The Miracle Season: Grief & Struggle

Text for Sunday –ISAIAH 9:1-6

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.

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.
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.
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.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
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.
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.

 

Notes on The Text:

This scripture from Isaiah 9 is very familiar to us because it is cited in Handel’s Messiah and is often read as part of the Christmas Eve service as a foretelling of the coming of Jesus. These words have been used by Christians for centuries to describe Jesus as the Messiah. They have captured the imagination of thousands of people about the hope of God’s redemption of the pain and suffering of our world through the gift of a person who would come to lead the people in a new way of life, the way of justice and peace.

These words have spoken to me deeply when I learned about their original context, i.e., the time of the prophet Isaiah and what the people were dealing with. Isaiah was a prophet in ancient Israel who proclaimed his message to Judah and Jerusalem (Southern Kingdom) from 741 to 701 BCE. That was a critical period during which the Northern Kingdom was annexed to the Assyrian empire while the Southern Kingdom of Israel (Judah) lived uneasily in its shadow. Most of the first 39 chapters of Isaiah are attributed to the prophet himself, while the chapters after are attributed to two other writers/prophets who were addressing Israel after the exile and return (around the year 539 BCE).

 

Isaiah’s main concerns are social injustice and the context of occupation. Isaiah was concerned that the people were not being faithful to God in their daily life and they were also threatened by the Assyrians. With the fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians, things looked dim for the people of Israel. In this week’s passage Isaiah both highlights the darkness of the injustice committed by his people and their occupiers and lifts a vision for what is possible. Darkness was a strong metaphor for the experience of the people of Israel at that time. Their land was the land of deep darkness for these conquered people is a land of brutality, a land of poverty and hunger, a land without hope. The people had followed the lure of greed and violence as the ways to find happiness in life. And they were headed on the path of self-destruction. The people of Israel in the South were headed in the same direction as their neighbors in the North because their society was unjust. They were not faithful to God’s commands about equity and care for the poor and vulnerable in society.

 

Yet, somehow through faith Isaiah not only identified the darkness of their time, but he also saw God’s great light transforming their realities. He proclaimed that those who were walking in darkness saw a great light. The hope of the people came from knowing that God did not abandon them but continued to guide them. Even though everyone might have been feeling discouraged and dismayed at the state of affairs, through faith, the prophet was able to see the light of God guiding the people. He proclaimed a message of hope for them about the promise of a new king who would lead them in the ways of righteousness and justice and would fulfill God’s vision of a king. This must have been hard for the people of Israel to hear because their past experience with kings was not all that positive. Their kings controlled and dominated them. They abused power and followed the ways of violence and greed. They had not forgotten the heavy taxation which Solomon imposed on them and the words of Solomon’s son, Jeroboam, “my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” 1 Kings 12:14b. But the prophet does not give up on the potential of a new leader who would live up to God’s expectations, a new Messiah, the anointed one of God who would bring justice to the land. The prophet was not jaded by the results of the past to think that there was no more hope for the future. He spoke words which have inspired his generation and many generations after. The source of the prophet’s hope came from God. The prophet was not speaking a word based on common sense or popular wisdom. The prophet was deeply grounded in God’s presence that he spoke a word that no one would have imagined possible in their time. With all the darkness and pain around them, Isaiah was inspired to speak an incredible vision of hope because he had a personal relationship with God that was deeply intimate. In his call to be a prophet, we hear that he had a vision of God speaking to him and purifying his lips to prepare him for service. Those deep encounters with God, or mystical experiences, were the foundations for his ministry. His prayer life was deeply connected to God and to the circumstance of the people which enabled him to see both the darkness of the situation of the people of Israel and the light of God transforming it.

 

For Reflection:

As we begin the season of Advent, we are invited to ponder the theme of the miracle of hope against the great odds of pain and grief. We ponder the image of light against the backdrop of deep darkness. We reflect on the birth of a new hope for the world where we least expect it. We look at Isaiah’s words to inspire us to see how hope springs forth from the depths of our hearts. Hope is not something that comes to us when the circumstances of life are good. Hope comes when we have been changed on the inside to know that God’s love will sustain us through all of life. Carl Jung wrote that when we look outside of ourselves, we dream. When we look inside, we wake up. When we wake up to the reality of divine love in our hearts, we begin to see life with fresh eyes. The struggles of the world and of our lives don’t become the focus. Instead hope and the new possibilities for life and love become the center of our lives. Instead of focusing on the loss or limitations of life, through hope we can focus on where we are called to make love visible. If you are feeling hopeless about the state of the world or the struggles of your life, remember that hope is something that comes from your inner life where the Spirit of God dwells deeply. Take time this season to be grounded in that source of hope.

 

Prayer for Hope by Joyce Rupp:

God of all those who yearn for a glimmer of assurance on the long journey home to you, come! Come with a vast storehouse of renewed dreams, hopes and peacefulness.

 

God of Hope, come! Enter in my memory and remind me often of the yearning of the people of history. Stir up stories of how the ancestors hung on to your promises, how they stole hope from tiny glimmers about you, passed on from age to age. Help me to hear the loud, crying voices of the prophets who proclaimed that a new age would dawn!

 

God of Hope, come! Enter into this heart of mine which often loses itself in self, missing the message of your encouragement because I am so entangle in the web of my own whirl of life. Enable me to not lose sight of the power of your presence or the truth of your consolation.

 

God of Hope, come! Enter into the lives of those I hold dear, the ones whose lives are marked with pain, struggle, and deep anxiety, those whose lives bear ongoing heartaches, those whose difficulties threaten to overwhelm them with helplessness and despair. Come and gift them with a deep belief about you and your never-ending faithfulness and companionship.

 

God of Hope, come! Enter into every human heart that cries out for a glimpse of your love, for a sigh of your welcoming presence, for a taste of your happiness. Be the one who calms the restless and gentles the aches of the human journey.

 

God of Hope, come! Enter into this Advent season with a grace of joy and laughter. Fill faces with smiles of delight and voices with sounds of pleasure. Let this gift come from deep within. Replenish all with the joyful blessings that only your peace can bring.

 

God of Hope, come! Be the Morning Star in our midst, the Light that can never go out, the Beacon of Hope guiding our way to you. Come into our midst and make of our lives a home, where your everlasting goodness resonates with assuring love and vigorous hope. Amen.

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