Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, January 7, 2017
Did you have a good Christmas? Were there any surprises?
The first Christmas must have come as a surprise to nearly everyone. It was surely a surprise to Mary and Joseph, and then to those who knew them to discover that Mary was pregnant, and then to others who came to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth: kings and shepherds. I don’t suppose many of those people knew quite what to expect. What new era was being ushered in? What would be asked of us?
And ever since Christmas comes round each year. We have a little more forewarning; we know it’s coming. What do we expect? What will be asked of us in this new era? How will we keep Christmas in our hearts? To what purpose will we use the annual celebration of Christmas?
This past Christmas season, I found myself very struck by the passages in Isaiah where the birth of the Messiah is foretold. We heard these words at the opening of the Lessons and Carols service we held on December 24. These passages in Isaiah are presented to us as if we should not have been so surprised by the birth of Jesus. It was all foretold by the prophet Isaiah.
Here are the familiar words of Isaiah, from Chapter 9, verses 6 & 7:
6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
That sounds like the coming of a king doesn’t it, a mighty ruler who will bring peace and prosperity. And then there are these words from Chapter 11, verses 1-3, then a bit from 4:
11 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; 3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: … 4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth.
All this suggests a wise and just ruler. And then there are verses 6 to 9 we read, too:
6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. 7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. 9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
My goodness, what a promise. Lie back and enjoy it because here come the good times. Those good times, those peaceful and just times have been promised to us.
Wisdom and justice and a remarkable peace – “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” And “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” What a promise! Is that what you expected? Is that the promise of Christmas?
Is that what you got for Christmas? I didn’t.
I woke up with the same President, I woke up with the same Congress, I woke up with the same war in Afghanistan we’ve been fighting for more than 16 years. I woke up with troops still fighting in Iraq as they have since 2003. I woke up with the world still on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, and perhaps Iran. I woke up with rising inequality and falling life expectancy in the U.S.. I woke up with mass shootings a common occurrence. I woke up with widespread anger and cynicism.
This is not “the leopard lying down with the kid.” This is not “the cow and the bear” feeding together; “their young ones lying down together.” This is not “the lion” eating “straw like the ox.” This is not “righteousness.” This is not “equity for the meek.”
What’s going on here? Did we not receive what we were promised? Were we cheated on Christmas day?
One possibility, of course, is that Isaiah (whoever he was) just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s just the ramblings of a fool — or maybe fake news. But if that’s so, we shouldn’t pay those passages any mind. We shouldn’t read them at Christmastime or give them any weight at all. That’s one possibility.
A second possibility is that we’re the fools. We just don’t understand. Isaiah is faithfully reporting the absolutely truthful, inerrant word of God, and we just don’t get it. I don’t know about you, but I surely know I may be a fool. But if I’m a fool on this, it really doesn’t help me at all. If what he’s saying is the whole and literal truth, I simply don’t understand what Isaiah is saying, and no amount of head scratching or prayer is going to help me. So that isn’t a helpful possibility.
There’s a third possibility that I like better than either of these first two. Maybe Isaiah is on to something. He sees the possibility and he tries to tell us about it in a prophecy, but it’s so new and so surprising that he really doesn’t quite understand it. So what he says isn’t exactly right. It’s important, and we should hear it, but what he says isn’t the whole of the matter, the last and complete word.
I want to add here that I think this is more or less what happens in our worship together. Someone rises to speak out of the silence. What they say is important and truthful, but it isn’t perfect and whole. It’s a message we all need to hear, and yet it needs something added – more to be added, or greater clarity. One message adds to another.
And so it is with the Isaiah passage, I think. It tells us something, but there’s more to be heard. It isn’t the last word on what to expect of Christmas.
The Gospel stories of Jesus’s birth, the ones in Matthew and Luke, add something of that something more. But even added to the Isaiah prophecy they don’t tell us the whole truth – or even the half of it. Like Isaiah, Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’s birth make us think a new, more-powerful-than-ever, completely just ruler has been born. And with that new all-powerful, all just ruler we’ll all be on easy street, easy-peasy, peace and justice for all without our even having to get up off the couch and stop eating Christmas cookies.
What happens after Christmas is the real jaw-dropping part of the story. We all know that. Jesus doesn’t turn out to be what we think of when we think of all-powerful, all-just rulers. He’s a carpenter’s son, an itinerant preacher/story-teller. He hangs out with low-lifes of all kinds, living off of handouts and who-knows-what. He enrages the authorities, both the Jewish and the Roman authorities. And he ends up being put to death in a most shaming way.
Who expected that? Not Isaiah. Not the Magi, I don’t expect. Not the shepherds. .
Even at this late date I think it’s difficult for us to take in what a surprise is marked by the birth of this person Jesus.
In this person Jesus, God asks to live a completely different life than what people had thought was proper.
- We are asked to be humble, not proud.
- We are asked to turn the other cheek, not insist on an eye for an eye.
- We are asked to be generous.
- We are asked to love our neighbors – and our neighbors stretch to the ends of the earth.
- We are asked to forgive, and forgive and forgive.
Jesus taught us all this through parables and odd sermons, but mostly through example. He taught it through an example that led to his crucifixion even though he knew well in advance that this was where the road led.
So what does that mean for the Isaiah prophecy – the puzzling Isaiah prophecy?
Simply this. If we are to celebrate the Prince of Peace, we must keep His memory alive and live by His example
If we are to have righteousness and peace and justice, now and forevermore, WE will have to make it so. We will have to live by this new way of living that Jesus taught.
Isaiah didn’t see that coming, I think that’s clear). He saw a beautiful possibility, but he didn’t quite see it right. But two millennia later it’s been shown to be abundantly clear.
We have to do it ourselves. As people say, “God has no hands but ours.” If we don’t like the world we find the day after Christmas, it’s up to us to fix it.
God has no other hands but ours. And for this we should be grateful.