1But 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.
2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. 3You 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. 4For 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. 5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For 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. 7His 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.
It was Christmas Eve, and the young couple had waited too long (like so many parents do) to assemble the special Christmas gift they had purchased online for their children. And what a surprise it would be–a three-story, wooden treehouse and playground set for the backyard. Still, the young husband and wife were determined to get it all put together before Christmas morning, so they worked late into the night, carefully following the instructions.
Sometime just after midnight, they realized that the treehouse did not, in fact, very much resemble a treehouse. But still they plodded on, hoping against hope that all would turn out right in the end. It was in the wee hours of the morning when they finally realized that there must have been a mix-up at the warehouse, and that what they had actually assembled was a large wooden sailboat.
A few days after this Christmas fiasco, the frustrated couple wrote a letter to the company to complain about the mistake, and a few weeks after that, they received the following reply: “Dear Mr. and Mrs. so and so — while we truly regret the inconvenience this mistake must have caused you and your children, we ask that you please put things in perspective, and rest assured that yours is only a minor inconvenience, when compared to that of the poor soul who is out on a lake somewhere valiantly trying to sail your treehouse.”
Tonight’s sermon is entitled, “Mistaking the Gift” and it’s something I think we do a lot of around this time of year.
When I was about ten years old, I had the unfortunate habit of rummaging through the attic around Christmas time, because I knew that’s where my parents liked to hide our Christmas presents. One year, I found a toy robot in the attic, and naturally assumed it was for me–even though it wasn’t something that had been on my Christmas wish list that year. I mentioned to my parents that I wanted a toy robot, and they reminded me that I already one–a really expensive, high-tech, programmable one that I had received just a few years ago (the one in the attic, by comparison, was pretty cheap, and mostly just beeped and spun around in circles). But I was resolute. I wanted that robot. It had to be mine. In some strange way, I thought I was doing my parents a favor by registering my strong desire for something they had already gotten me.
So you can imagine my surprise on Christmas morning when one of my younger brothers unwrapped a gift to find…my robot…which had never really been intended for me in the first place…which I had never *really* wanted in the first place… But after all those weeks of anticipating it, I had become convinced that my life would never be complete without it, and so I sulked and pouted for the rest of the day, and none of the dozens of other presents I got that year (which I had actually asked for, and actually wanted) could possibly be good enough. And I was absolutely furious with my little brother, who, ironically, actually *had* asked for the robot, and probably the only reason he wanted it was to be like his big brother, who already had one.
How easy it is to mistake the gift; to confuse what we already have for what we think we want. How easy it is to miss all the clues and context and so confuse what’s meant for us, and what has always been meant for another.
Today’s scripture reading from Isaiah is a familiar one to us: We read it every year around Christmas. This time of year we especially like verses 6 and 7:
“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.”
A child has been born to us. Naturally, we assume, this must be talking about Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. But remember, this passage comes in Isaiah, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, and it was written 700 years before the time of Christ. Is it a prophecy? Perhaps. But it also made perfect sense in the time in which it was written.
It was a dark time for the people of northern Israel–the Zebulun, Naphtali, and Galilee mentioned in the first verse of Isaiah chapter nine. Their once-proud country had been overrun and conquered by the Assyrians. Verse 5 mentions “the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood.” These were a reality for Israelites in the 8th century BCE. Some of them were carted away as slaves, but thousands of them fled south, to the city of Jerusalem in the tiny kingdom of Judah, also a Hebrew nation like theirs.
They likely traveled on foot, hence the line “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness (northern Israel)– on them light has shined. That light was the light of protection and freedom in Jerusalem, their new home. This great influx of refugees took the tiny city of Jerusalem from a population of under 1,000 to over 15,000 in just a few years. This is reflected in verse 3: “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy.”
In America today, some people see an influx of refugees as a bad thing. In Jerusalem it was an unquestioned positive. It meant a larger tax base, more soldiers for the army, more skilled labor, and more power and prestige in general for a once-tiny nation. However, in the ancient world, all the stability and protection of a nation were closely tied to the existence of its King, and (more importantly) to the existence of the King’s line of succession, or sons.
Sometime around the year 640 BCE, that succession was in jeopardy. King Manasseh, a direct descendant of King David, and the longest reigning king in Judah’s history, the king who had overseen Jerusalem’s greatest period of expansion and peace, had died. His son, Amon, was so unpopular that he was assassinated by his own servants just two years into his reign. Hopes were not high for the future of the house of David.
