This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on January 22nd, 2017.
A quick glance at this passage might not inspire one to preach from it. The more complete form includes the entire poem through verse 7, but here we only get part of that message of hope. Plus, the entire poem was part of the lectionary reading for Christmas Eve, so if you happened to preach that night, you had a passage from the prophets that was primed and ready to be used as a referent to Jesus. So it makes sense to skip over this one and jump to the Matthew or 1 Corinthians text. However, turning this stone once more might reveal more than we expected.
The Christian calendar tells us we are in the season of Epiphany – the third Sunday after Epiphany, to be exact. Technically, though, Epiphany is a displaced part of Ordinary Time. We are not in the process of preparing for or celebrating the birth, death, or resurrection of Jesus. We are simply figuring out what it means to live in the world that has seen a great light. The difficulty with this, though, is that for many of us and for those in our congregations that great light is often hard to see, hard to hear, and even harder to understand. This passage sparks dissonance in the lives of many people as we struggle through the every day. As preachers, though, we are called to speak a word from The Word. We are to point towards what we see and hear in God’s Word as it comes to us. Speaking truth is becoming a lost art, but we are not simply encouraged to do so, we are commanded to (Matthew 28:20).
This particular passage is part of a unit that began in 8:21 and runs through 9:7, but is also part of a still larger section that began at 6:1. Israel and Judah were in the middle of a conflict that was not their own. That is, Assyria was basically in the midst of a civil war, which caused conflict for Israel and Judah as well. The stage that is set for Isaiah, then, is one of division and strife. So this passage comes at a time that we as a country find ourselves divided quite heavily, but more than that it comes two days after a new President is inaugurated. Isaiah looks forward to a time when Israel and Judah will no longer be fueled by the darkness of division. Thus, in the same way, we look forward to a time when what is most determinative for our lives and the lives of our congregants is faithfulness to Christ, not to a political party.
Another option is to join the lectionary text from Matthew’s Gospel as it refers back to this very passage in Isaiah (Matthew 4:12-23). There, Jesus is beginning his ministry, and Matthew quotes verses 1-2 of Isaiah 9. Jesus’s call to repentance and proclaiming of the Kingdom of God stands on the heels of this quote from Isaiah. To extend this further, he then calls his first disciples and Peter, Andrew, James, and John away from their fishing nets so they might “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Nearly 800 years after Isaiah preached that the land around the Sea of Galilee would see a great light, Jesus began his ministry there.
What I find most striking, though, is that this passage in Matthew that refers to our passage in Isaiah acts as a sort of prologue to Matthew 5 and Jesus’s teaching from the mountain. Isaiah’s words that the rod of the oppressor will be broken are taken by Jesus and extended into his Sermon on the Mount and other teachings. Jesus tells the people that they are the light – they make up a city on the hill. We have all heard (or preached) that the church is this light that shines because of God’s work in us. Here Isaiah is saying there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish and Matthew’s Gospel shares these very words just before Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). What sort of preachers must we be that we are able to teach our people what it means to mourn faithfully? As Isaiah’s words remind us, though, those who mourn will see a better day. Thus, the transition from Isaiah to Jesus is made for us in the lectionary texts this week by way of Matthew’s Gospel. We simply point to this and say, “Look! Even Isaiah could preach a word of hope in the midst of some of Israel’s darkest moments!” Can we be preachers of hope? Can we help our congregations become a people of hope? To become people who live as though they have seen a great light and let their lives reflect that light, even when the hope only exists amidst their faithful mourning.
First Baptist Church Richmond, VA
Tags: Ordinary Time, Hope, Division, Faithfulness, Kingdom of God, Sermon on the Mount