Isaiah: A Child is Born

sermon on Isaiah 9:1-7

 

“Unto us a child is born.” If I asked you who this is talking about, you would say…? The occasion of remembering this event, then,  is the holiday of…? That sounded like a resoundingly unanimous “Jesus” and “Christmas!”

It’s almost like that standard church joke that the answer to every question must be Jesus. I’d say I’m really into Jesus and can hardly stop talking about the guy, but this does create an interesting conundrum. In this section of Isaiah, there are three spots that reference a little child: in chapter 7, here in chapter 9, and again in chapter 11.

Chapter 7 is used about Jesus. That’s where we pick up the term Immanuel, which means “God-with-us,” and which we reiterate in our creed today. I believe that’s exactly what Jesus came to embody, the sense that God is with us from birth to death, to know your joys and laughter and feasting celebrations, and is with you in sickness and weeping and when you’re left out and suffering injustice. All that about Jesus is quickly summarized by that term Immanuel.

So that Isaiah passage on Immanuel is referenced in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew really likes citations of Old Testament passages. He especially gives us the sense that old writings are fulfilled in Jesus, though again and again we reiterate that these weren’t only waiting for Jesus to be true. He may be a special embodiment of these writings, but we’ll also notice the validity they have apart from him.

At any rate, Matthew picks up Isaiah 7:14 and says, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’” Now, we’re not going to delve today into discussions of how “virgin” might be a mistranslation of what simply was “young woman,” and what that means about Mary and about the birth of Jesus.

Instead, we’ll move on to Isaiah 11, the third of the passages referring to a child. This one isn’t directly connected to Jesus anyplace in our Bibles, even though it’s nice imagery. It includes what’s typically called the Peaceable Kingdom: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and a little child shall lead them. I may be predisposed to like that one, since all the carnivores convert to become vegetarian, but it is also so beautiful as harmony among creation, that this vision of what God intends isn’t only about humans being nice to each other, much less something that happens up on a heavenly cloud, but involves all God’s creatures.

With one child passage, then, used for Jesus and one not, that brings us back to our own reading. This one is also directly applied by the Gospel of Matthew to Jesus, though probably not in the way you’d expect. It isn’t related to his birth. It has nothing to do with Jesus as the child who is born or naming him as the prince of peace.

The verse of our reading that is picked up actually just locates the start of Jesus’ ministry around the lake of Galilee, an explanation from Matthew for why something important would happen in a Podunk place, and it’s even phrased as if Jesus would go there just because he knew the Bible verse from Isaiah. Plus, it’s not so much that the verse is fulfilled from Jesus as that it is fulfilled for the people who happened to live around him, that they are the people who have sat in darkness and the region and shadow of death. They have been hurting and oppressed and left out, and the message is that God was mindful in saving them.

We’ll return to the importance of that, but let’s also pause with the sense of that “unto us a child is born” as a Christmas message in our minds and hearts and as a shape of our faith. That’s not a bad thing, by any means. It can be right and proper to perceive Jesus here. But it wasn’t what Isaiah intended. He wasn’t picturing Jesus, much less shepherds and oxen and a manger. Not that those don’t fit. That’s entirely correlated with the same God, and Jesus was an ideal (or the ideal?) embodiment of Isaiah’s words.

But Isaiah meant a different baby. It may have been Hezekiah, a future king and son of Ahaz. Maybe Isaiah was envisioning that Hezekiah would eventually be a good ruler and would bring different leadership to the nation. But it may just have been Isaiah was trying to turn faith away from military and human decisions and deficiencies and back to God, back to hope.

The war imagery in this reading is first about that. See, the Assyrian Empire were the baddest dudes around and the most ruthless conquerors of antiquity (Heschel, The Prophets p207). The newborn’s father, King Ahaz, was trying to strategize allegiances to avoid brutal defeat. But instead of the force of armed alliances, Isaiah says hope is in God. That is what will end the reign of terror, what will mean the burdensome yoke of submission and oppressive rod of intimidation will be broken, the stomping boots and bloody clothes destroyed and forgotten.

