An Advent Sermon

“Into the Darkness” (Isaiah 9.1-7)

It is possible that when you hear Isaiah 9 read out loud you can hear the Hallelujah Chorus playing in your head. Some of you might be humming the tune right now. Before Handel wrote that song, Isaiah sang it. Isaiah’s song takes us to faraway places by the sea like Zebulun and Naphtali. Lands that have known gloom and anguish and contempt. Isaiah’s song is a trip into darkness.

Darkness is a metaphor we use often. We have a pretty good idea what it means. If someone tells us we live in darkness we have an idea what they are talking about. If told we are against the night, we know that is something more than protesting when the sun goes down.

If you are familiar with rock band Led Zeppelin, you may have heard the song “Battle for Evermore.” The song has lyrics like “The dark lord rides in force tonight” and “Side by side we wait the might of the darkest of them all” and “Well the night is long, the beads of time pass slow.” If you are like me, pictures come to mind when you hear lyrics like that. I am thinking that if Isaiah would have known of Led Zeppelin he may have played that on his I-pod. Before we go further it is probably safe to say we are the only church in town who have talked about both “The Hallelujah Chorus” and Led Zeppelin this morning.

Isaiah wants us to know we are waiting in darkness. He wants us to understand things are not ok the way they are. So Isaiah gives us darkness. But he also gives us light. Our text almost seems out of place. The prior chapter was a message of distress, gloom, despair and darkness. It was a warning that people will be overwhelmed by the enemy. Directly after our text we learn that disaster has already struck the neighbors. In between, our text tells us “People who walk in darkness will see a great light.” And then, “Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.”

Isaiah likes to mix things up like this. His recipes include disaster mixed with peace. Despair mixed with hope. Darkness mixed with light. We know that darkness and light go together because our lives tell us they do. This time of year half the day is darkness. Not one of us has experienced a lifetime of only joy. We know disaster and despair. We know what it is like to be waiting in the dark. Isaiah is talking to people who know darkness all too well. He speaks to people who wonder if there will ever be light. To people who wonder if the darkness will ever end. Surrounded by darkness, Isaiah offers “People who walk in darkness will see a great light.”

It is into this darkness Isaiah sings the words “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government…” Yes Isaiah is talking about politics again. He is talking about a king who will be the evidence that God reigns. This king has more the one admirable trait. This list goes on “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

At this time of year we would do ourselves a disservice if we did not find ourselves in the Gospel. It is of interest that Matthew 4 takes us back to the dark lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (sound familiar?). Matthew tells us we are going back there in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet. It is not surprising to find a gospel text about a certain son of a carpenter who starts to preach about a kingdom of heaven. When he came, he came to a world where we were waiting in the dark. Matthew doesn’t say the words out loud but we know where he is going with this. If you are like me you picture the first Christmas as a night scene. This text would have us know the light shining into the darkness of that scene is not a star, but a child. And we are reminded that we were already given the words “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government…”

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Preaching During Advent

Preaching during Advent may not require an earth shattering sermon. But it does require that we prepare listeners for earth shattering news. (No matter how else we describe it, God coming to earth to live with us is earth shattering news). Tradition becomes helpful for us as we are given four weeks of expectation before Christmas. Four supportive themes emerge during our preparation – hope, peace, joy and love.

David Case used to facilitate discussions leading up to Advent and encouraged us to see this liturgical season as a time for preparation. He handed us Advent writings that emphasized this. He demonstrated how certain texts may help us to prepare. Prior to influence from Case we, like children wanting to open gifts before Christmas, moved quickly into the Christmas narrative without preparation. Afterward, we realized that we are included in a story that insists on preparation prior to the celebration. So we spent time with the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets before the Gospel. We discussed parts of the story that pointed toward God’s arrival. Thank you Dr. Case.

The preacher is not reconstructing a nativity scene. The preacher is calling out like the prophet Isaiah “Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God. Fill in the valleys, level off the hills, Smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks.” It is no accident that John the Baptist preaches this same sermon when calling the crowds to prepare for the arrival of Jesus.

This is no time for sentimentality. This is preparing for a divine invasion. We are announcing the arrival of the Lord of the universe. The Creator is moving into our neighborhood. Eternity touches earth. We prepare for a touch of heaven. It is probably not an accident that heavenly beings show up at this time to announce what is taking place. It is Advent, time to preach expectation. We are practicing hope, peace, joy, and love. We are leveling mountains and filling in valleys. We are rolling out the royal carpet, preparing for earth shattering news.

