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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
June 11, 2023
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
So, show of hands: after hearing today’s reading, how many of you have this part of Handel’s Messiah playing in your head? It’s been in mine all week.
This is one of the assigned readings for Christmas Eve. So, we hear it every year, but it isn’t central because we’re focused on the gospel reading for that night. And rightly so.
But because we hear it on Christmas Eve, for pretty much everyone who is a Christian, this part of Isaiah has come to be associated with Jesus. And the common belief among Christians is that Isaiah wrote this about Jesus – foretelling the coming of God’s Messiah.
And Jesus was and is all of the things that Isaiah names here – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, etc. – but this wasn’t written about Jesus. That doesn’t take away its meaning for us; I want to be clear about that. But the context is important.
Isaiah wrote these words more than 700 years before Jesus was born. And he wrote them to and for a people that were in desperate need of hope. And God didn’t wait 700 years to give them that hope.
At this time in history, the reigning world power was the neo-Assyrian Empire. And, like most empires, it was continually trying to expand its footprint at any cost.
The kingdom of Israel had already split into Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Judah was the most stable and prosperous, and powerful state in that entire area – which put its people front and center against the Assyrians.
Jerusalem, which is in Judah, was being attacked by other groups. And King Ahaz of Judah was asked to join a coalition of other leaders against the Assyrians. But he said, “Nope. Think I’ll do my own thing.” Because even though the Assyrians were a threat, they had a very powerful army. So, Ahaz believed that if he paid them off, they’d defend Jerusalem and Judah against these other groups.
But Isaiah stepped in and said, “Wait. Don’t be afraid. God’s got you. Trust that.” And Ahaz said, “Yeah…but the Assyrians have an army to protect us.” And Isaiah said, “But God…” And Ahaz said, “They have an army.” So, he paid and pledged allegiance to the Assyrians.
And that only kind of worked. It kept Judah and Jerusalem relatively free of political conquest. But because of his new allegiance, Ahaz polluted the temple with altars and mark of respect to the Assyrian gods. Which had a culturally and religiously harmful effect on the people.
While all this was happening in Judah, Zebulun and Naphtali – located in the north – were more or less under the ruling of the Assyrian kings. Both areas were eventually invaded and taken into captivity by the Assyrians, which left the people there in anguish.
For any group of people that is either occupied, or used as a pawn by a political power, their lives are marked by vulnerability, domination, and oppression. It’s a brutal existence.
They experience poverty and hunger. Every field planted with crops can be harvested by the people in power. Every asset is seized by the conquerors. Every child born can be taken into slavery. There’s no sense of security or safety. And every hope for the future is stolen by those who have the final say.
The people in these situations live in a land of deep darkness. Which is where Zebulun and Naphtali were.
And it’s into this darkness that Isaiah foretold of a light shining. It isn’t a light that came from foreign powers, or even from the people’s efforts to fight against them. It’s the light that can only come from God. The only one who can bring the people from darkness to light, from oppression to freedom, from despair to hope.
And for the people who first heard Isaiah’s words, that light and that hope helped them look up from their current circumstances, and imagine that a world of God’s peace and justice might just be possible.
Through Isaiah, God promises a leader who will dispense justice, peace, and hope for these people. And it’s most likely that that leader was King Hezekiah, who was the son of King Ahaz.
Hezekiah led a campaign of religious, economic, and cultural reform. He welcomed refugees from the northern kingdom. He undid a lot of the damage that his father had done in the temple in Jerusalem. He prohibited worshiping other deities in the temple and mandated the sole worship of Yahweh.
Hezekiah did a lot of good, but he wasn’t perfect and he ended up betraying the people too. But for a time, the people lived in the hope that only God can give. Because it wasn’t just hope for some far-off future, it was hope for their lives then and there.
That hope has been foretold and promised and given throughout history. For us as Christians, God gives us that hope in Jesus. It’s a hope that acknowledges the situation we’re in, and promises that that isn’t all there is.
As a nation, the U.S. hasn’t experienced deep darkness in the same way that other countries have. So, when we read Isaiah’s words here, it’s easier for us to relate to them as individuals.
I invite you to remember a time in your life when you experienced a “deep darkness” and it seemed like it would go on forever. Maybe it was an illness, or financial difficulties, or unemployment, whether you should be public about your identity, the death of a loved one, the loss of a friendship. Anything at all.
Remember what it felt like to have to face each day – even just getting out of bed in the morning and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.
And then one day, after what seems like an eternity, something happened to change your perspective. Maybe it was one major event. Or maybe it was a series of small things that added up. Whatever it was, it was enough to put a sliver of light back into your life, and give you hope for what was to come.
When we gather to worship Jesus, we celebrate our hope for the future. Not just the future promise of life we receive in him, but hope for our lives here and now.
We celebrate the hope of the promise that, through Jesus, we are reconciled to God. We celebrate that in our baptism we are promised that our sins are forgiven. When we receive communion, we celebrate that we are part of a community that transcends time.
And we celebrate that, in Jesus’ resurrection, life overcomes death.
This hope, the promise of it, doesn’t come from anything we do or don’t do as humans. It comes from God.
The hope that God gives has grit, and staying power. It isn’t the hope that tells us, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine when you get to heaven.” The hope God gives says, “Yeah – things are really hard right now. And I’m sorry. It will get better, though. And I’m going to stay here with you until it does.”
We will experience the fullness of this hope in the resurrection; that’s when the peace and permanent stability that Isaiah describes will be complete. But until that time, we bear witness to it in our lives, and work towards it, and get glimpses of it here and now.
And in the times when we can’t do it for ourselves, we rely on others to do it for us.
The hope that God gives isn’t only promised on Christmas Eve. It’s promised and given throughout our lives. It acknowledges the reality of the situation we’re in, and promises that that isn’t all there is. Thanks be to God! Amen.