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“Unto us…”

Date: November 22, 2021/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
sunrise over meadow

Isaiah 9:1-7

Did you ever notice that if you’re someplace really dark, particularly someplace that’s also unfamiliar, every sound you hear seems to be magnified?  Or even worse, every creak of the stairs, every snap of a twig, every banging shutter becomes a signal that something (or someone) sinister lurks in the darkness, waiting to hurt you?

Now imagine that this is reality every time the sun goes down.  Maybe you have a fire, or a lamp; but it only pushes the darkness back so far, and beyond that small circle of light, who knows what might be watching and waiting.

In the summer, the time of darkness is short, as the sun comes up early and sets quite late.  But as time moves on from midsummer, the dark nights get longer and longer, colder and colder.  As the season wears on, and food becomes harder to come by, perhaps wild creatures, in boldness fueled by desperation, begin to lurk ever closer to you as you huddle in your shelter, trying to keep warm by your fire.

It is no wonder that fear of the dark is pretty much universal among human beings.

Since the advent of the electric light, I don’t know that many of us in developed nations have a clue what true darkness is like.  It’s easy for someone like me to say, well, I’m not afraid of the dark.  It’s a pretty safe bet that I would change my tune if I ever find myself in a place that was really dark.  And there’s good reason why any weather event that causes the electricity to go out for any length of time is remembered and talked about for years afterward.

There’s also good reason why the metaphors of light and darkness are often used to describe good and evil.

As I’ve said many times before, it’s important that we make clear that when we talk about “light good, dark evil,” we are not talking about skin color.  People who have lighter skin aren’t automatically good, and people who have darker skin aren’t automatically evil.  In the past some have actually implied that, if not said it outright, and that’s something that needs to stop, yesterday.

As far back as the 1950s, if not earlier, we were aware that this has long-lasting effects to the psyches of people of color.  A study that found this to be true was part of the argument against school segregation in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.  If I remember correctly, what researchers did was show children light-skinned dolls and dark-skinned dolls, and had them tell which of the dolls was smarter, better-looking, and more moral.  Both white and black children more often pointed to the light-skinned dolls as being superior in every way.

This is obviously something we need to avoid.  But since the language of our faith is permeated with imagery of light and darkness, it makes that job more difficult.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any other words to use, so I feel like it’s important to make clear we are talking about day and night—and night, in the days before electricity could be pretty frightening—and not skin color.

A lot of us Christians seem to believe that the Hebrew prophets were all about predicting Jesus and the end-times.  There have been Christian thinkers and teachers over the centuries who have clearly said that all of the Hebrew Bible points to Jesus, and if we interpret it any other way, we’re Doing It Wrong.

I don’t necessarily believe that.  The Hebrew prophets and other authors and editors of the Hebrew Bible lived in their own times, and the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible were first intended to be relevant during those times.

The trouble is, there have been other Christian thinkers and teachers, especially over the past 200 years or so, who have acted as though these prophecies only spoke to the people to whom they first came, and therefore understanding that context is as far as we need to go.  I don’t necessarily believe that, either.  It reduces the Bible to nothing more than ancient history that is really only relevant to those interested in ancient history.

Those two ways of interpreting the Hebrew prophets don’t have to be the only options.  Knowing the original context isn’t an end unto itself, and even if we don’t assume everything in the Hebrew Bible is pointing to Jesus, the prophets have something to say to us today.  Not only that, but because we are Christian, it’s inevitable that we are going to look at the Hebrew Bible through that lens; and that means sometimes we will read a passage and think, “That sure sounds like Jesus.”

But the prophets were speaking, first and foremost, to the people of their own time.  If we want to understand what they’re saying and how what they said might mean something to us, we begin—but don’t stop—with understanding what was going on when the prophet first spoke.

We can look back in the Isaiah book, at least to chapter 7, and we can read what is known about the history of the Ancient Near East to find out what was going on in the world around Israel and Judah, and that will help.  It would take from now until dinner is ready on Thursday to explain that thoroughly, so I’ll just sketch the outlines this morning.

In 733 bce, the Assyrian Empire, whose capital was Nineveh, was on the move.  It had already swallowed up the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (which became the province known as Galilee) in Israel.  That was frightening enough to the people of Jerusalem, where Isaiah lived and worked, and their king, Ahaz; but at the same time Israel and Aram had allied themselves against both Assyria and Judah, of which Jerusalem was capital and Ahaz was king.  This was known as the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (because another name for Aram is Syria, and another name for Israel is Ephraim), and it’s further described in 2 Kings 16.

