Narrative Lectionary Reflection
November 19, 2017
You get the phone call from your sister in law. She and your brother are pregnant and will have a little baby. From then on, as the baby inside of her grows and grows, everyone waits expectantly. Your sister-in-law shares sonogram photos of the baby, as the child slowly develops. And then the day comes. You get to hold your new niece for the first time as she naps.
The promise of a child is in many ways a symbol of hope. It is a sign of new life arising. In today’s text we learn about a promised birth that will change things for the better in Judah, the Southern Kingdom. They learn that even in the darkest times, hope is always there springing to life.
Today, we hear the words from the prophet Isaiah.
Engaging the Text
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.
This passage is one of the most well known in the Bible. If you have every heard Handel’s Messiah, you have heard this passage. Handel wrote the Messiah with Jesus in mind. But the writer had someone else in mind. So let’s dig in.
Sometimes one of the best ways to understand a passage is by reading what is not there. That’s the case in chapter 9. What is not written in this passage is the diplomatic intrigue that is taking place among the many nations.
The ruler of the Southern Kingdom around the time of this writing was Ahaz who is considered one of the worst kings that ever ruled Judah. During his reign the great empire of Assyria was moving westward. The Northren Kingdom and Syria entered into an alliance and invaded Judah. Ahaz made his first mistake by appealing to the king of Assyria. Instead of trusting in God, he trusted in power, in this case the power of Assyria. Israel and Syria were destroyed, but now the Southern Kingdom was basically a vassal state, meaning Assyria now truly controlled the kingdom.
It was during this time that God is judging the two kingdoms of the Israelites. In 9:1 we hear that ” God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.” This means that God has throughly judged Israel. There is no more chances for repentance.
The Southern Kingdom, Judah was also going to be judged, but God still has hope. In 9:2 this is where we hear about the people in darkneness, Judah who have seen a great light.
Verses 3 and 4 talk about the end of some kind of military oppression. It could be about Assyria, but it could also be about the Syrian-Israelite coalition. When they invaded Judah, the not only took spoil, but some 200,000 people to Samaria.
The harbinger of this prophecy is found in verse 6 where a child is to be born. Most people believe the writer was referring to the son of Ahaz; Hezekiah. This child is a sign of God being with the people of Israel, Emmanuel. Hezekiah was a good king and brought about various reforms.
However, Hezekiah was only human, which meant he would fall short of the prophecy about him. Eventually, Judah will be defeated by Babylon and the majority of the population sent into exile. At that point, the prophecy changes to a future king that will being deliverance.
In chapter 7 we are told that the promised one is going to be named Immanuel or God With Us. For the people of Israel, it was a reminder that God would not forsake them even during exile. For Christians, we have come to understand Immanuel as Jesus who comes to bring light to a dark world.
I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours
But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor
And when I die I expect to find Him laughing
-Blasphemous Rumors, Depeche Mode, 1984
Those are the lyrics of a song called “Blasphemous Rumors” by the British New Wave band Depeche Mode. It’s an interesting song, because it takes on the topic of suffering and where faith intersects. In the song, we hear of a young girl trying to commit suicide, failing at first and then succeeding and another girl who became a committed Christian only to end up in a accident that left her on life support until the decision was made to turn the machine off.
At first glance this song seems to denounce God for not stopping the evil that overtook these two women. But maybe this song is a song of complaint and questioning. Why does evil exist in this world? How can a good God allow such bad things to happen?
Ahaz is worried about the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Syria who are threatening Judah. God tells Ahaz to not worry. God even offers a sign, a woman would give birth to a child and by the time that kid could eat solid food, the two agressive kingdoms would be gone. This baby would have a name, Immanuel, or God With Us. Now that’s a sign. God will be with Ahaz in this dark time. It’s wonderful, except Ahaz didn’t think so. Instead of believing that God was with him, he sought an alliance with Assyria. The result wasn’t so good, because Judah ended up being a vassal state of Assyria.
We sometimes wonder if we are alone in the world. These passages remind us that we are never alone: God is with us all the time.
That’s a message of hope the world needs to hear. Those facing the loss of a loved one through death, those dealing with a cancer diagnosis, the town that hears the factory is closing leaving many people without jobs in the coming year, all of these people need to hear that God is with them. That oppression will end.
This passage is usually heard on Christmas Eve and it makes sense, since in the passage we talk about light and darkness and the winter solstice will have just taken place.
The wider culture sees Christmas as a time to buy presents and maybe have a party. But that’s not what Christmas is all about. It is about the coming of God into the world, our world. It’s when God dares to get involved in this world, full of pain and chaos and offer grace, redemption and hope. Christmas is about God being with us.
Christmas has to give an answer to those dealing with pain and unhappiness. It has to tell everyone that God is here, with us, in the good times and in the bad times.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.