Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 22, 2023
Isaiah 9:1-4 Commentary
The Common Lectionary’s choice to cut off this reading at verse 4 feels artificial. It’s like asking someone to break off singing midway through verse 2 of “Joy to the World.” It doesn’t work. You both want to finish the song and anyway you hear the song finish up in your head even if you do cut off the music and the singing prematurely. It’s like the old “Shave-and-a-Haircut” bit: if I knock out the first 5 notes, you finish it in your mind with the last two (“Two bits!!!”) whether I do it for you or not. (In the comic film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it is alleged that cartoon characters, or Toons, cannot resist finishing off the old “Shave and a haircut” bit and so if you want to know if there is a Toon lurking about, just knock out those first 5 notes and the Toon will burst out of wherever he or she is to finish it off!)
So also with Isaiah 9: we can stop at verse 4 but our hearts race to verses 6-7 anyway: “For unto us a child is born . . .” So even though I will try to confine my remarks here to the Lectionary reading proper, we know where this is headed and cannot ignore it.
Isaiah 9 begins in the dark. Isaiah paints a grim portrait in the preceding chapters and in the opening verses of this ninth chapter. The people have been living in the dark. They have been dwelling in the chilly shadow of death itself. Worse, he tells us in verse 4 that the people have been afflicted by a burdensome yoke, a kind of heavy bar across their shoulders even as they get driven forward under the stinging blows of an oppressor’s rod and whip. The images here are awful. Isaiah goes on in verse 5 to talk about warrior’s boots, about garments rolled in blood, and we can presume that this is the shed blood of the people who are being oppressed and enslaved.
Of course, historically Isaiah was referring to the exile experience of the people of Judah during the seventh century B.C. But metaphorically this could just as well stand as a description for humanity’s larger enslavement to sin and evil. At any given moment, you can locate people who are literally suffering under an oppressive regime somewhere. Think of the genocide in the Sudan and Darfur. Think back to the slaughter that took place in Rwanda in the 1990s as well as the dreadful violence that gripped Sierra Leone. Think of the Jews marching to Nazi gas chambers in World War II’s Holocaust or Native Americans on this continent suffering and dying on the Trail of Tears. Think of the situation today in Ukraine or any situation of war and suffering and loss of innocent life.
But we all know that there are more ways than one to suffer from burdens that oppress our hearts and minds and spirits. Even we modern-day Americans are an oppressed people when you think about it. We live in the freest society on earth and millions of us are also very comfortable in terms of income, lifestyle, and the like. Yet in some ways we are also a mess. It’s astonishing sometimes to realize how many millions and millions of us are on daily medications. We have hundreds of possibilities for ways to treat aches and pains, to lift our moods, to control our high blood pressure, to relax our frayed nerves, to enhance even our sexuality.
We are a driven people. You can’t get out of the grocery store anymore without being assaulted and assailed in the checkout aisle by a dozen or so different magazines, every one of which features women and men whose bodies and sculpted good looks proclaim what the goal of our lives should be physically. But since these same magazines featuring all those skinny women and handsome men are usually situated right next to the Snickers bars and M&Ms, you get the funny feeling that someone out there is conspiring to make you despair!
Seldom before in history has there been such a systematic effort on the part of manufacturers and advertisers to keep us feeling inferior. Some years ago the news was abuzz with the story of a mother and father whose high school graduation gift to their daughter was a gift certificate to have plastic surgery for breast augmentation. Even in the most private areas of our bodies we are being told day and night that we may very well be lacking and so need to buy something or do something to fix it.
All of this cultural silliness seems trivial compared to the Sudan or the Holocaust. Yet there is a connection somehow, too. There is just something about the nature of this world that keeps us in bondage one way or another.
In the New Testament the apostle Paul often talks about the “powers and principalities” of this age. We often slide past that kind of talk. We’re not sure what to make of such rhetoric for one thing, but perhaps we are a little scared off by it, too. We don’t always like to entertain the notion that maybe we and our world are in the cross-hairs of real powers, truly evil forces that are out to work woe in our hearts and lives. Probably for that very reason we prefer the Luke 2 version of the Christmas story to the far more startling version we get in Revelation 12.
