Monday, December 8, 2014

"Turning on the Lights" (Isaiah 9:1-7)

The first sentence of this passage is really like a heading. The lights are being turned on!!
What was the prophet Isaiah thinking? What did the prophet see? What was the prophet expecting? There will be hope, because God will respond to the people’s need! Isaiah is looking for (and indeed expecting) a turnaround! Where there is currently gloom for many, things will become brighter.

People want light in their lives, as can be seen by the publicity for the lighting up of Ireland Street and the new LED Christmas tree this Thursday night.

As we light advent candles, and put up street lights, and even in some cases adorn our homes with special coloured lights, we are saying that things at Christmas are being made brighter.

Had not the compassionate God responded when the people of Israel were under bondage in Egypt? Yes, they were liberated into freedom in a “spacious and fertile land”. But human beings being human beings … would this be enough!?! No, people still found their way back into trouble. So God repeatedly acted out of compassion and faithfulness to his promises; and this, despite his love often being thrown right back in his face. Why? The psalmist King David explained why: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (24:1). We have so much to appreciate about God!

The year is around 734 BC. What will God do this time, in the time of Isaiah, some seven centuries before Jesus, with his people under the power of Assyria? The northern and southern kingdoms of Israel were divided, being ruled by separate kings. The north was being threatened by the military might of Assyria. According to the prophet, this was because, even though they were prosperous, they had taken their eyes off God, leading to all sorts of superstitious practices, social corruptions and economic injustices – such disintegration leaving them as ‘sitting ducks’. In a similar situation, the south was unsure whether to align themselves again with the north, or throw themselves in with Assyria (come what may). There certainly was confused thinking here! These peoples faced complete ruin – loss of life and land, exile, and loss of spiritual connections.

Under such conditions, Isaiah believed that God, who could only take so much of this, would raise up a new king, one who would unite the people under God’s reign. This is the necessary outcome – this is what is required. Isaiah is so confident of this, so assured that God will act, that he writes these words in the past tense as if it has already happened; and then says, “The zeal [i.e. passionate commitment] of the Lord of hosts will do this” (v.7). God will not allow people to endlessly dwell in despair and “darkness” without providing some source of “light”. Perhaps this would be Hezekiah, the son of the current king in the south, or perhaps another future king that would come in the line of David.

Isaiah, one of the greatest and most recorded prophets, was able to interpret God’s ways, and think God’s thoughts, and speak God’s message. Isaiah also well understood the problems of the society he lived in, and the root causes of this situation. When people eliminate God and defer to their own agendas, then we see all sorts of quests for personal power.

Isaiah was actually looking toward more permanent change (so that the people would not simply float from one disaster to the next as they had been).

The brightness that comes at Christmas is not meant to fade away by ‘Boxing Day’, or by the 2nd of January, but rather last forever. What sort of happening will make a real difference? What will God ultimately do, when generation after generation of God’s people continue to rebel despite so much evidence of his love? Isaiah in effect asks, ‘If God was to act in the best way imaginable – what would this look like’? This prophet had faith that God would act again, and act in a remarkable way. Isaiah understood who God was … God would try again (just like the father in the prodigal son story) to reconnect and rebuild relationship with his beloved children.

Isaiah was correct in his understanding of God, yet these words would NOT be ultimately fulfilled for another seven centuries. Good and bad kings came and went, but no-one who lived up to the described and desired one here. Actually, no purely human leader was going to be able to pull this off. So, when would the damage of a “former time” be truly repaired? Not until … Jesus! Isaiah’s vision projects further forward to that ultimate of Godly responses to human need. And Jesus would physically walk “the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (v.1) – and bring the good news of God’s love and mercy to not only Jews, but to Gentiles as well. Isaiah’s words transcend the realities of his own time into another time; and then into all time!

Isaiah speaks into his nation’s current dilemma, longing for a national king who would act like he describes. Yet, the king that God sends to complete the task is not a political king who reigns over a particular nation, but necessarily a Servant King who leads a spiritual kingdom. This will be the path to a complete turnaround in human affairs. We should note that Jesus did not express his ‘kingship from on high, but rather as a ‘suffering servant’ dwelling in the midst of the people … in the press of the crowds, in a fishing boat, in a leper colony, amongst the blind, lame and demon-possessed, having his feet washed by a prostitute, dining in a tax collector’s house with the rejected, hanging from a cross.

Can we present a view of Christmas that will really brighten people’s lives? Those walking in darkness seeing a great light! People living under anxiety finding joy! People living under severe economic difficulties receiving help! The selfishness of the past gives way to a more equal and generous distribution of resources. The weight of the burdens and baggage pulling people down is relieved! The conflicts that depreciate our lives come to an end! Violence becomes a thing of the past. These are the signs of a new reality. Life can be celebrated again. This is Isaiah’s vision of Christmas. We can, if we want to, join in with this radical vision of Christmas.

