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By the Light of Love

Sermon - 12/21/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 9:2-7

The text for this morning is from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 9, verses 2 through 7.  This text is a very familiar text, I invite you to follow along in the pew Bible or the Bible you may have brought with you:

1The 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 onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.


It's hard to read this passage without breaking into song.  "For unto us a Son is given, unto us. . . . .".  "Wonderful Counselor. . .".  You know, you know all that music.  We're so used to hearing Handel's "Messiah", at least that portion of it, during the Christmas season, reading this text during Advent.  You can't sing, hear, read this text without that music coming to mind, and without, therefore, thinking of the birth of Jesus.

And yet that association between this particular prophecy and the birth of Jesus is never made in the New Testament itself.  And so it's rather surprising to discover that even though Matthew and Luke make frequent references to the Old Testament prophets, they never refer to this specific prophecy.

And today when we read it, it practically shouts out "Joy to the World, the Lord is come!".  But upon closer examination, we realize there's very little in it that actually fits the circumstances of the life of Jesus.  It fits more in the time of Hezekiah perhaps, or some other King descended from David.

The text speaks of the broken rod of the oppressor.  And the boots of the warriors.  And the blood-soaked garments that will be burned in this great victorious bon-fire.  In other words, the symbols of oppression and war will be destroyed as those two things come to an end in this age of peace.

Now, we may certainly hope for such in the future reign of God that comes with the coming of Christ, but there's nothing remotely like that that occurs in the time of Jesus.

Second of all, the 4 names cited in this text (not 5, as according to Handel) -- Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace -- those are never cited.  Jesus is never referred to by any of those names. 

Third, and last, the throne of David was not re-established during the time of Jesus, of course.  In fact, instead of the endless peace that is promised in this text, the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed about 70 years after the birth of Jesus, never to be rebuilt, the nation came to an end and would no re-emerge until recently [Israel].  And then when it did so after about 2,000 years, it did so not as a Davidic monarchy (under the throne of David) but as a parliamentary democracy.

So how can it be that a prophecy which so spectacularly did not come to pass with the birth of Jesus come to represent it?

And the answer, I think, is really quite simple.  For what is historically perhaps not accurate is spiritually most certainly true.  That in Jesus, a child is given to us.  And that in Him we find everything that the text says:  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

Furthermore, in Jesus we see a great light shining bright, not just in the darkness of the ancient world suffering under Roman oppression and continual warfare, but shining still in the darkness of our world today.

It seems rather ironic in dark economic times such as these that we would turn not to the one who would have us buy and borrow more & more & more to stimulate the economy, but rather one who had no apparent source of income, did not own a home to be foreclosed upon by a bank, showed little regard for wealth, and lived off the charity of others. 

So let's not kid ourselves:  neither George Bush nor Barack Obama would ever appoint as a Secretary of the Treasury someone who over-turned the tables of the money changers, who told the wealthy to divest of their assets, who lived as a itinerant preacher.  He wouldn't even make it as Secretary of Labor.  This is not the economic role model that anybody wants for these times.  Jesus may be the 'reason for the season' but Santa Claus is the one who will stimulate the economy J.

So does it strike you that there is something a little incongruent between the message of the angels to the shepherds to go and see that babe in swaddling clothes in the manger, and all the ads we are bombarded with to buy, buy, buy?  Or that that jolly, old, over-fed elf with unlimited resources traveling around the world to visit the home of every child is a rather peculiar way to remember a pregnant teenager who could not find room in the inn? 

For that which we find under the Christmas tree hardly resembles that which we find in the Christmas stable.  Babes in swaddling clothes just do not sell well.  And heaven knows we do not want to see them and their travel-weary parents on our streets.  Which is why the community of Cottage Grove has now made it illegal to practice random acts of kindness from your vehicle.  And let's not kid ourselves, it has nothing to do with vehicular traffic, it has everything to do with being offended by the site of poverty in our face [applause from the congregation].  We don't want it.

The multi-media guru of that ancient era known as the 1970s, Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message".  Which is why a few folk thought it might not be good for the corporate executives from Detroit seeking a bailout from Washington D.C. to arrive in their private, customized jets.  And so the second time they learned, and came in more fuel-efficient cars (some people thought they should have walked J). 

