Christmas creep is all around us. We haven’t even reached Christ the King yet, but that’s of little concern to the commercial enterprises around us. There is money to be made and the longer the scent of cinnamon and the twinkle of lights can pressure us into SPENDING… all the better.
And, of course, when many of God’s people hear this week’s reading from Isaiah, they will immediately be thinking: CHRISTMAS!
How do we get around that? Or, more importantly, do we need to?
Is there anything lost by having people’s mind leap immediately to Jesus when reading in the Hebrew scripture? I think there is. When we lose the context of the struggles of the people of Israel and Judah, the lamentation of the exile, the work of the prophets, and the faithful who trusted in God’s covenant… if we stop understanding all of those things… then God begins to seem cruel and capricious. Every event, every prophecy just becomes a placeholder until God’s work in Jesus begins. For the Hebrew Scriptures to retain their significance and power, especially for those of us who believe in Jesus as the Christ, we must offer context. That context reveals the truth about God’s character and continuity within Scripture and out in the world.
In Isaiah 9, we are in the first section of prophecies attributed to the prophet. Chapters 6-9 appear to be referring to Syro-Ephraimitic war, 735-732 BCE (a struggle between Assyria and Syria + Ephraim (Northern Kingdom)). Isaiah’s commission to be a prophet opens this section (“Here I am, Lord”) followed by the prophecies about the political and military crises that will arise.
By the time we reach this week’s passage, people are longing for good news. Isaiah delivers it. The images of this passage are worth playing with, perhaps even in conversation with the congregation.
Verse 2: What is darkness? What life events do we associate with darkness or dark times? What other biblical passages reference darkness or a contrast between light and dark?
Verse 3: The time of harvest was a time of celebration and great rejoicing. Some of the hardest work of the year was done for a while. People had plenty to eat- at least for the time being. Worship was loud and long.
In the case of a military triumph, dividing the spoils of war was like kids spreading out Halloween candy or Christmas presents. Who got what? What are the secret goodies that will be uncovered? While we might find it distasteful, victory over another peoples resulted in lusty praise of the God from whom victory was assumed to proceed.
Would we praise God in the same way? How would we perceive people who were giving credit to God in these circumstances?
Verse 4: God destroys the symbols of oppression: the yoke, the bar across their shoulders, the rod that pushes them where they do not wish to go.
What are the symbols of oppression of our time? Who feels these most sharply? Who in our society feels forced into choices, feeling little ability to perceive God’s will in their circumstances?
How is God breaking that cycle of oppression? Who is God using to do those things? In what way is God’s work expanding to include systems and people who we might not expect to be avenues of freedom and hope?
Verse 5: The implements of war are destined for their own destruction. Not only with the tools with which to make war be eliminated, but even the remembrance of fighting and separation will be destroyed. This is signified by the burning of the boots (tools) and the bandages (memories).
There is a difference between lamentation and resignation. Do we lament the presence of war in the world or are we resigned to it? In the first case, we still seek God’s desires for peace and justice in THIS life. In the latter, we have come to expect that the terror of war is part of this life and nothing will (or can) change.
What does it look like to proclaim this in the wake of Veteran’s/Remembrance Day?
Verse 6-7: A new king is born! A new leader is given to us! This leader contains the possibility of bringing the people of God in line with God’s desires and expectations.
But, Pastor, isn’t this about Jesus? How can Isaiah NOT be talking about Jesus? If he’s not talking about Jesus, who would he be talking about? If this is changing, what else in Scripture isn’t what I think it is? WHAT CAN I BELIEVE?
Whoa, whoa, whoa. We are able to Jesus as fulfilling the ultimate expectation of a king and leader. Yet Isaiah is speaking of the king who is born during his time- a king who will lead Judah in a more righteous way than the current king (Ahaz). Part of understanding the power of Isaiah’s words is knowing that the first people who heard them did NOT know about Jesus. Instead they heard these words to be part of God’s continued promise to bring forth kings out of the line of David- kings, leaders, who would bring peace and stability to God’s people.
In the shadow of persistent fear, Israel (and Judah) are not able to live up to their call as God’s chosen people. When continually confronted with political and military concerns, they are not dedicating the time to worship and praise, to justice and righteousness, to growth and trust that they could or should. Isaiah’s prophecy is a reminder to all who hear it that the future is in God’s hands. Furthermore, the God who promises these things is not withholding them for some future date, but is bringing them into reality right now.
For those who trust in Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy, the questions remain the same.
Do we believe these names apply to Jesus? If so, how is Jesus working to bring the reality of these names into the world? How are we, who follow him, a part of that work?
Are we caught up in lamentation or resignation?
Are these the words of a great song by Handel? Or are they the prophetic call of believers across space and time?
What do you think will speak to the people of God who will hear the word through you this Sunday?
7 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Isaiah Foretold WHAT? (Isaiah 9:1-7)”
Thanks so much for this Julia. I particularly appreciate your willingness to stay with the original context of this… because it’s usually appointed for Christmas Eve, I NEVER preach it. Never. Now I feel called to preach on it and, at least for a moment, remind the congregation that, even though something becomes the “standard” interpretation of a text, it is by no means the *only* interpretation.
Oh, and the questions. I love all the questions and possible avenues for exploration they open up. Thanks for that as well!
I have a unique assignment this week for a UCC pastor. I’ll be praying the Prayers of the People for Presbyterian Women’s Thank Offering Sunday, wearing my hat as pastor’s spouse. I’ve got to find something to say that ties Isaiah together with Matthew 25. Wish me luck!
I think I have decided to focus on the child aspect–as noted in the political theology blog, that a child signifies promise and hope for a future beyond ourselves, and pulls us out of thinking only of what benefits us to what comes down the road. though of course I’ll be careful to acknowledge the unique kind of grief that therefore comes with pregnancy loss or the death of a child/young person, I also want to encourage people to look to God’s future, which is, as I often say, “beyond our imagination”…and yet so often we are stuck squarely within our imaginations when it comes to life, church, choices, relationships, justice, etc.
(also, we are retiring the blue Presbyterian hymnal this week, so I have really limited time and need to tie that together somehow too…)
All of which, of course, means we’ll be singing Be Thou My Vision again. Because why not.
I am coming at this 5 years later ready to preach this passage for Christmas and this is so valuable. This is exactly why I have 4 Isaiah commentaries I just picked up from the theological library to assist me through Advent and Christmas. Thank you so very much, LutheranJulia. If I can find your real name I will be quoting you =)
My real name is Julia Seymour. 🙂 presently serving Big Timber Lutheran in Montana.