In his anxiety and fear, King Ahaz was being tempted to seek an alliance with Assyria, so Isaiah went to try and calm him, and help him to understand that wasn’t what God wanted him to do.  The Syro-Ephraimite alliance was a temporary problem.

Isaiah told the king, “Ask God for a sign that this will take place.”

Now, normally people in the Bible are discouraged from asking God for signs; the idea is that we’re meant to take God at his word and asking for a sign suggests we don’t trust God sufficiently.  But this time God is allowing Ahaz to ask for a sign.  And Ahaz refuses.

So God gave him one anyway, and it’s one we’re familiar with, one we also hear at Christmas time:  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  Before this child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, Aram and Israel will both be gone.[1]

But, it turns out, that was a mixed blessing, because the reason Aram and Israel would no longer be a threat was because they were going to be destroyed by Assyria, which would then be on the march toward Judah and Jerusalem.[2]

Times were dark and frightening, and they were going to get darker and more frightening still before it was all over.  But through Isaiah, God spoke to Ahaz and the people of Judah, in the hope that their fear and anxiety would not win the day.  People who live in a constant state of fear and anxiety tend to make bad decisions and do things that they, in a different state of mind, might consider pretty darn stupid.

It was into that atmosphere that Isaiah spoke, and what he said is a Scripture passage we Christians hear most often as referring to Jesus, especially at Christmastime.

I need to make clear that I don’t see any problem with equating the “great light” in this text with the one who called himself “the light of the world.”  Prophetic texts can have more meaning than just what the prophet intended to say to the people around him or her.  We Christians hear the interpretation of it referring to Jesus, the four names in verse 6 as titles for him and explanations of how he will rule in heaven and earth, all the time; and I think it’s worthwhile to try and find something more here—something more that could even deepen our understanding of why and how this text has been attached to Jesus over the years.

These words were originally spoken to a people who felt like their way of life, their country, their very existence were at risk.  They were spoken to a king who, out of fear, wanted to make an unwise alliance.  This people and their king felt this terrifying darkness closing around them like a heavy, wet blanket, obliterating everything they held dear.

And then Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

The burdens they were carrying—oppression, fear, the threat of conquest by a cruel foreign power—were going to be lifted from their shoulders, and they would rejoice just as farmers rejoice when the harvest comes in.  Then we get to the reason why these burdens were going to be lifted, the reason why people who were living in the valley of the shadow of death (the Hebrew here is exactly the same as what we find in Psalm 23, verse 4) were going to have a great light shining on them.

No one is entirely sure who this child might have been.  Was this oracle spoken as Ahaz’ son Hezekiah was born?  Was it for Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh?  (Probably not, actually; he was pretty horrible.)  Or was it for the Immanuel child promised in chapter 7, and who was he?  We just don’t know who Isaiah had in mind.

As we look at what happened in the years after this prophecy was first spoken, we discover that things got a lot worse before they got better.  Eleven years later Assyria conquered Israel and scattered its people, settling people from other lands they had conquered in Israel’s territory.  Eleven years after that Ahaz’ son Hezekiah faced an Assyrian invasion of his country, Judah.  That invasion did not succeed; the Biblical historian attributes its failure to God’s intervention, although Assyrian historians would have probably said there was political unrest at home that spilled over into the army abroad.

It wasn’t too long afterward that Assyria fell to a new empire, Babylon; and then about a century later Babylon conquered Judah.  Eventually the city of Jerusalem and the temple that Solomon had built were destroyed, and all but the poorest people of Judah were taken into exile.

Where’s that “great light” you promised us, Isaiah?

Knowing that the darkness didn’t really give way to light in Isaiah’s time, or even in the years immediately afterward, it’s no wonder this prophecy was eventually understood as referring to the Messiah the Jewish people came to expect—the Messiah we Christians believe was Jesus of Nazareth.  And even after Jesus came to live among us, and died, and was raised, there have been times of terrible darkness—again, I’m speaking metaphorically, and certainly not about anybody’s skin color—in this world on a pretty regular basis.

People get sick, sometimes gravely.  A virus that for some of us means very little beyond a really bad cold has killed more than 750,000 people in the United States and many more than that around the world.  People die, sometimes tragically or much younger than we would like.  Terrorists attack.  Fear gets the best of people and their leaders, causing them to make choices they might not make if they weren’t kept constantly afraid.  Wars, violence, drugs, bullying, poverty—all of these things and more are still part of the human experience, even two millennia after Jesus’ birth.

