December 24, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
We are going to read these words of Isaiah again later on. Each year during our Service of Lessons, Carols, and Light on Christmas Eve, we read a series of seven texts from scripture. And this passage from Isaiah is the very first of those readings.
It is a lovely service. It tells the whole story of the birth of Jesus Christ. It tells it from Luke’s perspective, with the terrified yet faithful young woman who talked to angels, and the young couple seeking shelter in a strange town and coming up with only “no vacancy” signs. It tells the story from Matthew’s perspective, with more angels, this time giving Joseph the confidence he needed to play his role, and with the wise and powerful visitors from the east who set into motion events as horrifying as the struggle for the liberation of God’s people from their slavery in Egypt over a thousand years before. And it tells the story from John’s perspective, with his mystical musings on the Word which spoke when the world was created, bringing light and life like never before.
But our service of Lessons and Carols this evening will start from Isaiah’s perspective. Because of where it is located in the way we tell the story of God’s salvation, when Isaiah says that “a child has been born for us, a son given to us,” we automatically associate that child with the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
But this morning, we are not ready for that yet. This morning, we are still in Advent, those four Sundays which we observe before we celebrate Christmas. This morning is a time to take Isaiah on his own terms as he seeks to lead us to the hope which God so desperately wants to give us. God is in control. God will watch out for God’s people. Even when it looks like cruelty and arrogance and indifference will prevail, it will not; God will prevail at the end of it all. That is the hope which God wants to give us. That is the hope which Isaiah proclaims. That is the hope which gives Advent its purpose, and that is the hope which will lead us into an authentic celebration of Christmas and, dare I say more importantly, will lead us into a new life on the other side of Christmas.
Isaiah starts this section with darkness and light: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who live in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” Isn’t that a powerful image? Those metaphors of darkness and light are well-worn; we all understand how darkness becomes an image that evokes some heavy feelings. But Isaiah uses them well. Fear, depression, grief, poverty, abuse, addiction, desperation; all of them conjure images of the heavy, purple pre-dawn hours, of caves deep in the ground, of the shadows of alleyways that wise people do not enter unless they are chased or trapped by forces beyond their control. And although again this is not a literary innovation on Isaiah’s part, how fascinating is it that the answer to the problem of darkness is simple: the only thing which can alleviate darkness is as simple as a light?
Isaiah was speaking God’s word to God’s people at a time that felt like those heavy shadows and purple hours of midnight. Their enemies were ready to depose the rulers who were in the line of kings whom God had placed on the throne and replace them with a ruler who would work only for the interests of those enemies of the people. And it would be bad enough if it was just one enemy, but it wasn’t. It was a whole coalition of neighboring nations who had banded together with their money, their political strategies, and their sheer, raw power to impose their will. It looked hopeless; it looked like the people had failed, like the king had failed, like Isaiah had failed, and like God had failed. No one could save them; fear was around every corner; there was nothing to be done. The people walked in darkness; they lived in a land of deep darkness.
So what was this light which Isaiah boldly said had already shined into their darkness? Isaiah gave them a series of proclamations about what God had already done. He took images from agriculture: people who were famished celebrating an abundant harvest. He took images from war: armies who had fought hard and prevailed in victory burned their muddy boots and their blood-stained uniforms because they would not need them anymore. He took images from slave-master relationships: those who labored in heavy work had the rods that kept them chained to their work broken, so that they could be free.
And he took that other image from family life: the birth of a child. This was not a new image for Isaiah; before here in chapter 9, he had talked in chapter 7 about a baby born to an anonymous young woman, and he had talked about the birth of his own child in chapter 8. Here, though, the birth of the child had consequences for all of God’s people. There will be a new member of the royal household, Isaiah said, and he will continue in the line of the kings of God’s people. Those foreign powers aligning against us will not be able to put their guy on our throne; our ruler will continue, Isaiah said. The birth Isaiah described was just what the people needed. That child was the light which shone in their darkness. That child embodied their hope: God would not fail; God would watch out for God’s people; God was in control.
Isaiah has the same message for us today: God will not fail; God will watch out for God’s people; God is in control; at the end of it all, God will prevail. So what is the equivalent light which shines into our darkness?
Isaiah gives four names for this one child born. They are so famous, you could probably say them with me, or, if you are into that sort of thing, you could even sing them with me using the confident melodies which Handel wove into his Messiah. So what are they? Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Notice how these four different names for the child to be born work together. The second words in the pairs are all gentle: counselor, God, father, peace. The first words modifying those figures of gentleness are all powerful: wonderful, mighty, everlasting, royal.
And I wonder if that helps us see that light that shines in our darkness. I wonder if it can help us with our Christmas celebrations. If we get these two poles out of balance, we miss the meaning of Christmas. We can make it too warm and gentle. That seems more like what we usually do. The pressure to make everyone feel good grows, our priorities get out of whack, and we spend tremendous time and energy trying just to create the perfect, Martha Stewart kind of holiday. It becomes a syrupy, sentimental mush, bathed in the golden light of nostalgia, and it loses its power to change anything in our lives or in this world that so badly needs something more than that.
But we can make it too powerful, too. We can stand in wonder, we can be impressed by its might, we can contemplate the shape of its eternity, we can see how its power operates in all the political frustrations of our age, but where does that leave us? It starts to feel like those people who angrily insist that the only proper expression of good wishes this season is with the precise words, “Merry Christmas.” I feel a bitterness in that argument; I have too often heard it expressed in a way that lacks any feeling that communicates the wisdom of a counselor, the faithfulness of a God, the nurture of a parent, or the sincere wish for peace. We can focus narrowly on the feeling of the moment and miss the cosmic power; we can also become so obsessed by the power that we fail to express the feeling of the moment.
Part of the gift of Christmas is that God gives us both. God gives us something that makes us stand in wonder while also giving us a counselor to guide us and care for us. God gives us a vision of great might while also giving us a vision of a God who has made us His people. God gives us a story that spans the expanse of eternity while also giving us the nurture and provision of a father. God gives us the hope of a solution to our political wrangling while also giving us the promise and hope of peace.
God desperately wants to lead us to hope. That is the message of Advent, and it is the message we have to receive this morning on this Fourth Sunday in Advent. God wants to show us how all of our darkness is banished with a simple light, and how hope can come like it comes with an abundant harvest, a victorious army, a slave given his freedom, or even with the birth of a baby. God wants to show us the life-changing, world-changing salvation we get when power is balanced with gentleness; when wonder, might, eternity, and royalty is balanced with wise counsel, faithful divinity, caring parenting, and an all-encompassing peace.
So we will hear these words of Isaiah again. We will hear them tonight as we begin telling the story of the birth of Jesus Christ from all the perspectives we have on that world-changing event. But my prayer this morning is that we will hear them again and again after that, resounding in our hearts and our minds and our souls. My prayer is that we will hear again about the simple light which overwhelms the darkness. My prayer is that we will hear again about the hope which comes like the birth of a baby. My prayer is that we will seek again that balance of power and gentleness in the wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.
As Isaiah said, “the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do it.” May it be so. Amen.