Isaiah 9: 1-4
It was only a month ago that we heard these same promises. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2a). It was Christmas Eve, the fall semester and all its darkness blissfully behind, finally resting – sleeping! – back with friends from home and family. The light of Christ’s birth and entry into the world becoming brighter with all four Advent candles blazing and the white Christ candle about to shine.
It was only a month ago that you may have been thinking, “Aaaah, a whole month with no classes, no papers, no labs, no work. I get to decide what to do and I can sleep ‘til noon.” Maybe you had plans for the novels you would read over break. Maybe you were going to get ahead on the summer job search. Maybe you had a list of friends you wanted to get together with over the break. Maybe you had no plans, secure in the sense that, for once, you didn’t need any. The future spread out promisingly, non-threateningly, full of possibilities.
That month went quickly, didn’t it?
After only 3 days of class this week, you may be trying hard to remember that Christmas Eve feeling. It may already take real effort to recall how light you felt in the space between semesters, how promising and hopeful spring semester seemed back then. Well, here we are.
Here we are at the start of a new semester and many of you are already weighed down in assignments. Here we are, back together again worshipping at Wesley, trying to call up those Christmas Eve end-of-semester feelings. Here we are, in less desperate – but still personally quite compelling — circumstances than the people for whom Isaiah wrote. Like them, we need reminding every now and again that God has come through for us before and, because of this, we can count on God coming through again.
Isaiah is one of the prophets in the Bible. Actually, there were several writers over a long period of time, all writing under the name “Isaiah” but we refer to them all as Isaiah, that voice that speaks through the entire book as we now have it.
Some people think of prophets as cranks who can’t think of something nice to say, half-crazed weirdos who shout at others who are minding their own business. People like that are probably shouting out things they think or hope will come true. But the problem with this version of the prophet is that those people aren’t listening – they get stuck on the locusts and hairshirts.
In the biblical tradition, we know prophets as people who watch and listen. Obviously, they have something to say and to people walking in darkness the words of the prophets may sometimes sound like half-crazed ranting. But what prophets like Isaiah are really about is helping people see and understand what’s happening – no matter how gloomy, scary, or hopeless it seems – in the light of God’s promises.
Don’t hear that as vague, pie-in-the-sky promises that have nothing to do with the trouble right here. No. Prophets make a practice of observation, remembering, and reminding. They remind the rest of us that God has delivered us safely before and that we can trust that experience and, because of that, we can trust that God will do it again.
Remember how relieved you were by Christmas Eve, unshackled from the fall semester at last? Remember how God went with you all semester long and gathered you up like a bird in her wings at the end of the semester? Remember how it all worked out? Well, then, remember it! Remember it and know that God will do it again – God is doing it again.
Prophets remind us of the real story and how it really turned out. They catch the echoes of our past conversations and experiences with God, then cast those out into the future to help form a vision we can trust.
The passage of Isaiah we read tonight likely comes from the 8th century BCE, written originally for the birth of a specific king in Judah, the southern kingdom. Later, as the community continued to read it and incorporate these words and images into their life together and their relationship with God, it was probably used to refer to and celebrate the birth of other kings. Later still, the Jewish community began to associate these words with the coming of a messiah. Even later, the early Christians, still reading these prophetic words, understood them as promises about Jesus. Last month we heard these words refer to and celebrate the birth of Jesus (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol.VI, p. 124).
Isaiah says that even in the war-torn lands of Zebulun and Naphtali something glorious will happen. And we hear that promise echo in Matthew, who describes Jesus starting out his ministry by heading straight into Zebulun and Naphtali. Jesus starts in the darkness. And when he gets there, he quotes this passage from Isaiah, light shining in the darkest places, promises ringing true. He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4: 13-17).
“Repent” means “turn around.” Turn in another direction. Turn from what you’ve been doing to what God wants from you. Repent. Turn around because God’s already been right there with you, the kingdom of God so near to you already. Turn around and remember. Listen again to what God’s done for you.
We come from a family with a long, rich tradition and multi-layered experiences with God. Prophets want us to hear all those echoes, bouncing from one reading and community to the next, through time, to our own predicaments and hopes. Those echoes – reminders of God’s earlier promises fulfilled – cast the visions that kept our family headed toward God, even when the way was unclear.
It’s sort of like saying,”Remember what you see in front of you.” At first it seems paradoxical: how can I remember something that is yet to happen? But our experience with the God of kept promises tells us we can. When the way is uncertain, we remember that God has always been faithful to us. We hear and see those experiences again and project them on that screen up ahead, to guide us through the darkness. It could be pitch black out – it could be 3 days into the semester and it feels like 30 – but there will be light. We can always count on that.
Thanks be to God!