It’s easy to fall into despair, and social media aren’t helping.

When covid-19 first got going, I got to the point that I had to abandon my personal Twitter account for a time.[3]  (I didn’t step away from Facebook in the same way because I have most news-related posts blocked there, and these days Facebook has most news in a place that can be accessed through a special icon at the top of the screen, which you can choose not to click on if you don’t want to read news.  I’m on Facebook to keep up with friends and kinfolk, not to learn about current events and politics.)  I had to leave my Twitter account for awhile because the constant barrage of posts about covid-19 were fearful, and nobody really knew anything at that point, which just made the fear that much worse.

There was a point where I wanted to crawl in a hole somewhere because I was so scared and upset at the thought of friends and family—or even myself—getting covid that I couldn’t function.  I’m sure I am not the only one who felt that way.

We’re really not so much different from King Ahaz and his people in the nation of Judah.  In the case of the specific situation Isaiah addressed, the gathering darkness is dispelled by a military victory, and hope for a better future centers on a new ruler—either newborn or newly crowned—whose rule holds promise of power, wisdom, and justice for those who’ve mostly been trampled into the dust.

For the earliest Christians these words came to be associated with Jesus, and we came to believe it was through him that God’s great and joyful light shone on this world where there is far too much darkness, far too much fear, far too much poverty and violence and sickness and death.  He is the Light of the World, and we who are his followers are called to walk in the light and to be people of light.

But what does that mean?

Well, it means a lot of things.  It means we’re not supposed to be doing stuff in secret that we wouldn’t want people to know about in the light of day.  (Amos, from last week, would say we oughtn’t to show up at church on Sunday pretending, for instance, that we didn’t spend the week engaged in exploitative business practices.  But there are lots of things people do that we would rather not talk about in church.)

If you’re a Christian, be a Christian seven days a week.  Take your faith with you to work, shopping, on the highway, when you talk to your financial adviser, to school, even to social media and the voting booth.

It also means something else that’s very important.

In a lot of ways we, like the people of ancient Judah, we are still a people who walk in darkness.  Around just about every corner, there’s some pundit or political leader assuring us that it’s going to get even worse before it gets better.  It would be awfully easy, sometimes, to just give in and let the darkness have its way with us.

That’s what Isaiah and his contemporaries, including King Ahaz, faced, and it’s what we face, too.  But Isaiah was a prophet, and the prophet’s job in all times and places is to envision an alternative reality.[4]

When the people are about to let fear take over and lead them into despair and stupid decisions, God through the prophet speaks to them a word of hope:  Yes, it’s dark now.  But it won’t last forever.

That brings us back to the other, very important, thing it means when we understand ourselves as being called to live as people of light.

Jesus did, indeed, describe himself as the Light of the World.  That’s not all he said, though.

You know those cool yard signs that were put up along Fort Scott Street about a month ago, many of which have now migrated to the square?  Many of them are just good and encouraging messages, but there’s at least one that alludes to a Bible verse.  It says, “Be the light,” and references Matthew 5:14.

In that verse Jesus says that just as he is the light of the world, we, his followers, his disciples, are also to be the light of the world.  We are now reflections of Christ’s light, the loving light that dispels shadows of fear and grief and despair.

The goal of the prophet is to get people to see that the present troubles, no matter how terrible they may be, aren’t permanent troubles.  With that in mind and our eyes on the light that is coming, we can ease the current suffering for ourselves and our neighbors, and follow that light through the valley of the shadow.

So let us take courage, and let us look around us and see where there are people walking in darkness, dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death, and do what we can to help them to see a great light—the light of God’s love, revealed to us most fully in Jesus Christ, who set the example for us by walking among us doing good, loving the unlovely, healing the broken, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the outcast.

[1] Isaiah 7:14-16

[2] Assyria goes right to the walls of Jerusalem before being turned aside; see Isaiah 37—38, which duplicates almost word-for-word 2 Kings 18:13—19:35.  At that time Ahaz’ son Hezekiah was king, and Isaiah advised him just as he had advised his father.

[3] Even now I’m rarely on my regular Twitter account, but I have a separate account on so-called “cat Twitter,” in which we post cat pictures and talk to one another as though it were our cats talking—maybe it’s not for everyone, but for myself and some others it provides a needed break from reality.  If politics intrude, they’re pretty easily blocked out.

[4] This simple definition of the prophet’s task comes from Walter Brueggemann’s 1978 book The Prophetic Imagination.

Sunday morning worship, November 21, 2021. CCLI streaming license#20546947.