Isaiah and a Counter Narrative

Walter Brueggemann grabs the context of exile as a “metaphor for the characteristic ‘human predicament.’” He briefly describes exile as “a situation of hopelessness and homelessness, a sense of impotence about being able to change circumstance.” The dominant voices are loud and at times, attractive. This results in a seemingly convincing narrative. But, he argues, it is convincing because people do not know of an alternative voice. He goes on to say that “if we make exile our characteristic context then we may take gospel as characteristic utterance in exile.”

I find this to be extremely interesting use of metaphor. The people of God are in exile. A word from God is seemingly overdue. The church is displaced from the support it had grown accustomed to over time. Instead, we find ourselves in the midst of Babylonian seduction, Babylonian economics, and Babylonian gods. We are strongly influenced by the dominant values of culture. On the surface, things appear to be operating just fine.

By appearances, Babylon had “well nigh driven Jewishness from the horizon; and with the elimination of Jewishness it had vetoed YHWH from the theological conversation.” Memory and hope of God had been eliminated by the dominant voices. The voices of the dominant narrative continue to try and silence the utterance of gospel.

Is there a text to make sense of this Babylonian arrangement? Enter Isaiah and his gospel. The prophet utters a message that is not self-evident or available by any other means. Chapter forty lets us know “that YHWH is back in play.” Verse nine announces – “Here is your God!”

In chapter forty six, the prophet mocks the gods of the empire. His intent seems to be to reveal the true colors of the dominant power. It turns out that the gods of the empire are a fraud. They are much noise and no substance. “Bel has bowed down; Nebo stoops over.” They “have themselves gone into captivity.” This is then matched by verse nine that tells us “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me.” A counter-narrative that claims YHWH is “the most reliable player in the struggle for the future.”

Commenting on chapter fifty two, Brueggemann suggests “in the contest for domination, the gods of the empire have been defeated and the God of Israel is now the dominant force in creation.” It is a counter-narrative that rings out in verse seven “How lovely on the mountains, Are the feet of him who brings gospel, Who announces peace, And brings gospel of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, Your God reigns!”

Brueggemann believes that honestly facing exile as our situation generates urgency for preachers to communicate gospel. We are saturated by definitions of reality that are counter to the gospel. Enter the preacher. If the preacher is faithful, the listener is invited to make a decision. Will it be the old noisy narrative of the empire? Or the new gospel narrative announced by the prophet?

Preaching Isaiah

Isaiah is political. A very real political situation is spelled out clearly. But this has nothing to do with petty party arguments. There are much bigger things at stake here. Isaiah is interested in sovereignty. The plans of government are at odds with the plans of God. The political situation looks bleak but instead of advice Isaiah insists on bringing a word from God.

Isaiah preaches knowing that there are other things going on in the world. He does not ignore them. He does not minimize them. But neither does he sensationalize them. Instead, he enters the situation bringing the message he has been given. Preaching Isaiah we are reminded that no matter what else might be going on, no matter what else may be in need of our attention, speaking the word from God remains our priority.

This should affect the role of preaching. Every time we step up to preach there is something else going on. There is always something else, sometimes this other activity needs to be addressed. But, along with Isaiah, we realize that first we bring the word from God. There is a sense we get from Isaiah the prophet that once God’s word is spoken, nothing will ever be the same again. So we bring it, knowing that on account of it, everything changes.

It is equally interesting that Isaiah does not take this changing word to Assyria. He does not send it to Tiglath-Pileser, ruler of Assyria, hoping to persuade those with power at the top. Instead, he preaches to the people of God. Isaiah presents a strong implication that the way to change the world is to change the church. And so, when we stand up and bring the word from God to the church, we stand alongside the prophet in our belief that God changes the world by changing God’s people.

Preaching Isaiah is to be reminded that God does speak a particular word for a particular time and place. God has a word for specific times of history. This has implications for people like us in our specific situations. Isaiah knows that word is not always well received. Yet, word from God is to be preached where it is welcome and where it is not. This word can be harsh. And it can be hopeful. Comfort may be part of the message, but so may confrontation.

We do not come speaking words of our own. Like Isaiah, the best we can do is simply speak the words given us. Isaiah reminds us that the act of preaching is not about requesting permission to speak. The task of preaching is not to attract and satisfy listeners. Preaching Isaiah will remind us that preaching is not consumer driven. Preachers who allow themselves to be hijacked by culture will become as irrelevant as any other voices of culture that desire to be the flavor of the season.

Preaching Isaiah reminds us that we may be asked to say things we are not supposed to say to people we are not supposed to disagree with. When we preach the message of Isaiah, we will challenge things that others think are certain. Everyone was so certain that the power was in Assyria – except Isaiah. Isaiah reminds us that God is committed to revealing Himself through preaching.