Or as Andre Agassi said two decades later in his ads for Canon cameras:  "Image is everything".  Which is precisely why the Christmas story remains such a powerful story.  The image of God's chosen one -- Mighty God, Everlasting Father, born in such a humble way.  It's a powerful image.  And it speaks to us, it tells us everything we need to know about the light of God's love in dark times. 

Noting the power of images in this particular text, Gene Tucker writes (in his commentary on Isaiah):  "In Isaiah's view, God's will for justice, righteousness and peace is made flesh and in the weakest of human creations, a little baby".

No amount of textual analysis, historical review or thoughtful commentary can convey so much meaning and reveal so much character about God than the image of Mary and Jesus, mother and child.  And to know that when we look upon that scene in the Bethlehem stable with its mud and spiders and mice and smelly barn, we are seeing the light of God's love for our dark world. 

Nineteen and a half years ago, at the break of dawn, I climbed up to the roof of our home in Fresno to watch the sun rise over the horizon of an incredible new day -- the birth of our daughter.  And as far as I was concerned, everything in the world changed that day, and I wanted to watch as the light shown upon the world about 4 hours after her birth.

I did it again 2 and a quarter years later, tradition being tradition, for the birth of our son, and watched the sun break over the Cascades that morning, pondering how different the world looked to me now as the father of two beautiful children.  I haven't done it since.  Twice was enough J.

There's something about a newborn child, especially your own, that changes you.  And to see in the face of that child the sum of all of your love, and all that is important to you in this world, and to realize that in that child and in those feelings you have that that is the hope and the love of God for our world.  For every child.

And as a parent, there is rarely anything you are likely to experience that is more important to you than the well-being of your children.  Which is why I fretted all weekend last weekend, as my daughter came traveling home from college, making that long drive from Orange California by herself.  Sunday, I announced here at our service, because I had just received a phone call and we were watching the weather (snow), and we decided she was going to hold up in Redding and wait for the weather to clear a little bit.  And I'm going to catch a bus, just to make sure, go down to Redding so we can make that drive over the Siskiyous together.

They say God has a sense of humor?  Little did I know when I made the announcement that the buses weren't leaving Portland J, and I was going to have to trust my daughter to make that drive.  I fretted all Sunday, watching those web cams of the highway, making sure it was going to be OK.  She texted me along the way -- Weed, Yreka, pass, Ashland (yes!), Roseburg.  The whole way, she didn't even have to slow down -- no chains, nothing, the road was clear for her until she got to Creswell.  Ten miles from home the snow is coming down thicker than pea soup, and it takes her an hour to go those last 10 miles.  Very frustrating, but she made it home safe, and that's all that matters.

Now, you take all that fretting from all weekend long, and the last 19 and half years, and you compress it into 4 hours, that's what we experienced Friday morning, as Paulina went through surgery to correct her spine from Scoliosis.  It was planned, we knew since August this would be happening.  And I want you to know, I did just fine -- calm and confident J, as I double-checked the surgery board every 5 minutes, every 3, on my phone I could check it every minute!  And never mind that those 2 surgeons working on my daughter had done 700-800 of these spinal surgeries, only 1 resulting in paralysis.  It's hard not to think about that 1 when it's your daughter.  Never mind that no one hardly ever dies from these kind of surgeries, they still have to tell you -- full disclosure -- all the complications and possibilities.

Never mind that they had to deflate one lung, remove a rib and a bunch of other useful organs to get them out of the way in order to get to that spot where they put in 5 screws and a small rod.  I was the perfect picture of parental composure.  And then, 5 and a half hours after arriving at the hospital, 4 hours after the break of dawn, the phone call came.  The surgeon wanted me to know he just finished, and she was OK.  And she did great.

I am increasingly convinced as I go through this wonderful and often terrifying journey we call 'parenting' that to know such love as both as a child and now as a parent is to know God.  And when we feel that love not only for our own children but for all children, we come to understand the depth of God's love for us.

The love of Mary and Joseph for their new child is God's love for us.

Joseph Mohr got it right in the 3rd verse of that favorite carol we love to sing on Christmas Eve by candlelight as we form the circle here in the sanctuary:

Silent Night, Holy Night
Son of God, Love's pure light


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