“The cause of our joy”

“The cause of our joy”

Tuesday 24 December 2019

In the first reading this evening from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, there were a couple of verses that the composer, George Friedric Handel, made great use of in his famous oratorio, Messiah.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.

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.

Humility prevents me from singing them for you now.

Confronted with their experience of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the earliest Christian, who were Jews in the main, turned to their sacred scriptures to gain meaning for what they had seen occur in Jesus. How did they relate these text from Isaiah to Jesus’ coming? It is important for us to consider this because we also have to come to terms with what the birth of Jesus might mean for us who live in this place and time.

If we want to understand why the early Christians considered these texts revelatory of Jesus, we have first to consider what it might have meant in the time that it was first uttered. That time was the 8th century BC and the place where it was spoken was in the Jerusalem of that day.

The prophet Isaiah had been relentless in his criticism of King Ahaz of Jerusalem for his failure to be faithful to Yahweh, the God who had saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt several centuries earlier. Of King Ahaz, it was written in the Second Book of Kings: “Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign; he reigned for sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done, but walked in the way of the kings of Israel” That is, the kings of the northern kingdom. “He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” That is, he sacrificed a son on an altar of fire to the pagan gods of the Canaanites whom Yahweh had driven out of the land before the Israelites before he gave them the land to live in. “He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree”. In other words, he sacrificed to the Canaanites’ gods at shrines spread throughout the land instead of sacrificing only to Yahweh and then only in the Temple at Jerusalem.

However, Isaiah brings a message that a child is born to eventually replace Ahaz. The child will be a king loyal to Yahweh, like his ancestor David. And so the poetic language of Isaiah expresses this new state of affairs as passing from darkness to light; as a time of great joy, as when the harvest has been brought in and the year’s work of planting and tending has been successful; as the time of joy when people are dividing the plunder following a successful campaign.

We are not really sure of the son that Isaiah is referring to historically, so commentators think that it was possibly Hezekiah who succeeded Ahaz or perhaps it referred to another king yet to come.

For Isaiah, the repercussions of Ahaz’ unfaithfulness to Yahweh had brought about the threat from the great Assyrian Empire. In Isaiah’s mind, it was from the threat of the pagan Empire of Assyria that the new king would save his people through his faithfulness to Yahweh.

The early Christians had no difficulty in identifying with the threat of Empire. They easily recognised in their historical circumstances under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire that they were a people walking in darkness, and they certainly had no difficulty in seeing, in Jesus, that Isaiah’s “son to be given” had been fulfilled.

Jewish kings were anointed on the head with oil at their appointment. The Hebrew word for anointing is the source of our word Messiah. The Greek word for anointing, christos, is the source of our word Christ.

So it becomes clear to us through reflecting on these texts of Isaiah how the early Christians made the association between Jesus as the promised king, the anointed one, the messiah, the Christ.

And so at Christmas, we do not just celebrate the birth of a child, although we do recognise Jesus’ humble beginnings as a vulnerable and threatened human baby. What we celebrate is the birth of the long awaited king who would bring the reign of God amongst us in definitive fashion. And even though we recognise that the kingdom will not be established in its fullness until Jesus returns at the end of time, we still acknowledge that by his life, death and resurrection, he has made God’s kingdom on earth inevitable and nothing will stop its appearing, no matter how grim things might look to us at times. We need to understand that statement: Jesus has made God’s kingdom on earth inevitable and nothing will stop its appearing, no matter how grim things might look to us at times. That is our Christian hope.

What we celebrate specially at Christmas is the fact that God has entered this world in the human being Jesus of Nazareth and established the beginnings of his kingdom as the one who will lead us out of all darkness into light. Jesus has shown what the world would look like if God was running the show. It is a world where the poor are blessed, where the sick are cured, where the lame walk and the blind see, where the peacemakers are the children of God. In other words, it is a world completely upside down to the one that is offered to us as the way to happiness by the commercial and power interests of the world.

It is this kingdom of God which we have seen in evidence in Jesus’ life which is our hope, and it is the reason why we celebrate his coming amongst us and commit ourselves to working to witness to the hope that God’s kingdom promises us. And all the forces of darkness that still assail us will be defeated when God establishes his kingdom finally when God will be all in all.

This is the great hope of Christmas. It is why angels sing and shepherds worship. It is why Mary stores everything in her heart. It is nothing less than the coming of God amongst his people as the one to restore all things to himself. And if this is what Christmas is really about, we have great reason to celebrate.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.

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.

Archdeacon Allan Paulsen
Parish Priest

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