Sunday, June 11, 2023

Sermon: “Everything Old is New (and Old)”, Isaiah 9:1-7 (June 11, 2023)


This morning, we’re continuing our mini sermon series on Isaiah. Last week we talked about Isaiah’s call to prophecy, and over the next three weeks, we’ll be exploring one prophecy from each of the major divisions of the book: the section written before the Babylonian exile, the section written after the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen, and the section written in anticipation of Israel’s eventual restoration.

Today’s prophecy, taken from the first section of Isaiah, is a familiar one; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you were able to recite parts of it from memory. The Church reads this passage every single year at Christmas: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…A child is born to us, a son given to us, and authority will be upon his shoulders…” Georg Frideric Handel included these words prominently in his famous oratorio, “Messiah”, which has further helped to affix them permanently in western society’s collective consciousness. All of this together contributes to an understanding of this passage that probably seems patently obvious to most of us here: Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 9 seems to be clearly foretelling the birth of Christ.

Even without these external clues, everything in this passage points towards this interpretation for us – a CHILD is born, a SON, mighty GOD, DAVID’S throne. This is all the sort of language that we’ve been hearing used to describe Jesus since our very first day in church. Not to mention that the language of light and darkness that Isaiah uses in the second verse very closely parallels the language we find in the prologue of John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t overcome it.” Prophecies aren’t always easy to understand, but this one seems to be pretty straightforward, at least as far as prophecies go, right?

Except that it’s not, really. It would be pretty egotistical for us to believe that ours is the only possible interpretation for these words – especially since we’re not the only faith tradition that considers them holy. As I understand it, most Jewish communities interpret this prophecy as referring to Hezekiah, a great king of the southern kingdom and a contemporary of Isaiah’s (remember, prophecy is communicating on behalf of God, NOT predicting the future). An exceedingly righteous man, Hezekiah enacted sweeping religious reforms and restored the Temple to its former glory during his reign (you can learn more about it in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles). He was one of the last truly righteous kings of Judah. Since so many of Isaiah’s earliest prophecies are warnings directed at the Judean people to reform or suffer the same fate as the northern kingdom, you have to admit that it makes a lot of sense for Hezekiah to be the messianic figure born to deliver the people.

So which is it? Is Isaiah talking about Hezekiah, and have Christians been getting it wrong for centuries? Or is he actually talking about Jesus, and it just took an exceptionally long time for the prophecy to be fulfilled? If it’s Hezekiah, does this passage undermine our faith? (That can’t be…) If it’s Jesus, does it mean that we should be “correcting” our Jewish siblings? (Certainly not!) How do we reconcile these two very different understandings of the same holy scripture? How do we avoid supersessionist thinking (the idea that Christianity has “replaced” Judaism) while still claiming these ancient Jewish texts as pivotal to our faith?

Before I address this question, I want to take a moment to share with you a memory from my days as a teenaged theologian in youth group. I loved our youth retreats more than anything; they allowed me to tackle tough questions and wrestle meaningfully with my faith while playing silly games with my friends, eating tons of junk food, and generally just being a kid. I have a lot of fond and formative memories from this time in my life, but one in particular has stuck with me more than others.

I remember one time, when we were talking about where we hear God speaking to us, our leader said something I still think about to this day. He said, “Sometimes, when I’m listening to the radio – not Christian radio, just a regular pop station – I’ll hear a song and all of a sudden it hits me differently than every other time I’ve heard it before. Suddenly, even though the song is supposed to be about romance or heartbreak or just having fun, it seems like the words coming out of the radio are God speaking to ME. Listen and see if you can hear God speaking to YOU like that.”

So he played us a song that was in heavy rotation on the radio at the time, and my whole perspective changed. It was an up-tempo bop about a romantic relationship, exactly the kind of song you’d expect to hear on the radio. I’m sure that the artist didn’t write this song intending for it to be heard as anything else. But as I listened, I heard God telling me that no matter what happened in my life, no matter what twists and turns may be in store for me, God would be there. My experience didn’t erase or undo the artist’s original intention – it’s still a cute little pop song about two people in love. But at the same time, it now has a different meaning, too; one that spoke to my own experience as a 14-year-old. And even though the song wasn’t created with that interpretation in mind, it communicated a truth to me that’s just as real and valid as the artist’s original intent.

It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that Scripture can work like this, too. It’s foolish to ignore the specific time and place in which it was written; there’s a lot we can learn by considering the context and mindset of the Bible’s earliest audiences. But it’s also absurd to believe that God’s Word remains frozen in time, empty of meaning beyond that which was discerned thousands of years ago. Understanding Scripture’s original impact doesn’t mean that God is unable to speak to our current context through it, and hearing God’s voice in a new way doesn’t invalidate what God’s voice has said in the past. God purposely created us all to be different from one another, beautifully varied, utterly unique. Holy things must necessarily be able to hold multiple meanings in order for God’s purpose through Christ to be fulfilled: for the entirety of humanity to hear, know, and love God.

This doesn’t, however, give us license to interpret the Bible to mean anything we want it to mean. While the specifics that we infer from Scripture may vary for different people in different times and places, there is always one thing that remains consistent in God’s Word – because it’s a reflection of God’s unchanging nature. Whether we interpret this passage of Isaiah as referring to Hezekiah, Jesus, or some unknown figure yet to come, we know for sure that God’s Messiah will be an agent of peace for the world, bringing justice and righteousness, now and forever. THAT is the message at the core of Isaiah’s prophecy. THAT is what Scripture always has been and always will be about. THAT is God’s divine plan.

So what does this mean for our Bible studies, our interfaith relationships, and our lives going forward? It means that we should be humble in our approach to Scripture – realize that your understanding may be missing something that someone else has heard clearly. Be receptive to the interpretations of others – while some are more adept at hearing the Holy Spirit’s whisperings, God offers revelation to ALL of us. Listen to Scripture with ears open to new epiphanies – don’t be surprised if you hear something new in even the most well-worn passages. Most of all, believe that God is much bigger than any one faith tradition, any one interpretation, any one moment in time can capture completely. This approach will probably complicate your faith…but it will almost certainly make it more rewarding.

To this day, I still listen to the radio with an ear to how it might help me better understand my relationship with God. A lot of mainstream pop songs wind up being “modern psalms” for me, including ones by artists as varied as Imagine Dragons, The Cranberries, The Beatles, Peter Gabriel, Hoobastank, Billy Joel, Lisa Loeb, Pink, and Ellie Goulding. If God can share new revelation in such unexpected places, why wouldn’t God be able to say exactly what each of us needs to hear, exactly when we need to hear it, through Holy Scripture? Everything old is new to God, and everything new is old, and everything in between. God is still speaking to us, then and now and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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