Wednesday, February 27, 2008

“A Land of Deep Darkness”

Isaiah 9:1-7; Matthew 4:12-23[1]

The prophet Isaiah spoke of his land as a “land of deep darkness.” It was a time when the people of Judah faced threats all around them—most immediately from their brothers and sisters in the northern kingdom of Israel and their allies in Syria. And the problem was compounded because their leaders—kings and priests and prophets alike—ignored God’s truth and instead sought protection from powerful but dangerous nations like Egypt and Assyria. And the end result was that the people lived under the yoke of oppression.

It’s hard for most of us to imagine what it’s like to live in a world where oppression defines one’s daily life. We have lived our lives in relative ease and prosperity. Of course, we’ve all had our share of hardships and suffering, but hard-core oppression is not part of our life experience. Consider this:

•There are places in the world where a person can be arrested and held in prison indefinitely without benefit of a fair and speedy trial.

•There are places in the world where the fact that you were born a woman consigns you to a life of virtual slavery.

•There are places in the world where might still makes right, and powerful warlords commanding private militias armed to the teeth can take whatever they want.

That was the situation the people of Judah faced in the days of the prophet Isaiah. They lived in a land of deep darkness.

But Isaiah did not face this darkness with the resignation of despair. He saw a light that was on the horizon. He knew that God is above all faithful to his people. He also believed that God had promised to send one who would lift the burden of oppression and the yoke of bondage from his people, just as God had done for the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt.

Unfortunately, in our day we have missed the point of this promise. Like many Christians before us, we have co-opted Isaiah’s faith in a faithful God to confirm our faith in Jesus the Christ. We cannot read this passage without thinking of Christmas, and the birth of Jesus. Now I will be among the first to point out that Isaiah’s beautiful poetry points beyond any Jewish leader of his day.[2] But first we have to recognize that he probably wasn’t thinking of someone in the distant future (Isaiah lived 700 years before Jesus!). He had in mind someone who would deliver the Jewish people from the oppression they suffered in his day.

I think one of the important factors in hearing what Isaiah has to say to us here is that he does not have a specific person in mind. The identity of this deliverer is completely ambiguous. He would be a king who would actually deserve all the lofty titles ascribed to rulers—like wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, and prince of peace.[3] But his specific identity remains uncertain. What Isaiah did have in mind was that this coming one would bring peace and justice to his people.[4] He would deliver them from their oppressors and set them free from their chains. And the end result would be that they would be able to live and thrive and rejoice like people gathering an abundant harvest. They would be able to live without the fear of violence at the hands of the next warlord to come to town—in fact all the military equipment would be burned!

So the point of Isaiah’s hope is not the identity of a specific individual who was to come, but rather the nature of what he would accomplish—freedom from slavery, relief from the burden of injustice, safety to live and thrive in their own land. We are still looking for those things, aren’t we? Although most of us have never lived under oppression, there are people all around us who have and still do!

•There are people in our community neither have the money nor the legal standing to hope that they would receive justice from the authorities.

•There are men and women who live out their lives in various forms of slavery—right here in our town!

•There are still the “powerful” who can take whatever they want from some people in our community.

If you have your eyes open, it’s not hard to see that we live in a land of deep darkness!

What does Jesus offer to them and to us? The light of hope. To them and to us, Jesus offers the promise that God will lighten the darkness with his continual presence, just like the pillar of fire that followed the children of Israel in the wilderness.[5] To them and to us, Jesus offers the promise that one day God’s name will be hallowed on earth as it is in heaven and God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven and God’s purpose will be done on earth as it is in heaven! And that means a day when all oppression is undone and all violence is banished and all injustice is removed. [6] And what remains is peace and justice—the joy of living the life God intended for us all to live

What Jesus brings to us is the ongoing hope that God is working to bring that to us all, and that God will not stop until “the zeal of the Lord of hosts” achieves that hope. And it is our sacred task to share the light of that hope with those around us living in this land of deep darkness.[7]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/27/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2]B. Childs, Isaiah, 80; Cf. O. Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 217-18.

[3] B. Childs, Isaiah, 81; O. Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 211-214.

[4] Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 85-86; cf. O. Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 208; cf. also J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 78.

[5] O. Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 207-8.

[6] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.” Cf. also Nicholas Wolferstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today 48 (April, 1991) 16.

[7] J. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 83: “Through his death and resurrection the church participates in his mission, becoming the messianic church of the coming kingdom and man’s liberation.” In this sense, he says (p. 84) we are to be an “exodus church” in our world today. Cf. also 215-226.

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