Posts Tagged 'Isaiah 9:2-7'

For Dec. 24, 2015: Christmas Eve (Christmas I)

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 9:2-7

This early prophecy of Isaiah was supposed to motivate King Ahaz to have faith: the child foretold is most probably his son Hezekiah, who did indeed rule righteously in God’s sight. We read it as predicting the birth of Jesus the Messiah. May he hear these words of light, joy, liberation, and peace, and help bring them to pass.

The Response                                                             Psalm 96

Psalm 96 is an enthronement psalm that was written in the sixth century before Christ, after Isaiah’s prophecy of the Son born to us and during the difficult days of the exile in Babylon. It praises the God of Israel as the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, before whom the very rocks and trees shout for gladness.

The Epistle                                                                  Titus 2:11-14

Isaiah poetically looked forward to the coming of a savior to rescue Israel. The letter of Titus, written several centuries later, looks backward and forward: Jesus has appeared to redeem all peoples, including us, and it is up to us to live the lives and do the good deeds that show we are his.

The Gospel                                                                  Luke 2:1-20

The gospel of Luke tells the story of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and his birth announced to the lowly shepherds. The story is so familiar that it is hard not to take mangers and shepherds and angels for granted—but it is miraculous, and it begins to prepare the way for the greater miracle of Easter.

 

Further thoughts

Unsurprisingly, most of the hymns that we sing on Christmas Eve celebrate the Christ Child by name. One very famous hymn, however, does not: “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” This hymn began as a poem, “Peace on Earth,”[1] written by the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, D.D. for a Sunday school Christmas celebration in 1849 and published late that year.[2] The original poem has five stanzas; hymnals pretty universally print verses 1, 2, and 5 and typically drop either verse 3 (e.g. the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), or verse 4 (The Hymnal 1972). Here are verses 3 and 4 as Sears wrote them:

3.

But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring; –
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

4. And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This poem, which has been called one of the earliest social-gospel hymns,[3] is very much a product of its contentious times. By the end of 1849, the Mexican-American War had been over for less than two years. The war added Mexico’s lands west of Texas to the U.S., sharpening the increasingly acrimonious national debate on allowing slavery in new territories seeking admission as states—including California. Californians overwhelmingly preferred “free state” status: beyond the fact that Mexico had forbidden slavery since 1829, some found slavery loathsome, and others seem to have believed that swinging a pickax in the goldfields was more degrading alongside a slave. Admitting California as a free state meant giving the free states a majority of two votes in the U.S. Senate, thus encouraging hopes of abolition and making the Civil War even more inevitable.

In addition to war and slavery, Sears may also have been motivated by concerns closer to home. The congregations he served as a Unitarian minister were a handful of miles from Lowell, MA, the so-called cradle of the U.S. Industrial Revolution. The “mill girls” or “factory girls” , most between the ages of 16 and 36, worked in Lowell’s groundbreaking textile mills. They labored an average of 73 hours per week, deafened by the racket of mill machinery and half-choked by lint in the air, at tasks that were simultaneously exhausting and mindless. In 1844 they formed the first women’s labor union to demand a ten-hour workday[4] —unsuccessfully: not until the 1870s did the Massachusetts legislature pass such a law.

165 years later, slavery as such is gone from the U.S., but its legacy in racism and discrimination persists; workplaces are undeniably safer than in the 1840s, but income inequality in the U.S. is greater than ever and climbing.[5] It is good to adore the infant Jesus at his birth—but it is also fitting to remember the birth of the infant Jesus–but it is also fitting to pause and remember with Titus that the kingdom of God is not yet fully established on Earth and that we ourselves have work to do to see that it is.

 

[1] ‪Nutter, Charles Sumner, Hymn Studies: An Illustrated and Annotated Edition of the Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 4th ed. (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1900), p. 80. http://books.google.com/books?id=UDLNEiK7KvkC&oe=UTF-8. Accessed 21 December 2014.

