For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 3 – Isaiah 9:1-4
There is a somewhat tenuous link between today’s Gospel in Matthew 4 and this OT passage, but in keeping with the usual style of this blog we’ll try to think about the passage in its original context rather than merely as a rooting of an OT quotation in the new. We’re in the 730s BC, and the mighty and cruel nation of Assyria is on the move. The first 12 chapters of Isaiah deal with this threat to Israel, and in particular chapters 6 – 9 tell of two nearby kings, Rezin and Pekah, forming an alliance to try to resist the approach of Assyria, and attempting to persuade King Ahaz of Israel to join them. The prophet warns Ahaz against this course of action, and suggests that there is a third alternative to either war of subjugation by Assyria, that of simply trusting in God’s promises of salvation. However, in the latter part of chapter 7 Isaiah appears to change his mind, and perceives Assyria as God’s instrument of judgement on a nation which has abandoned God and sought counsel elsewhere. The result will be thick darkness for the Israelites, with the end of chapter 8 painting a gloomy (literally) picture of the fate of a nation which has turned to the occult rather than to their God. It is in this context that the promises of hope in out passage fall.
The promises may seem a bit obscure to us, but they look back into Israel’s history and would make perfect sense to those to whom they were addressed. The enlargement of the nations was part of God’s original promise to Abraham. Spoils of battle would be divvied out amidst great rejoicing after a victory in war, and a good harvest would similarly be treated as an occasion for great delight and security. The defeat of Midian under Gideon was a story of liberation when God acted supernaturally on behalf of his people against unbelievable odds, ending threat and oppression and bringing freedom. God had a great track record of hearing his people’s desperate cries, so why the need to turn to mediums and spiritists when the chips are down? The ultimate promise, of course, lies in the words which follow and which we have all no doubt heard over the past few weeks. It is the promise of Immanuel, God-with-us, which is as true in the darkest of times as in the nice ones.
There are two questions posed by this text: why does God allow darkness in the first place, and where do I look for help when the chips are down? I have just finished marking a set of essays from my Key Stage 4 RE pupils, and it is fascinating how they see God as there to make everything nice and to take away anything threatening or nasty. The fact that there are wars or that people suffer becomes a tremendous stumbling block for some of them, even as far as disproving the existence of any god, since things would self-evidently be better if he (or she) actually existed. Yet as Christians we know better. We know that God has done something about suffering, he is doing something, and he will do something in the end. We also know that it is how we endure suffering which is far more important than whether we do, and the Bible promises great blessings and spiritual growth for those who cope with suffering well. God doesn’t always remove pain, but he does grow us through it.
These ideas of course are anathema to a comfortable society in which we want everything to go our way now. So we’ll do whatever we can to get rid of the pain and hardship, including trying to drown our sorrows in our addictions, or seeking dodgy ways of finding healing. It is natural, of course, just to want to make the pain go away, and I for one am very grateful for the gift of anaesthetics during my 18 hour operation and in its aftermath. But at a deeper level the Bible often rebukes people who look anywhere they can for help while God is there with open arms waiting for them to turn to him. The key, I think, is co-operation, and the question is ‘Lord, what are you doing with me right now, and how can I join in?