Merry Christmas! Well, not really, but this passage that we have before us today is one that we are familiar with because it comes around every Christmas time. And it may be a little jarring for us to hear it when we know it’s not Christmas yet, and it’s not even Advent yet. So, as we did last week, let’s take a step back and refresh our memories on who prophets were and what they did. Then we can look at who Isaiah was and what was going on at the time that he prophesied. And finally, we can look at this passage afresh and see what new meaning Isaiah’s words have for us today.
In last week’s sermon, I said that we Christians tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, because we have generally been taught to believe that all that the Old Testament prophets ever did was predict the coming of Jesus. As we looked at Amos last week, we discovered that this is a misunderstanding of the call of a prophet. The word “prophet” in Hebrew means to be a spokesperson for God, and God had a lot more to say to the people than just to tell them about the coming Messiah, although that was very important. People as diverse as Moses and Samuel were named as prophets, because they gave people messages from God about what God wanted them to do and how they were to behave. Last week, we saw how God sent the prophet Amos to the northern kingdom of Israel to criticize the country’s economic system, and how it made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Amos gave the people the call to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And today, we come to the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah. Unlike Amos, who was a farmer minding his own business until God called him to go and prophesy, Isaiah seems to have been a career prophet. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and from his prophecies, we can see that he had regular access to both the Temple and the king. He prophesied during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. This would have been approximately 742 through 689 BC, so Isaiah prophesied shortly after the time of Amos. During this time, there was a lot of political turmoil in the area, and people were very afraid. As we look at the time immediately surrounding today’s prophecy, we see that the northern kingdom of Israel was threatening to attack the southern kingdom, Judah, and King Ahaz was desperately trying to help his kingdom survive. He wanted to make an alliance with Assyria, the powerful empire to the east. Isaiah repeatedly told the king that he needed to trust in God alone, and not in the political and military might of the strong empires around him.
So now, we come to the section of Isaiah’s prophecy that is our reading today. Again, as Christians, we have heard this read so often at Christmas time that we immediately think that Isaiah is referring to Jesus. But I want us to take a step back from that for a moment, and try to put ourselves into the shoes of the people of the kingdom of Judah in the 700s BC, including Isaiah. Remember what the political situation is at this time: a lot of turmoil and a lot of threat of war from the surrounding kingdoms. And remember, too, that one of the tasks that the prophets had at that time was to speak God’s word to the situation that was presently happening. Isaiah and the people were not looking for a far-off Messiah to save them from their sins. They were looking for a word of hope from God right then and there, to save them from the threats surrounding them.
And so, we can ask ourselves, if this prophecy was not initially referring to Jesus, who is the child who was born upon whom the people were going to rest their hopes? Well, the best guess is that a prince was born to King Ahaz at this time, and that prince was Hezekiah. It was common in ancient times to assign divine titles to kings, and so even though we are a little taken aback today by the idea that any human should be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”, it was nothing unusual at that time. And when Hezekiah grows up and becomes king, he is one of the better kings that Judah has; the book of 2 Kings tells us that “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.” But even Hezekiah wasn’t perfect, and outside political turmoil continued during his reign. It turns out that peace did not come during Hezekiah’s lifetime.
So, early Christians who were looking at Hebrew Scriptures read this prophecy of Isaiah and interpreted it to apply to Jesus, who indeed came to save us from our sins. We believe that through his teachings, his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus did show himself to truly be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace”. Because of Jesus, we and all of our brother and sister Christians around the world no longer walk in darkness, but have indeed seen that great light. But, you know, the world around us is still in as much turmoil as there was in Isaiah’s time. There is still darkness everywhere, and we only need to turn on the news to see it. So, what kind of word does this prophecy have for us in this time? Does it mean anything to us anymore, or is it merely part of the sentimental barrage of Christmas cards that we give and receive each year, only to throw away after Christmas is over?
I would argue that Isaiah’s words have just as much to say to us today as they did in his own time. We, too, are living in a time of darkness due to political turmoil. We worry about North Korea. We worry about men who lose control and who decide to shoot people at outdoor concerts and now, even in churches. And even though we all know that politicians are not always the best people in the world, it seems like every time we turn around, another one of our leaders has been accused of sexual assault or some other form of inappropriate behavior. We have to determine what news reports are “fake” and what are real, and our biases and political leanings often make that determination. We don’t see that there is an objective truth any longer. We feel helpless and without hope, and we put our heads down and try to make it through life one day at a time.
Into this mess, the prophet Isaiah speaks: “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.” We are the people walking in darkness and we are looking for that word of hope, that light to shine upon us. And that light comes in the form of Jesus: the Son of God who became human for us, who was born just like we are, who lived just like we do, who suffered and who died for us, and who, in his resurrection, gave us the promise of what the coming kingdom of heaven will look like. When Jesus returns, he will indeed be God with us, and he will indeed be the Prince of Peace. There will be no more war, no more crying, and no more pain.
So, what do we do in the meantime? We hope. On Friday night, I went to see the Justice League movie, and at the end of the movie, one of the characters said this: “The truest darkness is not absence of light, but the despair that the light will never return. But the light always returns. Hope is real. You can see it. All you have to do is look up into the sky.” I think that’s what part of our problem today is. We are losing hope. We see everything that’s wrong in the world and are at a loss as to how to make it better. We see the struggles that we go through in our congregations and we lose some more hope. Perhaps it is because we have forgotten to put Jesus at the center of our lives—both individual and as congregations—that we are losing our hope. So, hear this now: As Christians, we are a people of hope. And we are in the business of spreading this hope—this crazy hope in someone who rose from the dead and who promised the same thing to us—to everyone we meet.
So, how do we spread this hope in Jesus to everyone we meet? How do we keep Jesus at the center of our congregational lives? Starting today, every time a new activity is proposed in a committee or council meeting for both Salem and St. John’s, I will be asking this question: How does this proposal spread hope in Jesus to everyone we meet? If we as a group can’t answer that, then I will ask us to rethink the project until the Spirit reveals to us how we can work it in such a way that it will be spreading hope in Jesus to everyone we meet. As we look at the projects we are currently undertaking, I will be asking that question so that we understand why we are doing what we are doing. And if what we are doing does not have anything to do with hope in Jesus, we are going to rethink it. Because as Christians, we are not just another social club. We are people who do what we do because we have hope in Jesus.
The light of hope has shined upon us in the midst of a dark world. And the name of that Son that has been born to us, the name of the one who gives us hope for peace, is Jesus. Jesus is the one who gives hope in this world troubled with political turmoil. Jesus is the one who we put our trust in—not our politicians, not our guns, and not anything else on this earth. Jesus is the one who we find our unity in, for Jesus binds us together over and across any lines we humans might be able to think of to divide us one from the other. That hope in Jesus is why we exist, and it is why we are doing the things that we are doing in the community and in the world. We are a people of hope, and we are in the business of spreading that hope to everyone we meet. Amen.