[2] Anderson, Douglas D., “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, 25 May 2012? http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/it_came_upon_the_midnight_clear.htm. Accessed 21 December 2014. Anderson’s site is a really excellent resource for Christmas hymns, carols, and poetry.

[3] Hawn, C. Michael, “History of Hymns: ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,’” (n.d.), GBOD Equipping World-Changing Disciples, http://www.gbod.org/resources/history-of-hymns-it-came-upon-a-midnight-clear. Accessed 21 December 2014. Hawn is quoting Carlton Young, editor of the United Methodist Hymnal.

[4] Dublin, Thomas C. “Women, Work, and Protest In the Early Lowell Mills: ‘The Oppressing Hand of Avarice Would Enslave Us’,” Labor History 16 (1975):99-116. Online at Whole Cloth: Discovering Science and Technology through American History, Smithsonian Institution, http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/whole_cloth/u2ei/u2materials/dublin.html. Consulted 22 December 2014.

[5] Quoctrung Bui, “40 Years of Income Inequality in America, in Graphs,” NPR Planet Money: Demography, 2 October 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/02/349863761/40-years-of-income-inequality-in-america-in-graphs. Consulted 22 December 2014.

For Dec. 24, 2013: Christmas Eve (Christmas I)

The Reading            Isaiah 9:2-7

What astonishing news Isaiah announces: to people who have been in deepest darkness and sorrow, oppressed and the victims of war, there now come light and joy, liberation, and peace! The new king is most probably Hezekiah of Judah, righteous son of unrighteous Ahaz, but we hear these words as a prophecy of Jesus.

The Response            Psalm 96

Psalms 90 to 106 are called the “enthronement psalms”: they celebrate God’s glory. Like the others, Psalm 96 was written in the sixth century before Christ during the difficult days of the exile in Babylon. It praises the God of Israel as the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, before whom the very trees shout for gladness.

The Epistle            Titus 2:11-14

The letter to Titus sounds short and blunt after the soaring poetry of Isaiah 9:2-7 and Psalm 96, but it packs a great deal of theological content into a very small compass. Here it reminds us of the coming of Jesus at the end of the world, and of how we should be living while we wait.

The Gospel            Luke 2:1-20

The gospel of Luke tells the story of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and his birth announced. The story is so familiar that it is hard not to take mangers and shepherds and angels for granted—but it is miraculous, and it begins to prepare the way for the greater miracle of Easter.

 

Ponderables

The Revised Common Lectionary presents three sets of readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Each of the readings in the first set, taken literally, contains nonsense. Isaiah announces that the throne of David is about to be secure forever and that endless peace is about to begin—though, for most of the almost 2600 years since then, Israel itself has had no Davidic king and war seems to be what makes the world go ’round. Psalm 96 suggests that there are other gods and offers the spacier-than-Disney spectacle of plants and trees shouting for joy. As for Luke, real virgins just don’t go around having babies, real men don’t agree to raise the kids their fiancées have just conceived by someone else, and real shepherds stinking of lanolin and sheep poo don’t get serenaded by an army of angels or invited to admire a perfect stranger’s new baby. And the otherwise sober-looking passage from the letter to Titus makes the quite extraordinary claim that what makes God’s people good with God isn’t what we do: it is quite simply grace, because God feels like it.

What makes all of these things true is Jesus. The dreams-come-true king that Isaiah foretold to troubled Israelites is the God of the psalm whose righteousness makes “heaven and nature sing” is the virgin-born baby with the shepherd admirers is the man dying on the cross for our redemption. As the angels sing, so may we:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

For Jan. 1, 2011: Lessons and Carols

FIRST READING: Genesis 3:8-15, 17-19
Sinful humans lose the life of Paradise.
SECOND READING: Genesis 22:15-18
God promises that, in the offspring of Abraham, all peoples shall be blessed.
THIRD READING: Isaiah 9:2, 6, 7
The prophet foretells the coming of the Savior.
FOURTH READING: Isaiah 11:1-9
The peace that Christ brings is foreshown.
FIFTH READING: Luke 1:26-35
The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary.
SIXTH READING: Luke 2:1-7
We hear of the birth of Jesus.
SEVENTH READING: Luke 2:8-16
The shepherds go to the manger.
EIGHTH READING: Matthew 2:1-11
Wise men seek the Child who has been born.
THE GOSPEL: John 1:1-14
Jesus, the Light of the World.

