Passage: Isaiah 9:1-7
Date: December 1, 2019
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Parfrey
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Every fall I practice magical thinking along the lines of, “This year we’ll get to keep summer-length daylight.” And every year about this time, I concede the point and give it up as a lost cause. We’re heading into the very darkest time of the year, the season of overcast, with night that stretches into the morning commute and eats up not just the supper hour but most of the afternoon. Here it is, the beginning of Advent, not even the winter solstice, and we are already hoping, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Tell that to my dog-walking buddies in their reflective vests and headlamps.
Context counts, and what we read today comes right after some of the worst, most sarcastic oracles Israel ever gets, replete with the prophet’s children being given chipper names like “Spoil hastens, plunder hurries.” It’s a terrible time for Israel. You and I hear the words following that Nonetheless wrapped in Handel’s beautiful music, but the original hearers are apparently thinking of a new king. The Northern Kingdom has been dismantled and its citizens scattered and enslaved. The Southern Kingdom’s enemies are pounding on the gates of Jerusalem. Into this comes God’s Nonetheless, speaking a word of mercy? hope? course change? Exact timing as to Isaiah’s writing makes the literal context a tad squishy, but that’s what many scholars believe. Other scholars think this may have been a word of reassurance for a terrified nation either being hauled off to or languishing in exile in Babylon. Others wonder if it’s the word of hope to counter-balance Isaiah’s fake-news oracles in chapter 8.
The Hebrew scripture tradition has darkness stand for military oppression, whereas light is royal relief of that oppression. The new king’s enthronement oracle raises hopes for peacetime, a relief from that oppression. In the prophet’s eyes, this new king apparently personifies God’s promise of this-worldly well-being, with the earth itself renewed and justice enacted. That might feel like a stretch, but remember our elation in 2009 with Barack Obama’s inauguration? We thought we were living in a post-racism time. Post-exilic Israel embraced this Isaiah text to describe their hoped-for messiah, just as Christians read back into it a description of Jesus the Christ. In other words, Handel was reflecting long-existent thinking.
So it was that my sermon-writing this week was taking a predictable route until I hit the sermon-writing equivalent of what had happened to me on an early morning dog-walk. Crosley and I were on a stretch of sidewalk I’ve walked for nearly 20 years. But it was still pitch dark, and an oncoming car’s headlights blinded me. I didn’t remember the curb around that particular driveway and so I ended up on the ground. An essay by Lauren Winner about “Wearing God” was my sermonic curb trip. In it, she recounts discovering the error of her childhood reading of the story of God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. For some reason, she had thought that when the two humans left the Garden, God had mercifully given them skin. What kept their innards from leaking out prior to that, she hadn’t considered, but as an adult she learned that the skin God gave the pair was garments of animal skins. I condescendingly thought, “Oh for pity’s sake!” and then discovered my own error in reading Isaiah. All these years, I’ve never thought of this light God gave us benighted humans as anything other than personal salvation, and even that just called for us to hang onto it and not let it go. We see things differently, our minds are changed, we’re saved, that’s about it. On Thanksgiving Day, however, I read, “salvation is not something that we possess. Salvation is something that possesses us.”(In “Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions 2019,” essay by Brenda Vaca.) Whoa! The writer said we put our hearts on the line and, in our vulnerability, are wakened to God’s love (the writer speaks of us collectively). Which reminded me of the people walking in darkness who see a great light. To be possessed by that light—what if that means we are the light God sends? After all, Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world.”
We don’t know dark very well in the 21st century. I spent my 20th-century childhood summers in the Canadian wilderness without electricity, where dark was really dark. Once twilight faded, we’d lie on our backs on the dock, watching for shooting stars, being amazed that the Milky Way was an actual band of light across the sky. What they tell us at OMSI’s star parties in Eastern Oregon is that we need the darkness to see the light. We resist rolling blackouts, light candles, get generators, develop pocket-sized solar chargers. But we need the darkness. We need it to see the light. What if George H.W. Bush was right, that we are the “thousand points of light”?
And yet. And yet, if we are to be a people of that great light, we have to experience the darkness. Otherwise there is no Nonetheless. The Hebrew prophets teach that God punishes us by giving us what we want. My son was the most adventurous eater I ever met. Even as a toddler, he was willing to try any food. Most notably, he ate pickled herring and sardines in any kind of sauce they came in. When he got older, he heard about anchovies. For years, all we parents heard about was anchovies. “You won’t like them,” we’d say. “They’re stinky. They’re furry. They taste bad.” No, no, he knew he would love them. One year for Christmas, I gave him a little can of anchovies. He could hardly wait to dig into it. And that’s when it became clear that, sometimes, getting what you want is its own punishment. That’s what precipitated Isaiah’s sarcasm in chapter 8. The consequence of Israel’s insistence on autonomy from God is what they get. “You want to count on the art of your own deal?” he asks. “You’ve got it.”
When Isaiah was around, counting on their own deal-making, Israel found that times were as tough for them as they are for us. Global politics were terrifying, there was sickening injustice and unending political upheaval at home. Israel’s version of Manifest Destiny has been their downfall, an ambitious royal building program has enslaved their citizens, treaties and pacts with enemies have resulted in convoluted alliances. On the verge of annihilation, Israel hears God’s Nonetheless. Isaiah’s oracle is not cheap grace. Israel will still have to encounter the darkness, live with the consequences of their choices, but future salvation is so sure, it’s written in the past tense. God’s Nonetheless announces salvation, not to possess, but salvation that possesses them. They will know not just who they are, they will know whose they are.
Israel’s sin was tolerating rulers whose crime was personal enrichment for themselves and their cronies at the expense of the people they were to govern. If God may sometimes punish us by giving us what we want, God also won’t halt the consequences of that, just as I finally relented on the anchovies for my son and let him try them. The Nonetheless comes when God further punishes us by loving us more. In Israel’s case, God sends a ruler who brings peace and righteousness and justice.
This is such a political text. Political, as in pertaining to the “polis” or the people as a whole. What if we are supposed to be the light sent to those in darkness? Isn’t there too much to do, the sin so institutionally entrenched that it’s hopeless? Maybe. But listen to Clarissa Pinkola Estes put it into perspective. She writes, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.”
We’re not asked to change the world single-handedly, just to be one spark in the darkness. A batch of grilled cheese sandwiches. Respectful talk about folks or groups even when they aren’t there. Work done with integrity. Advocacy for the vulnerable. Educating yourself about what it’s like to live in this country as a person of color. Listening to people with whose opinions you don’t agree. Nothing grand, we just need to start. Marian Wright Edelman suggests that we need only be a flea to fight against injustice, to be the light in the darkness. “Enough committed fleas,” she says, “biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.” May it be so. May it be so.