A Great Light
Formations: December 3, 2017
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 1:26-33
When people are desperate for hope they often gravitate to any person who seems to promise what they want. Political campaigns are a prime example of expectations shaped by desperation and frustration. Our study compares and contrasts two biblical texts about the same redemption of God event, but positioned in a different context.
Isaiah speaks of God’s ultimate promise of redemption before Israel’s collapse when the pagan armies of Babylon invaded. The glory days of David and his son, Solomon, are over. The monarchy, house of David, has been replaced by the division of the kingdom and a series of kings who not only ignored God but also introduced pagan gods to Israel. The text is from what scholars call First Isaiah (chapters 1-39), where the prophet views the king of Israel as chosen by God to lead the people back to God. Isaiah was most likely speaking of King Hezekiah who was about to ascend to the throne. Isaiah used powerful images to encourage the people: “on those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned”…”you have made the nation great” (Isaiah 9:2); “they rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice” (9:3); “every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned” (9:5).
This particular text does not address the suffering of Israel as the result of their sins, but reminds them that God, not the people, will accomplish this reversal. How easy it is to forget our responsibilities while expecting God to serve and rescue us! Isaiah never promised deliverance by God just because Israel was “chosen.” Instead, like all the prophets, he called for repentance and a return to God if anything was to change.
The remarkable promise of deliverance Isaiah describes reaches far beyond their current roll call of kings to a “king” who is “a child born to us, a son given to us, and authority that will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). There was, under Hezekiah, a brief period of hope, but the old pattern of idolatry and immorality quickly returned. Still, Israel held on to God’s promise of hope coming through the lineage of David. After all, did God not choose the kings? Can God’s ultimate expression of love and grace be fulfilled in a political position of authority?
Listen carefully to Isaiah’s description of this promised king: “There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom, establishing and sustaining it with justice and righteousness now and forever. The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this” (9:7). Was God’s promise to King David an eternal earthly throne: “your house and kingdom will endure forever before me, your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 17:16), or the greater promise that God’s eternal kingdom will come into our world through the descendant of David through Mary and Joseph?
Luke answers that question with the beautiful and unanticipated birth of Jesus in the city of David. Long after Isaiah’s declaration of hope, the prophecy becomes a reality in a way no one had envisioned, least of all Mary or Joseph. Politics, armies, religious formulas are all tossed aside as the angel Gabriel appears to a young woman of no measurable significance who is chosen by God to bring ultimate hope to Israel and all humanity. Mary was undone by the appearance of Gabriel and his message: “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:30). Mary was confused, but the heavenly messenger continued: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great … called the Son of the Most High … the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father” (1:31-32). This follows the clear promise reaching beyond any human scheme or claim: “He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom” (1:33). Obviously this is no political kingdom, no religious dictatorship, but the unique coming of God to join us in human flesh. The history of Abraham, the saga of Israel, the Law and the prophets have filled out the incomparable way God has continuously met us in this world until God ultimately became one with us.
There is a clear comparison between the tragic judgment and exile of Israel in Isaiah’s day and the spiritual emptiness of our day. We still think the answer to our need is a political leader and military plan. The hope of the human soul does not ride on a nuclear warhead, our problems cannot be solved with a party platform, nor will spiritual wholeness come through the ballot box. There must be a change of heart, a mind and body entrusted to God, a life committed to the loving and forgiving God who can make all things new.
All that sounds so rosy and improbable, but when you observe Jesus’ living, his words of incredible wisdom and love, his surrender to the cross and his resurrection, you have witnessed true hope. Isaiah saw hope beyond his day. Mary saw hope beyond her imagination. As we approach the celebration of Jesus’ birth may you see the true wonder and power of that seemingly ordinary baby born in Bethlehem. May the light of Jesus shine in you and your world.
Retired after almost 50 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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