The format of the Service of Lessons and Carols dates back to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols devised by Edward White Benson, then Bishop of Truro in southern England, for Christmas Eve 1880. In 1918, shortly after the fighting in World War I ended, Bishop Benson’s order of service was adapted for use at King’s College, Cambridge, in southeastern England, by the Dean of the college chapel, Eric Milner-White. The order of service at King’s College is essentially unchanged since 1919, opening with “Once in Royal David’s City” (the first verse sung solo by a boy chorister), and ends with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” This order with the readings set forth by the Church of England is the basis of the service we will use at St Alban’s, though some of the prayers and lessons are adapted from the originals to correspond more closely with the language of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that is in use in the Episcopal Church.
The nine short lessons or readings were chosen to show the story of salvation unfolding, beginning with the fall of humanity and the promise to Abraham, then proceeding through prophecies of Isaiah to the annunciation and birth of Jesus, and concluding with the opening words of the Gospel of John that sketch out who and what Jesus is.
This service is appropriate on January 1 because, this year, it is the only Sunday in Christmas season other than Christmas Day itself, and next Sunday, January 8, is the first Sunday in Epiphany season. In any case, what better way to begin the New Year than to sing praises to the Child who has been born for us, the Light that the darkness cannot overcome?

For Dec. 24 & 25, 2011: Christmas, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 9:2-7

In the time of the first prophecies of Isaiah, Ahaz the king must decide whether to try to save the kingdom from one powerful and ambitious neighbor by allying with another. Isaiah the prophet directs Ahaz to put his trust in God with this stirring hymn. The child whom Isaiah predicts is most probably Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, who will indeed rule righteously in God’s sight—but of course we read it as predicting the birth of Jesus. Alleluia!

 

The Epistle            Titus 2:11-14

After Isaiah’s soaring poetry and the Psalm, the passage from the letter of Titus seems short and blunt. The point is that we await the great light, the release from bondage, the judging in equity, and the eternal joy—and, while we wait for Jesus’ return, we ourselves have plenty to do to bring these things to pass.

 

Further thoughts

Isaiah points us forward out of darkness, devastation, and carnage to the light of justice, righteousness, and peace by way of a wielder of authority and might whose wisdom will get the job done. This ringing prophecy is said of a child, to be sure, but clearly a king’s child: someone of whom it is appropriate to expect great things.

It is a challenge to square this vision with the much humbler birth that we celebrate in Bethlehem—and that, it seems, is precisely the point. This child born to us is no conqueror coming in might to fix the world by breaking it to his will. Generations of rulers before him and after have attempted that feat, and some have even had good intentions—but all have failed. This world and the people in it cannot be fixed by force, not even by force of will.

We humans find this astonishing: how much tidier if one could simply command human beings into righteousness, peaceability, and a host of other virtues. It’s evident, however, that God’s view of this is different.

I think there are several reasons for this. One of them is that none of us mortals is so much less broken than the others that we are competent to enforce our will on others totally or permanently. Even a small child must be allowed some scope to make choices and take chances, if she is to grow into our baptismal mandate to will and to persevere, and the wise parent must learn when and how to yield that authority.  Another reason is that force never lifted up a fainting heart, nor did punishment alone ever make a generous heart.

For the Babe in Bethlehem does not come to fix the world from the outside in, but rather to make the world new from the inside out through love, one heart at a time.


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