The shape of this hope is portrayed in the little phrase “as on the day of Midian,” referring to a story from the book of Judges (ch6-7). Midian had troops too many to count plundering the crops and impoverishing the people. The prophetic reminder then was that God is a God of liberation, from Exodus to that day and onward. Just as for Isaiah, that message restricts hope to the work of God, as thousands from the Israelite army were sent home and a small crew of 300 soldiers was all that remained, but they scared off the Midianites simply with trumpets and torches.

Isaiah ups the ante by not even having 300 soldiers left, but merely a baby. How will the Assyrian Empire, the most fearsome army ever, be overcome? Well, unto us a child is born! As the foremost author on the prophets, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, tells us:

A gulf was separating prophet and king in their thinking and understanding. What seemed to be a terror to Ahaz was a trifle in Isaiah’s eyes. The king, seeking to come to terms with the greatest power in the world, was ready to abandon religious principles in order to court the emperor’s favor. The prophet who saw history as the stage for God’s work, where kingdoms and empires rise for a time and vanish, perceived a design beyond the mists and shadows of the moment. (p83)

We, of course, proclaim something similar in the birth of Jesus. Just as those titles in Isaiah—wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace—were titles stolen away from foreign rulers, so also when an angel announced “to you is born this day a savior,” it was stealing the title from Caesar Augustus in Rome, who called himself lord and savior and bringer of peace. But no longer could the domineering commander of the largest empire be the one seen to control the fate of the world. Our wellbeing, our hope comes from God alone.

That returns us to today. We’ve said the words of the prophets were first for their own time, secondly applied to Jesus, and, third, continue to be alive for us. We, too, are the people who have walked in darkness and dwelt in the shadow of death. We know tramping warriors and roaring F-16s and nuclear threats. We know the rod of oppressors’ yokes that are debts holding us captive. We know garments that are threadbare with hunger and torn from crawling through barbed wire seeking refuge and bloodied from lack of healthcare, and life is never right with much too much sadness. If you don’t know those things, if you’re not seeing them around you, if you identify with the empire, then you’re ignoring the reality of your siblings, and Isaiah won’t stand for that, either. Our lives, our hurting world, the marginalized and imprisoned and outcast, all nations, the vastness of creation needs release from the terrible oppressive might that would seem to be undefeatable.

We need the hope of God who comes not to destroy the destroyer and cause larger fear, but comes persistently, everlastingly, for peace and joy and love. A God who will be made known and change the world even in the finite fragility of a birth.

Yes, of course, we proclaim that in Jesus. We proclaim that the heart of God, the soul of God, the very identity and image of God’s presence in our world was found in a manger, far from fortress might, homeless and surrounded by stink. That hope proved a different path for peace on earth, and even the threatening injustice that tried to execute and bury that hope could not prevail. Death lost its sting.

But we don’t only look back to Jesus. We continue to see that presence of Jesus and the with-us God now. This passage resonates not only for baby prince Hezekiah or newborn Jesus in a barn. With every birth, Isaiah’s message again and again is true. With the miracle of new life, with precious and tender beauty, within your own families, a child born is the hope that prevails beyond any catastrophe of violence. As the cliché reminds us, having a baby changes everything, including your worldview and sense of the future.

And that sacrament of God’s blessing for us in the vision of youth is with us this morning, as we are reminded the very children here in our midst are a sign of hope, surprising us by continuing to proclaim simply in their existence that death and violence are not what is important or definitive or ultimate, because our light and our exultation, liberation and unstoppable life itself come from God. That’s not just a Christmas message. That’s good news we need any day. So thank you, children, for proclaiming it for us today. Amen

 

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Expectations & Fulfillments

sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent, (Malachi3:1-4; Luke1:68-79, 3:1-6)
Even though in church, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus, if we ask who the main character is for the season of Advent, we’d be hard-pressed not to answer John the Baptist. So today, it seems worthwhile to do a recap of his life, sort of a brief bio as refresher on this important character.

