“Lighting Up the World”
On Christmas Day 1531, the Reformation theologian Martin Luther, preached from the Christmas story at the morning service and from Isaiah 9 at the afternoon service. He began the afternoon sermon by quickly recalling that the congregation had heard the Christmas story earlier in the day. He told them that they would not hear it again; rather, they would learn how to make use of it. And then Luther turned to the words of the prophet Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”
Well, here at St. Andrew’s I only get one Christmas Eve service, you only get one sermon, and I thought it might be a nice change to preach from the prophet’s words. You also have heard the Christmas story before… many times over the years, probably a few times in this season, and even once tonight as Ryan and Matthew read the account from the Gospel of Luke.
Most of you have likely heard the text from Isaiah 9 a few times before also. Every Christmas, it is matched up with the Gospel stories about Jesus’ birth, and usually read without further comment. If you’re like me, the sound of Handel’s Messiah rings in your ears as the prophet’s words are proclaimed: “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. Unto us a son is given…” And as we sing or listen to those words, we are thinking of Jesus. He is the one whose birth we celebrate tonight. He is the child who has been born for us, and who has become the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”
But these words were not written to celebrate Jesus’ birth. In the eighth century, these words were uttered about the birth of another specific king in Judah, probably the good King Hezekiah who ruled Judah from 715-687 BCE. The poem gives voice to profound hope for the reign of this descendant of King David, at a time when Judah faced the harsh realities of Assyrian dominance.
There is no question about the depth of the people’s despair in the time period leading up to this new kingdom. They had “walked in darkness” and “lived in a land of deep darkness.” And the change in national fortune is attributed to God who has “increased its joy.”
The basic structure of the poem is a hymn of thanksgiving. It’s a celebration because finally, after years of war, oppression, and bloodshed, a good king is coming to reign… a king in the line of David, a king who will protect and care for the people, a king who will make peace so that the people can live in safety.
The contrasts are what are so striking in Isaiah’s words of celebration: Into the deepest darkness, a bright light has shined. The instruments of war and political oppression have been broken or even burned. The people are celebrating as if they have just brought in an abundant harvest. They are rejoicing like warriors who have been victorious in battle.
But the celebration is not just for one battle that has been won, but for the end of war altogether: “The boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire…” and the celebration will continue around some kind of great post-war bonfire!
Some of the biblical commentators suggest that this poem must have been written to celebrate the coronation of the new king. They point out that the names given to the king follow the pattern of Egyptian throne names that would have been given to a pharaoh.
Praising the king’s wisdom, they name him “Wonderful Counsellor.” Giving thanks for the way that he promises to care and provide for his subjects, they call him, “Everlasting Father.” Envisioning the absence of military conflict during his reign, they honour him as the “Prince of Peace.” And since kings in ancient Judah were considered to be God’s sons, they even call him, “Mighty God,” emphasizing his power and his military prowess.
But other biblical scholars say that this text is almost exactly what it sounds like. Rather than having been written for a coronation, they believe it was written for a birth announcement. Just as people today announce, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” and then go on to detail the weight, length, and health of the new baby, the prophet here announces, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…” and he will be great!
From Isaiah’s perspective, the birth of this child is a sign of hope. This is no ordinary baby, but a crown prince. The ancient promise of a son of David on the throne is reaffirmed, and both the names of the child and the final lines of the poem promise perpetual peace with justice and righteousness when he takes his place on the throne.
Even if it was first written for a birth announcement for a very specific king-to-be, this poem was subsequently applied to other kings, and even later to a hoped-for messiah. Like other good poems, it could be taken out and read in celebration of other significant moments. It was a song of thanksgiving, celebration, and hope for the future.
Many centuries later, Christians in the early church read this promise in Isaiah and saw it being fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Long before anyone had written any stories about the birth of Jesus, Christians were sharing his teachings, telling of his death and resurrection, and following him as the King of kings and Lord of lords who reigns in heaven above.
Jesus also was a king in the line of David. He wasn’t the kind of king that most people would have been expecting because he certainly didn’t come with military might or plan to take over by force. But announcing the Kingdom of God was the main message that Jesus brought. And wherever people followed his way, and started to live by his values of love, and generosity, and humility, and sacrifice, the Kingdom of God began to spring up and to grow.
Just as the people of Judah many centuries before had been encouraged with hope when a new, good king was coming to power, the early Christians (Jews and Gentiles alike) claimed that Jesus was the light of the world shining into the darkness of our lives.
