper treatment of workers 100% of the time, or control how management uses its power or spends its money. Isaiah says: “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”
The ‘day of Midian’ refers to an Old Testament story of the Midianites, who came up and attacked ancient Israel, and God appointed Gideon to face that army. Remember the story – Gideon started out with a huge army, and God said “too many men” so Gideon cut the army down to 10,000. And God said “still too many” and cut the army down to a mere 300. God then told the 300 men to take trumpets, and torches inside clay pots, and surround the Midianite army at night. And at a signal, they were to blow the trumpets and break the pots and wave the torches. And they did what God said to do – and the Midianites thought they were being attacked and turned tail and ran!
God won the battle for Israel without a single sword-stroke. And when the time comes God will break the yoke of oppression and win our battle for us as well.
This doesn’t mean Christians should stop having jobs in secular society. Just the opposite – our challenge is to do our best to bring God’s values, like fairness and honesty and equality and mutual benefit, into the work world. But until the Lord comes again, the economy will never be 100% fair. We will always have the poor with us, as Jesus said. There will always be issues. And so Isaiah addresses this and says God has broken the rod of the oppressor. God will one day set up a society with an economy marked by fairness and justice.
From this second aspect Isaiah then moves into the third aspect: relationships between nations. Throughout human history, relationships between different countries have been violent and bloody. Much as we love peace, you’d never know it by looking at how nations treat each other. But there will come a time when (in the words of the old spiritual) we ‘ain’t gonna study war no more’. Isaiah says, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”
Because “to us a child is born; to us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” His authority will grow, and there will be endless peace in God’s kingdom, upheld by justice and righteousness.
Just as an aside, we hear a lot of talk about “justice and peace”, and I want to point out in Isaiah – as in many passages in the Bible – “righteousness” goes along with justice and peace. It’s not a duality, it’s a triumvirate. There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice, but there can be neither justice nor peace without righteousness. As long as sin exists in this world, justice and peace will be only ideals, not realities. But the kingdom that is coming is a kingdom of peace, upheld (as Isaiah says) with justice and righteousness. This righteousness is a gift given by Jesus to all who trust Him.
The kingdom of the Messiah will last forever. And as we sing in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever, Hallelujah!”
So, so far we’ve seen three aspects of Isaiah’s message: personal, corporate, and international. The fourth aspect is what all this means to us today.
Isaiah’s words are, for us, the ‘big picture’ of the Good News which Jesus speaks to all people: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news.” Let us open our hearts to receive this message with joy, and in the words of one theologian, “let us not be content with scanty measures of joy”. Celebrate, like at harvest-time, like at the plunder. Praise God and thank God for the great promises that are ours and the great victory that is ours in Jesus Christ, in the birth of a child. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/11/16