Starting at the start, in the Gospel of Luke his story actually kicks off the whole saga. Luke alone tells a version where John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary are relatives. We’ll hear more about them in two weeks. But the story began with an old couple who had been unable to have children. Now, that should resonate as a standard biblical theme, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). And, in the Bible, we come to expect that infertility of a barren couple will be met by a miracle from God and will come to bear fruit.

Sarah laughed at the thought of the promise, of her old body knowing pleasure. And that sort of hiccup along the way is typical. So in John’s story the first character we meet is an old guy serving in the temple when suddenly the angel Gabriel showed up and told him the good news that he could expect the birth of a son, to be named John. But this old priest named Zechariah had a hiccup, a moment of doubting the promise and wondering how it could be possible. “I’m an old man,” he said, “and my wife is getting on in years.” (Maybe from that kindly finesse we expect good things from Zechariah; after all, he had sense not to refer to his wife as “old.”)

Yet for that cautious doubt, Gabriel said that he’d be unable to talk until the baby was born. So Zechariah left the temple, suddenly speechless, and Gabriel went off to pay a visit to Mary.
Then about nine months later, along came a baby. Zechariah got a chalkboard and wrote that the baby’s name should be John, just as the angel instructed, and instantly his tongue was freed and he let loose the glorious song we sang as our Psalmody, a song of a Savior sent for rescue and deliverance. This father also set high expectations for his newborn baby, singing: “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

With those enormous expectations, it’s surprising how John responded and grew into—or maybe around—them. That’s probably true for us, as well. There are times expectations make us rise to meet a challenge, and also when you’ve instead felt a strong sense of failure, that you let down the expectations. Some of those may have chased after you from your birth. Some you may have evaded, others you may have been a surprise in how you responded and how it turned out.

So perhaps Zechariah thought John would follow in his footsteps to become a priest, serving in the temple, making offerings for sins. But instead, he wound up out in the wilderness. We’re told elsewhere that he dressed like a wild man and ate bugs (Mark 1:6). Not exactly the sort of thing that makes for a proud parent, one would suspect.

Except out there in the wilderness, he was doing something to prepare the way of the Lord. And he became an immensely popular attraction, for whatever that’s worth. We’ll get more on exactly what he said next week, the strange message that is labeled as “good news” even though his first words were to denounce everybody as “you brood of vipers.”

Among those who didn’t take his firm message of repentance all that kindly is the King, Herod. In demanding moral behavior from his ruler, John was met by corruption, by a crooked way not very interested in being made straight. And so he was put in prison and beheaded on an odd, spiteful technicality.

That could have meant the end of his story–from birth to death–but it stretches beyond that framework and timespan.

For starters, Christians have read that John the Baptist was already being foreshadowed in the Old Testament. We have words from the prophet Isaiah applied to him as the voice crying out in the wilderness, making paths straight for the Lord. And our reading from Malachi hints in his direction, too, as a messenger preparing for the Lord who is coming.

But that also begins to highlight some confusions. See Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John would show up before Jesus. It wasn’t simply a future forecast. Malachi was talking for his own time, about 500 years before Jesus and John. He was calling his own people to be ready for God’s arrival, for God’s work in their midst. Again, it’s confusing even whether Malachi is talking about himself or another prophet or some heavenly being. The name “Malachi,” as your bulletins indicate, in Hebrew means “my messenger.” And our word “angel” is also the Greek word for messenger. So are angels from heaven? Are they other humans we listen to? In one Psalm (104:4), even the wind and fire can be God’s messengers.

The next confusing part is how John and Jesus seem to get mixed up. Evidently John was popular and holy enough that he had to keep reiterating that he was not the Messiah, but was just preparing the way for one who was coming after (John 1:20-23). They even seem to get mixed up with each other; Jesus asked to be baptized by John and John wanted to refuse, to have Jesus baptize him instead (Matthew 3:13-14). And when Herod heard about what Jesus was doing, he thought that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised from the dead (Mark 6:16)!

