Isaiah 9:2-7 (NIV)
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 exultation; 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 Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Great will be his authority, 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.
In case the candles weren't enough of a giveaway, today is the First Sunday in Advent, the time of waiting and preparation that begins four Sundays before Christmas. In many ways it is a time of practicalities, planning and decorating and making. But it also gives us an opportunity for reflection, looking ever more deeply into a story that is both comfortingly familiar and bewilderingly mysterious - the birth of Jesus Christ, heralded by angels and greeted by dignitaries, but laid in a borrowed crib and chased into exile. We had an acronym for our last series, and in classic preacher fashion, we have alliteration for this coming series. Throughout Advent we will reflect on Promise, Praise, Presents and Pause, before on Christmas Day we reach the Party.
We start this morning with Promise, and the words of the prophet Isaiah. These verses are a traditional reading in the lead up to Christmas, and when heard nestled between carols and candles, they confidently proclaim that Jesus is the one who was promised. The truth as always is a little more complicated than that, and we need to acknowledge that this is Jewish scripture before it is anything else, and Jewish people don't read it the same way that we do. I am not an expert here, but I believe that within the Jewish tradition, the prophecy has often been taken to refer to Hezekiah, a king of Judah from the house of David, who restored the temple and was considered righteous by the writers of both Kings and Chronicles. If I have understood the timeline correctly, Hezekiah would have been the heir to the throne at the time that Isaiah was speaking, and so perhaps those who first heard these words understood them not as a promise of what was to come, but as a promise of what was already in motion. Scripture is however open to reinterpretation, and Matthew directly quotes from these verses, saying that Jesus left Nazareth and preached in Capernaum in order to fulfil them. Perhaps Matthew saw what Jesus was doing as bringing light into darkness, and so he remembered the words of Isaiah and thought that he was seeing them worked out. There is then a long tradition of understanding these words to speak of Jesus, and I don't think we are wrong to do so, but we must still recognise that it is a particularly Christian reading of this text . Although that is not to set Jewish and Christian interpretations against one another, and maybe it does not need to be a case of either/or. We believe that there is something unique about Jesus, but there have always been and will always be many agents of God's unconditional love and blessing, and prophecy can have layers of meaning and fulfilment.
On the theme of multiple interpretations, this week I came across a reading of this text that I had never considered before. Verse two declares that “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.” I always read this as Isaiah saying the same thing in two slightly different ways, for emphasis and a bit of extra poetry, but the notes for the Pulpit Fiction podcast suggest that living in darkness and walking in darkness are not quite the same thing. One may be seen as passive while the other is definitely active, and so perhaps this refers to two groups of people. Perhaps Isaiah is speaking not only of those who are oppressed, but also of their oppressors. If that seems a little bit of a leap, bear with it because I think there may be something there. In verse five it is not the warriors but their bloody uniforms that are burned up, and verse seven speaks of "endless peace" not "endless victory". There is also an incredible expansiveness to the vision presented elsewhere in Isaiah, with images of wolves lying down with lambs and all the nations seeking God and giving up war. It seems consistent then to say that no one is defeated and no one is triumphant but the light shines on everyone. There is liberation for the oppressed but there is also redemption for the oppressor.
It’s a shame then that verses three to five are often left out of readings at carol services. I can understand some discomfort at the image of dividing up spoils of war and the call back to Gideon defeating the Midianites, but that had been the reality and we can’t ignore it because we don’t like it. What is more important, and what I think we don’t see fully when we skip over those verses, is that there will be a change. Not only are the bloodied clothes of war burned up, bringing heat and warmth in place of death and misery, but the burden is lifted and the rod of oppression is broken, not to be used against anyone else. I was reminded of the beautiful carol O Holy Night, which I never choose for carol services because it only really fits on Christmas Eve, but which has some of the greatest lines ever written, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining / 'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth / A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices / For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”. I feel a thrill every time I hear them, but those weren’t in fact the lines I first thought of. In a later verse, we find the words "In his name all oppression shall cease", and I love the way there is an echo of this promise from Isaiah, but there’s also a bit of a challenge. “In his name” doesn't necessarily mean he individually does it. “In his name” might mean we do it. So I invite you to reflect on what bars are across people's shoulders now? What rods are people being beaten with today? And what do we do about it in the name of the one who shines light on all?
The passage seems to build to verse six, which declares “a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." There is a lot of imagery around power in this passage - other translations say that the government will rest on his shoulders, and the following verse talks of the throne and kingdom of David - but the one who is promised is never directly named as any kind of king or ruler. He has authority but no explicit position, he upholds the throne but we are not told that he will sit on it. It’s easy to make assumptions, but there are clues here that God is up to something quite unexpected, and this child will hold power and influence in a new way. The very fact that they are introduced as a child should tell us that. And not just a child but “a child [who] has been born”, which puts us in mind of a child who has just been born. If we met them as a king or a ruler we would think of might and control, but instead we meet them as a baby and so we think of newness and vulnerability. God is definitely promising something different here. This child is then given a number of names of titles, and to help us reflect further on those, I want to read a poem written by someone called Jack Brown. It was actually written as a song, to be sung to the tune of O Waly Waly, but I will spare you my singing and simply read it.
For unto us a child is born / And unto us a son is giv’n;
A world of gloom, so dark, forlorn, / Now sees a dawn, new light has ris’n.
He has a name, it’s Wonderful; / He makes us more than we have been;
In truth and grace Christ makes us whole; In Him we find our lives redeemed.
As Counsellor Christ leads and guides; / He shepherds us, our lives restores;
In darkest days He’s at our side; / From lowest depths our spirit soars.
As Mighty God, Christ oversees / The ways we go, the paths we take;
He gives us strength and hope-filled peace; / He helps and guides for His name’s sake.
With Father-love Christ helps us stand; / We often slip and sometimes fall;
He gives us aid by His strong hand; / He does what’s best to lift us all.
Our Prince of Peace comes now to bless / Our lives and needs with daily grace;
To calm our fears and grant us rest - / Christ with us in all we face.
This little one grew up to show / The heart of God in man enfleshed;
In Christ we see, by Him we know, / The love of God by which we’re blessed.
So let us praise God more and more / For Christ in us, who loves and frees:
He’s Wonderful, our Counsellor, / The Mighty God and Prince of Peace.
What wonderful promises these names contain! Wholeness, guidance, strength, love, grace, freedom...no wonder this passage has been described as a poem of hope. And I think that is the heart of the promise not just in these verses, but in the whole of scripture. God does not promise that there will never be darkness, but God does promise that light will come. That light has come and continues to come in many ways, and it came in a very particular way in Christ. As the opening of the fourth gospel puts it “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Whatever darkness you find yourself in or see in the world, there is light and there is hope, always and ever. May you find it anew in the Christmas lights this year.