1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2 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. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this
I didn’t use most of this sermon this morning. Throughout the week, I just kept feeling like I was not exactly saying what I wanted to. I felt like it was just too informational, sharing facts that you could look up in bible study notes or on websites. As much as I value knowing the context and history of a reading, I wanted to focus on something much more significant, what this reading means for us today in our darkness. I preached without this manuscript and focused on a few points.
I honestly had a hard time figuring out what this text was about, what word there was for us today in it. I do not say that too often, since it’s kind of my job to know these things and I don’t like standing up here saying I don’t know how to do my job. On Monday, I read through it and thought, oh, that’s easy, it’s the scripture quote we see on Christmas cards all the time, with the words For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace written over snow covered winter church scenes, nativities, stars, decorated Christmas trees or other familiar holiday sites. By Wednesday morning, I was still stuck, so I turned to some commentaries and online groups. There I was met by statements from scholars like “this is one of the most mysterious passages in Isaiah” and fellow pastors writing “I have no idea what to do with this reading” or “im going to use another text”. Aside from helping me not feel alone in my confusion, not much else there.
One of the most odd aspects of this reading is that things that will happen in the future are written about as though they occurred already. This passage in written in a style or part of grammar known as the present perfect. For Isaish, if God shows him it will happen, it is as good as seeing it happen. That is why the prophet talks of events that will happen in the future as if they occurred already. That is how we should live our faith.
This prophesy is for the people in the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, a small corner of the kingdom of Israel, a place know as Galilee of the gentiles. Galilee was a significant city in Israel, with diversity and strong religious faith. In contrast, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, was seen as less spiritual and less pure, a diverse place, significant but not exactly faithful. There were many non-Jews in the city and many people who followed other religions. There was a series of bad things that happened in the area, defeats and disasters, that lead people to think this place and its ways of life were not pleasing to the Lord. The areas immediately around them were taken over by the Assyrians who established their own cities there. This was not a place where light was expected to shine, if God were to visit the world, this would not be the first stop. (Centuries later, we learn, Jesus the messiah, would be born in an unexpected place, a barn in Bethelelm, to a poor, unknown family)
People who try to see the Old Testament outside of a Christian context suggest that the hero figure in this reading, the wonderful counselor and prince of peace refers to King Hezekiah, one of the great leaders of Israel, with a long, faithful and successful reign. King Hezekiah, as much as he did, unlikely but may be called wonderful counselor or prince of peace, but would definitely not be called “mighty God or everlasting father.
When a passage starts with the word “but” or “nevertheless”, it’s probably important to read the verses before it. In Isaiah 8, we learn what the darkness is that had covered the land, blinding the people and sending them to seek help in all the wrong places. Isaiah 9 is talking about a very specific type of Darkness. The people were not so happy with God’s answers or speed and they were seeking guidance and advice from other places, namely some types of divination (psychic things like reading tea leaves, cards and communicating with the dead). They did not even realize they were in darkness.
In Isaiah 8, we hear Now if people say to you, “Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, for teaching and for instruction?” surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn! They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.
The contrast between darkness and light is a familiar theme in the bible. We see it here with the prophets and we will see it throughout John’s Gospel when we start that book in a few weeks. Darkness means things that are hidden and uncertain, things that make us anxious. Once the promised person comes, divination, guessing and all that will no longer be necessary, once the wonderful counselor comes, he will make God’s plan known.
While the Prophet Isaiah is writing about a very specific issue, today, we have dug out all kinds of new caves, places of darkness, places where people go unnoticed, where people are crying out for someone to see them. Today, we have people in economic, digital, drug induced and social darkness. We have a opioid crisis, we have online bullying, mass shootings, individual shootings, a lot of people in prison, a lot of inequality, a lot of racism, a lot of people left out or ignored, a lot of doubts, of each other and religion and everything else.
Against this, we have a promise 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. One of the most aggravating experiences I have is when people say “you don’t understand, you don’t get it, you have not been there. It bothers me partially because it’s annoying to hear but mostly because it’s true. I glance by most of this darkness, offering a word of prayer or time of listening but not much else. We have to stop trying to be the light and let ourselves see the light. Today, we see the light in the midst of the darkness, the place where it shines the brightest.
The next time you send a Christmas card, saying The light has shined in the darkness, a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, remember it might be going to someone desperate to hear that news.