AS Philip Yancey once pointed out, in Revelation 12 Satan, in the form of a dragon, plays the role of a kind of grim OB-GYN just waiting for Mary to give birth to God’s Son so that he can devour the infant before he draws his first breath. But at the last second, the moment the child is born, he gets whisked safely away and so the dragon snaps its jaws around empty air. He is then hurled down to the earth where he is down but not out–before his final defeat, this demonic dragon would still have some kicks. That is what lies behind the New Testament talk about our spiritual warfare with the powers and principalities of the age.
When and where the devil can oppress people in violent, dreadful ways, he will do so. But the devil has always been flexible, has always been a world-class opportunist. If he can’t oppress us in one way, he will find another. Maybe we need to sense such wicked designs on our lives, therefore, even in our society’s greedy drive to consume more and more of what this life has to offer even as at the same time we are driven forward to feel better, look better, and perform better than maybe anyone has a right to expect of him- or herself.
That’s why we need the Child to whom Isaiah 9 points. That’s why we cannot stop in verse 4. What is needed to lift the darkness, what is necessary to have a light dawn on those of us who live in the valley of the shadow of no less than Death itself is the Prince of Peace, the Mighty God who epiphanied in this world to make all things—all things—new.
Make no mistake: the yoke of oppression that needs lifting (verse 4) is still with us and it has a thousand different forms. It vandalizes shalom (in Neal Plantinga’s phrase). It wrecks human flourishing in God’s good creation. And it simply must stop. The yoke must be broken, the bar of slavery lifted and shattered. That’s a tall order.
And that’s why God sent the One who is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
If you are a devotee of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, then you know that in Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle Earth, there is a threat arising in the east as the dark Lord Sauron attempts to find the one ring of power. If that ring, forged long ago in the fires of Mount Doom, returns to Sauron, all will be lost and evil will rule the world. Again and again in Tolkien’s story, that threat is depicted as a creeping shadow. As Sauron’s power increases, darkness begins to fall over one section of Middle Earth after the next. And as the hobbits and other characters repeatedly say to one another, if Sauron finds the ring, then the entire world will fall into shadow. All that is good and green will cease to grow. Trees will die, grassy meadows will be burnt over, clouds will gather, and the sun will no longer shine. Indeed, the inscription on the one ring says it all: “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
In the beginning God’s first order of creation business was to create light. According to Genesis, God did not create the sun first, nor the stars, nor any proximate source of light, but he created just light. Pure, radiant light. It is one of several features of Genesis 1 that accords quite well with the widely accepted scientific theory of the Big Bang. Whatever else the Big Bang was, it was most assuredly one gargantuan burst of light.
The cosmos began in the light. The universe was born when into the deep darkness of the primordial abyss, light flashed. And from God’s first light came, eventually, life. Indeed, Genesis tells us that God made humankind from the dust of the earth, and science tells a similar story. Near as we can tell, after that first burst of cosmic radiance, eventually stars were born. They blazed their light into space but eventually died out. And from the ashes of those dead stars was created the very stuff of life itself: carbon. God created us out of the dust of long-dead stars. Something of their radiance has passed into our very life. We are stardust beings, created by God to bear our own kind of brilliance as he fashioned us in the divine image.
In the beginning there was light. And almost from the beginning, evil and sin and all things unholy have been depicted as darkness. To this day people describe depression as rather like slipping into a dark hole. Author William Styron once told his own tale of battling depression in his memoir titled, Darkness Visible.
In fact, in recent decades psychologists have discerned a link between a lack of light and depression. Some of the most melancholy people in the world live in the northern reaches of places like Finland and Norway where, during many months of the year, sunlight is restricted to a few scant hours per day. Even in other parts of the world something called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or “SAD” for short, has been discovered in people who drive to work in the morning darkness of winter, labor all day in a windowless office or factory, only to drive back home in the evening darkness. But when people go without natural light long enough, something goes awry and they begin to slip into depression. For some, a most striking remedy has been prescribed: light therapy. By exposing some depressed people for a few hours every week to sun-like light, doctors have been able to lift the fog of depression.
We were created in the light, from the light, and we still need light.
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