That may not be what we’d expect or where we’d have confusion arise. You may even wonder why I mention it, why I started this sermon in trying to explain, nice and orderly, John’s biography, only to inject topsy-turvy puzzling into the whole thing.

But I do it for several reasons. First, this isn’t a sermon about John the Baptist. Sermons are for you. So this is a reminder that God’s work wasn’t only in some ancient time and place, not just an isolated event. Malachi spoke to his people, a word that we understand as having value still 500 years later, and a message that we continue reading in worship now because we believe it keeps applying and speaking to us. As we turn toward the baptismal font, we expect that Malachi’s image of refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap is active. We expect God is purging you of evil and cleansing you from sin. It’s not just ancient history, but is renewed and freshly powerful for you week-by-week.

The second reason is to realize that it is, indeed, confusing—but also chock full of blessing—that we get mixed up with Jesus and God. Perhaps most often we do it when bad things happen, wondering why God caused or let it happen to us. We identify our misbehavior or the ripples of sin in our world as being partly God’s fault. But it’s also in the good you do. Do you get credit for loving your neighbor? Does all love come from God? Do you do it naturally, almost by faithful instinct?

Tying this together perhaps attunes you to God’s preparations in your life, the ways God is trying to even out what is crooked and to level out your rough spots. This is vital for our expectations of this Advent season, for how God arrives, coming to work in our midst.

The realization that your life is mixed up with Jesus means you aren’t always waiting for someone else. Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John the Baptist would be helpful 500 years later. He was claiming that mantle of proclamation, letting those words of repentance and cleansing speak to himself and to his people. That message of self-examination continues for us. We’ll get more direct reflection on repentance with John the Baptist’s preaching next week, that it is about sacrifice, about changing your way of life, giving up what you think you’re entitled to so others can live better.

This calls to mind, I expect, the silly hoopla this week about thoughts and prayers and lip-service, that this is actually about what you enact, not just outrage or frustration at others; John could have just complained about that long list of rulers at the start of the Gospel reading. Rather, this is about you and how your life is changed.

Again, then, this is a reminder that we aren’t just waiting for some special moment in history, for the arrival of the next special guardian angel or next savior or superhero or next new whatever. It wasn’t when the stars were aligned just so that John the Baptist could be born, or when exactly the right leaders were in power for his message really to resonate. It was simply at his time and place.

We have a perspective that we need new John the Baptists to fit all kinds of circumstances—that another Martin Luther King will help address ongoing racism, that a woman in power will close the gender gap, that some political leader will solve the crisis of our lives. We’d said that Sandy Hook was supposed to be the moment for gun deaths, and we’ve been saying it through tragedy after tragedy since. We said the Holocaust meant never again, yet allow genocide and senseless death to continue escalating. I was reading an article from Bruce this week about waiting for another Yitzhak Rabin to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet we aren’t waiting for the environmental hero to fix the climate crisis with some magic bullet (to use an unfortunately violent metaphor). Neither will somebody show up with ready-made solutions to the ways we struggle to get along with each other. This isn’t about some golden age dawning on the horizon.

This is the age. This is the time. This is the place. This is always the confusing miracle of Advent. We are preparing for Jesus’ arrival in a birth that happened 2000 years ago while simultaneously expecting his arrival in the 2nd Coming, but not as if we’re twiddling our thumbs in the meantime. The paradox is that, even as we recall and even as we wait, still Jesus arrives to be with you now, speaking to you, assuring you of forgiveness and grace, of his compassion for you and from you, of love that continues to be embodied with you, of his presence at this table, filling you with his flesh and blood so that all flesh may see salvation.

You have knowledge of salvation, because your sins are forgiven. You have a savior who works constantly to rescue and deliver our hurting, fractured world. And, though it’s not the full or only story, we must believe that Zechariah’s song of hope and full of expectation finds fulfillment in your life.

Speaking of ancient words continuing to have new use and meaning, our Hymn of the Day is the first hymn I wrote here, way back in 2004.

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