[Listen or watch the sermon on Isaiah 9 here.]
Isaiah spoke into a world analogous to our own, one soaked in darkness.
When night descended upon Judah, people saw only “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish” (Isaiah 8:22). Uncertain of where to turn, people sought guidance in all the wrong places, including false gods, the dead, and their political leaders (Isaiah 8:19-2o). Overwhelmed by the darkness, people look to anyone or anything for light and hope.
Judah had been thrust into the middle of war when their northern kinsmen (Israel) joined with Syria to try to force Judah into an alliance against Assyria. Judah, however, appealed to Assyria to stave off their invasion. War ensued, and darkness descended upon the land.
Ultimately, Israel, the northern kingdom, caught the brunt of this war when Assyria annexed “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” in the “Galilee of the nations.” Exile, which would later envelop all Israel (by Assyria) and Judah (by Babylon), came to Galilee first.
Darkness enveloped Galilee, and it still envelopes much of the world. Recent weeks have seen the rise terror and violence with a greater rise in fear and anxiety. Suspicion reigns, and violence–already so prevalent in so many ways in the United States–continues to erupt across the goble. Darkness surrounds us, just as it did ancient Israel and Judah.
In the biblical theodrama (the story of God), darkness precedes light. In the beginning the Spirit of God hovered over the waters covered in darkness, but then God said, “Let there be light.” Following this pattern, God has continuously injected light into the darkness. Israel itself, as a nation, was intended to be light within the darkness, which engulfed the nations. And in war-torn Israel and Judah in the 730s BCE, when the land was soaked in “deep darkness” and the people “walked in darkness,” they saw a “great light.”
Isaiah heralds a time when this “great light” would dawn on the “way of the sea,” which ran through Galilee. With this light, the nation would multiply and rejoice as if celebrating a great harvest. With this light, the rod of oppression would be lifted and all military gear would be burned as fuel for fires. The land would be filled with great joy and light while oppression and war would no longer exist.
The turning point is the birth of a child. Light dawns with a birth announcement. The fortunes of Israel and Judah, as well as the whole earth, will turn on the birth of this child. This birth announces hope!
Isaiah 9:6 announces the birth of a new king who is invested with the authority of the throne of David, and the child is given royal names similar to Ancient Near Eastern kings..
- Wonderful Counselor — a wise guide who gives good counsel
- Mighty God — a powerful hero invested with God’s strength and representing God in the nation
- Everlasting Father — a benevolent, enduring benefactor whom the people trust
- Prince of Peace — a peacemaker who reigns in prosperity
These titles identify the function of this new ruler and how he will serve the people of God. He is a wise sage, the image of God, a gracious parent, and the forger of peace. This one, who sits on the throne of David, is a benevolent ruler who enacts peace and justice as God’s representative.
Who is this? At the historical level of Isaiah’s original audience, the prophet is probably referring to Hezekiah, whose reign after the slackening of Assyrian oppression resulted in years of peace and prosperity. But the language does not quite fit with Hezekiah’s reign. Something larger is in view as the authority of this king grows “continually” and provides “endless peace” as well as “justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”
While the prophet has an immediate word of hope and encouragement for Judah, his language envisions more than what Hezekiah provided. Isaiah anticipates a time when “the throne of David and his kingdom” will fully establish peace and justice upon the earth, and this is something Yahweh will effect; Yahweh “will do this.”
Enter Jesus, the Messiah.
Matthew, quoting Isaiah 9:1-2, believes Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s hopes (Matthew 4:12-17).
After his baptism (his own “red-sea” experience parallel to Israel’s), the Spirit led Jesus into the Judean desert for forty days (his own “wilderness” experience parallel to Israel’s), and in the face of opposition to John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.” Making “his home in Capernaum by the sea,” Jesus located his ministry in the land of “Zebulun and Naphtali.” There Jesus begins his ministry, heralding the good news of the kingdom of God, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The light has dawned in the darkness. The ministry of Jesus enacts the presence of the kingdom in the world, and this is the light Jesus brings into the darkness. The shadow of death is dispelled by the light of Jesus’s ministry where the dead are raised, the sick are healed, the demons are expelled, and chaos is subdued.
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).
“…people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24b).
The conjunction of the words and deeds of Jesus proclaim the kingdom of God. Jesus heralds the good news of the kingdom through teaching in the synagogues and then enacts the good news of the kingdom through a healing ministry.
The phrase “good news of the kingdom” is quite significant. This is the gospel. Is this about the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is the common definition of the gospel among many? Is Jesus already talking about that? Not yet. The narrator makes it clear that Jesus does not begin to talk about his death and resurrection until after his transfiguration (Matthew 16:21) and then only to his small circle of disciples.
When Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom in the synagogues of Galilee–providing light in the darkness–he is not talking about his death and resurrection. So, what is the good news? It is the good news of forgiveness, of blessing, of compassion, of healing…it is the good news embodied in the very deeds of Jesus himself; it is the good news of his ministry.. The good news is the curse is being reversed in the lives of people.
His deeds are themselves a parable of the kingdom; they are a witness to the presence of the reign of God. They are a reversal of the curse. The miracles are not primarily about authenticating his Messianic claim though they do serve that function. The miracles are not primarily about compassion though they convey the love of God.
The miracles are about hope–the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, peace, justice, and life. Hope is light in the darkness, and it is embodied in the presence and ministry of Jesus the Messiah.
Hope changes everything. It dispels the darkness. It frees the captive. It releases debts. It gives life.
The darkness is yet with us, but the light disperses the darkness. And one day it will totally eliminate it because in the new heaven and new earth, “there is no night there.”
“Unto us a child is born.” That is hope.
“There is no night there.” That is hope fulfilled.
Consequently, even while the darkness remains, hope is a ray of light, and we are people of hope as we live as lights within the darkness.