Prophets in the bible serve many purposes. They can, like last week with Amos, be called by God to call people back to God and God’s ways. Other times, the words of the prophets needed when things are bleak. That is certainly the case with Isaiah. Things are looking pretty bad for the people of Israel both because intern problems with injustice and external problems because they are under siege. The Assyrian armies are attacking the land. The northern kingdom is taken. Judah is on the verge of being taken. Isaiah says this, “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor …. For all the boots of the tramping wars and all the garments rolled in blood.” (Isaiah 9:4 – 5) You can almost hear the drumbeat of war and the hardship
With war comes all sorts of other problems. The land is dry and water is scarce – having a water supply that can be safely guarded is a matter of life and death. Then there is the matter of defending the land which means injuries and deaths. Shortage of food and social unrest are part of the challenges faced by the people Isaiah was speaking.
It is easy to dismiss the problem saying that was then and this is now. In many ways it made me think of the devastation that is happening in the Philippines. Aid is simple not arriving fast enough and people are starving. Part of the problem is logistics – roads were and still are in some places impassable. Which means that help can’t get to where it is needed. This is like a bar across the shoulders. There are other places in the world that are living with such hardship – people in our community who do not have enough food or proper shelter, people who in countries around the world who live in garbage dumps, people who live in constant fear because of war or corrupt or oppressive governments. The yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulder was not just in Isaiah’s time.
We do not only struggle with social injustices but there are things that challenge us in our personal lives. Cancer, relationship struggles, caring for aging parents, the challenges of being parents. Sometimes these and other things can be like that yoke of burden and the bar across their shoulders that Isaiah spoke of.
It may seem to people both today and in the time of Isaiah that there is no reason to hope. Sometimes prophets speak a word of challenge and sometimes they speak a word of comfort and hope. In the midst of a difficult present Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; … you have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, … for the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders you have broken as on the day of Midian)” (Isiah 9: 3 - 4)
Isaiah is reminding people that even in the midst of trouble God can and does do amazing things. The day of Midian is likely a reference to an event it in the book of Judges with Gideon. The people of God were trying to escape from the rule of the Midianites. God heard their cry and Gideon was commissioned to deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. So Gideon assembled an army but the army was too big. The Lord tell Gideon with such a large army they would surely win and then the people would get the credit and not God. So Gideon sent home anyone who was afraid. Still there were ten thousand and still too many. So God tells Gideon to take the army down to the water and divide the troops between those who lap water like dogs and those who put their hands in the water and drink from their hands.
There were 300 hundred who lapped the water like dogs and they became the army. Not because they were the brightest or the best but because they would remind people of God’s power to act. So Gideon and the three hundred lead them into battle. The Israelites were free and God led the way. The promise of Isaiah is that God can and does do amazing and unexpected things. The God who freed them from oppression once can do it again.
Listen to Isaiah’s words: “For a child has been born for us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His 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 righteousness form this time on and forever more. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isiah 96 – 7)
Now that is a promise! Most of the time we hear this passage at Christmas or Easter because for Christians that promise of the child born for us becomes real in the person of Jesus. For the people hearing in the time of Isaiah it was a promise of a future made in God’s image. It is a promise of peace, justice and righteousness.
Isaiah speaks a word of hope in the midst of a difficult present. It would be easy to dismiss Isaiah’s words saying things like, “Oh, he’s looking at the world through rose coloured glasses.” Or we can dismiss the promise by saying, “He’s pretending like everything is going to be okay when it is not.” We he know too much of living in the world today to believe that everything is going to be hunky dory because we have faith because we’ve heard the promise from God. Life can be hard and challenging with faith and without it.
Here is what God does. God offers us a vision, a dream, a hope for a new kind of future. One where all God’s children have abundant life. Hope is the light shining in the darkness. Years ago I found this illustration of hope. A reminder that hope is a way of seeing the world “Two oncologists, cancer doctors, were overheard conversing about treatments in a hospital cafeteria. One complained bitterly, "You know, Bob, I just don’t understand it. We used the same drugs, the same dosage, the same schedule and the same entry criteria. Yet I got a 22% positive response rate and you got a 74% one. That’s unheard of for cancer that has spread from the original site to other organs. How do you do it?" His colleague replied, "We’re both using the drugs Etoposide, Platinum, Oncovin and Hydroxyurea. You call yours E-P-O-H. I tell my patients I’m giving them H-O-P-E. HOPE. As dismal as the statistics are, I emphasize that we do have a chance."
All of us long for a chance – something to hope for. When life is hard sometimes hope that tomorrow will be better and that is enough to get us through today. Sometimes, hope is found in unexpected places. Hope is the first time you can laugh over a memory without crying. Hope is the person who hold us up in when the world is turned upside down and we do not know where to turn. Hope is the person who gives their lives to make the world better for others. The motto for Stella’s Circle is “Hope lives Here.” And it is true because though their work people get second, third, fourth, or all the chances they need to make a new life. Hope is something that gets us through the hard times.
Karl Rahner reminds his readers of this: "And now God says to us what he has already said to the world as a whole in his grace filled birth: "I am there. I am with you. I am your life. I am the gloom of your daily routine. … I am the blind alleys of your paths, for when you no longer know how to go any farther, then you have reached me. This reality — incomprehensible wonder of my almighty love… I am there. I no longer go away from this world, even if you do not see me there... I am there." (O Holy Night ed. A. Jean Lesher page. 135)
God calls each of us to be hope bearers to our friends, to our neighbours, to strangers and as we do this the promise of God’s future foretold by Isaiah so long ago becomes a reality. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shinned.” (Isaiah 9:2)Thanks be to God. Amen.