The people of Israel had problems! The Egyptians, now the Assyrians, then later the Babylonians. But what was their real problem? Largely, their lack of integrity in the face of any challenge!

People at the time of Jesus had a problem. The Romans! But their problem too went deeper than what the Romans could dish out. They had deep unmet spiritual need!

People in today’s world have a problem or two. There is violence and conflict. Any violence and conflict has it origin deeply within the human heart. There is resultant poverty and injustice. There is also unhappiness and addiction. This is where we need to be touched. Where the bitterness and regret dwells! Where selfishness has taken root! Where there is darkness!

Isaiah had a vision of the sort of king we needed. And this turn-around of which the opening sentence speaks, is more than a recovery – it’s more like a new start. This new start brings with it God’s presence, God’s power, God’s love and God’s peace.

This king, known from his childhood, to be the Saviour of his people, is described in four ways. To say “he is named”, is to describe who he is, or to sum up his character. We then reflect on how these attributes are a gift to us. We can focus on what these words/names/character traits can mean for us.

A “Wonderful Counsellor” – literally “a wonder of a counsellor” – rather than living in the dark, we will be given insight, clarity, perspective, understanding, wisdom. So where we might have acted in one way (and not the best way), we would now act in a different way! If we act out of a compassionate and generous heart, this would bring a very different result than acting out of a selfish heart. With the “wonder of a counsellor” by our side, we can prayerfully grow into better decision-makers. Any counsellor worth his or her salt sits patiently with another and listens carefully, providing gentle feedback and sensitive support to help them move forward. The “Wonder of all Counsellors” can go further and share the burdens and calm any fears. This should be very good news for any human spirits caught in dark, confused, angry places, such that they can hardly function.

Jesus is not only human born of a woman but also “Mighty God”. This is the crux of the Gospel. God himself entered personhood to save us. In the end, God would have to deal with the human sin problem (that leads to all other problems) in a very personal way. Being “Mighty God” means that, there is all the power necessary for our re-creation. Jesus will perform a mighty act of sacrifice (on behalf of all people); one that God will honour with a subsequent resurrection. In our lives, and in the lives of others, prayers can be answered, and mountains can be moved, and outcomes can radically change.

The next name also connects the Son with the Father – “Everlasting Father”. This speaks of an ongoing loving personal relationship with our creator … here is all the grace, care, provision, encouragement, discipline and nurturing that we could ever need. Any honourable loving father would do anything that their child required to grow well; and always be there when needed. So where we might have felt alone, we now have company. [Those with dented or deficient father images should remember that God is NOT like the negative examples you may have experienced.] When speaking of relationship, we can look at the way Jesus befriended people, all sorts of people, and how he loved them; and also how he grouped his key disciples and travelled closely with them for three years.

And then, in this world of conflict, big scale, and smaller scale relational conflict, Jesus is named “Prince of Peace”. This means an “administrator of peace” – one who makes peace a reality. This should make all the difference, as a lack of peace is what results in people living in perpetual turmoil. Through having our guilt and shame dealt with we start to feel at peace with ourselves and experience peace with God. As this happens, we can be more at peace with others. We are less judgmental, more tolerant, more compassionate; for we are more content in our own skin. Our lives are thus de-complicated and de-stressed. The “Prince of Peace” gives us his peace, and then calls us to be peace-makers. We might still shudder at what we witness in the world and around us, but the solution begins with us, as we embrace the “Prince of Peace”. The “Prince of Peace” breaks any cycle of bitterness and works toward forgiveness and reconciliation. The Gospel of Jesus is about quelling conflict, reconciling people to each other, and bringing a new harmony into various situations.

Verse 7 speaks of “endless peace”, which seems a long way off from where we are at. Especially so, as we see this “endless peace” being established with justice and right living! Isaiah, for his time, saw this “endless peace” in more national and political terms. But when we factor Jesus into this text, we think of an “endless peace” based on an experience of forgiveness and salvation. This “endless peace” happens as the Son’s “authority” grows. So we might say that, as there is a greater experience of salvation amongst the world’s peoples this will lead to the sort of peace envisaged here. This also speaks I think of that eternal peace that we have to look forward to.

And so today, all of Isaiah’s vision is yet to be realised. The full potential of what God has done in Jesus is still to be maximised. It can only be further realised as we allow Jesus, the ultimate King described here, to have full sway in our lives, and as we identify with these aspects of his character. As we turn on the Christmas lights, we can expect a turnaround. We can expect any “gloom” around us to give way to a brighter future. We can expect that other people will also come to meet Jesus, and gradually sense that their “anguish” is being replaced with peace and hope.

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