The lone remaining heir to the throne of Jerusalem was an eight-year-old boy, Amon’s only son, Josiah. It was on this child that all the hopes of the Hebrew people rested.
Several biblical scholars have speculated that Josiah is the child of whom Isaiah is speaking when he says: “A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders . . . His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
These hopes were not unfounded. King Josiah would reign for 31 years, reforming the laws of Judah and establishing the worship of YAHWEH among the people. Of him, the Bible says in 2 Kings: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might . . . nor did any like him arise after him.” That’s the highest praise given to any king in the Bible, including David and Solomon.
And yet…just when those hopes were at their highest, just when Josiah was putting in place a plan to reunite the lands of northern Israel with Judah as one kingdom under God, he was confronted on the plains of Megiddo (or Armageddon) by the Pharaoh of Egypt, and killed. Josiah was, effectively, the last King of an independent Jerusalem, and with his death, the royal line of King David effectively came to an end. All the dreams for the restoration of Israel, all the promises for endless peace died with King Josiah, and the Hebrew people entered into a time of great darkness once more.
But then something truly amazing happened. Instead of abandoning those promises, instead of abandoning hope, some of the Hebrew people decided that they had simply been mistaken about the nature of the gift. Perhaps all of the promises were true, but Josiah was not the one God intended to carry them out. Perhaps God’s anointed King–in Hebrew, מָשִׁיחַ (messiah)–was still yet to come. And so they carried this hope, this light, with them through the darkness of defeat and exile, for hundreds of years.
When the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, a distant descendant of David, Zerubbabel, helped to rebuild the walls and the temple. There was hope that perhaps he was the long-awaited savior of Israel. But Zerubbabel disappears from the story of Israel as quickly as he arrives.
In the 2nd Century BCE, when Jerusalem was occupied by the forces of Alexander the Great, Judas Maccabeus led a successful revolt that temporarily restored the independence of Jerusalem and the worship of YAHWEH in the temple. But when Judas Maccabeus fell in battle, once again the hope for a messiah was pushed forward into the future.
In the first century AD, many would-be messiahs arose, this time with the hope and promise of deliverance from the Roman Empire. One of them was Jesus of Nazareth. His earliest followers saw in him (and in his birth story) that ancient promise that “a child has been born for us, a son given to us; and the government rests upon his shoulders.”
But like the followers of King Josiah, and Zerubbabel, and Judas Maccabeus, they too, were ultimately confronted with the death of their savior at the hands of their enemies. The government never came to rest on his shoulders, and peace remained elusive. But they too, made the crucial decision not to abandon hope, not to abandon God’s promises. They too, came to the conclusion that they had mistaken the gift: The messiah was not going to be an earthly ruler or king, but rather a heavenly king. They believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that he would come again in the future to make all things right.
Since this is what we believe as well, you’d think we would have finally learned not to mistake the gift, or the nature of the gift. But still, today, in the year 2016, we place our hope for salvation in our earthly kings and leaders.
As you may recall, 2016 was an election year. According to more or less half of the people in our country (and their preferred presidential candidate), we have been living in a time of great darkness, but now that he has been elected, we will come into the great light of hope for our future. And according to roughly the other half of the people in America, their candidate was the great hope and light for our future, but since she was defeated, we have now entered into a time of great darkness.
I’m not convinced that either of those opinions is correct. I think we are still mistaking the gift.
I believe that we have always lived in times of darkness. But as God’s people, we have always carried among us a great light. That light is our ability to find hope in hopeless situations, to keep faith in God when all that we thought we knew about God’s gifts and God’s promises is turned upside down on its head.
That light is our ability to rebuild and reform the sacred temples of our faith in every generation.
That light is our ability to work for peace when we are surrounded on all sides by war.
That light is our ability to look at the child of a poor carpenter and his wife, lying in a borrowed manger surrounded by livestock and lowly shepherds… and to see in that baby nothing less than the Son of God.
That light is our ability to look at the least among us–the poor, the weak, the refugees, the outcasts–and see the faces of God’s beloved children.
That’s what the child in the manger taught us to do. That’s the gift. That’s the light.
May we never mistake it. And may we continue to shine in the darkness, until the whole world walks in the light.