Jesus was the Wonderful Counsellor who taught them so much through his parables and sayings, and the way he lived his life. Jesus was the Everlasting Father who healed and helped, forgave and blessed so many along his way. Jesus was the Prince of Peace who was not provoked by those who would oppose him, but kept peace even at the cost of his own life. Jesus was the Mighty God – and not in the sense that people said a king was a son of God. They believed that he was so filled with the Spirit of God that he was actually God’s presence made flesh in the world. He was Emmanuel – God-with-us.
Some decades later, the early Christians began to write the stories of Jesus’ birth. They chose the setting of the little town of Bethlehem to emphasize his connection to the great King David who came from there as well. His birth announcement was not made by a prophet, but by a host of angels who sang it out in the skies above: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours.”
And the good news was that God, in Jesus, was pouring out his favour (not only on a particular nation, or on a particular class of people) but on all the people. The first ones to hear and receive the announcement about Jesus’ birth were a rag-tag bunch of shepherds working out in the fields. The next group to be mentioned were wise men from far-away countries, and both groups came and worshipped the newborn king.
As I talked about with the children tonight, it says something about Jesus that, more than two thousand years later, billions of people around the world are still celebrating his birth and coming together to worship him on Christmas and throughout the year. I read a survey the other day. (They were American statistics, but take from them what you will.) The survey from Pew Research said that in the US, 92% of people celebrate Christmas.
Granted, only about 51% said they celebrate it as a religious holiday, while 32% said they celebrate it as a cultural holiday, with 9% saying it’s both religious and cultural. About 86% of Americans said they would be attending a gathering with family or friends on Christmas Eve or Day, and a similar number said they would be buying gifts as well.
The number is, of course, much lower for those planning to attend a religious service on Christmas – only 54% – but that still sounds like a lot of people to me. That’s still a lot of people who believe that Christmas is a time to get together and celebrate the birthday of Jesus: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The context for us is not the aftermath of war, or the memory of military occupation by a foreign government. We don’t need the King of kings and Lord of lords to free us from enslavement or the threat of physical violence. But for those of us who have started to get to know Jesus through reading the Gospels and studying his way, he is like a bright, clear light shining into whatever darkness, or despair, or disappointment has been a part of our lives.
He is our encouragement to keep on doing our best to love one another. He is our hope that peace, and justice, and goodness will one day rule around the world. Following him gives our lives meaning, and purpose, and fills us with joy.
Candles and carols – that’s how one of the churches down the street described their Christmas Eve service tonight, and it’s probably what most of you came to worship expecting. There is something kind of magical about candles. I’m sure that we would still put them on our Christmas trees if they weren’t such a terrible fire hazard. But the experience of being together in a gathering such as this, turning down the lights, and singing “Silent Night” with all our candles lit is one of the things that makes Christmas Christmas for many of us.
One thing that makes Christmas Christmas for me is the reading of the opening words of the Gospel of John. Let me just share a few verses with you tonight:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was coming – that it was near. And he invited followers both to join him in making that announcement, and to be a part of the work of making it a full reality.
Have you heard this saying? “Don’t curse the darkness. Light a candle.” Tonight we will light the Candle of Christ. And then from his candle, we will light all our candles. As we do so, I hope we will all consider the ways that we can let Christ shine through our lives to bring light and hope into dark corners of the world.
I know that many of you have already been lighting candles in this season… giving gifts to our Advent Appeal, making special donations to the church and other charities that do important work and bless people’s lives with the light of Christ. Some of you are being intentional about volunteering either through the church or a community agency. Some of you are watching every day for opportunities to share your faith (sometimes in words, and often in actions) with people you encounter who need encouragement, or hope, or challenge.
So when we light our candles tonight, they will be more than beautiful lights shining together in a darkened church. They will be more than sentimental memories of Christmases past. They will be signs of our willingness to receive the light of Christ – the hope, peace, joy, and love that comes to us in Jesus Christ – and to share that light with the world.
Isaiah 9:7 says, “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 justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
As we watch the light spread tonight and fill this place, let us pray for the light of Christ to go out into all the world – for Christ’s kingdom to grow continually, and Christ’s endless peace to envelope the world. And let us ask God to show us (both as a congregation, and as individuals) how God would like us to be involved this coming year in lighting up the world.