Did you ever stop to think how much of your life you have spent waiting for something? In fact, over the course of your lifetime you will spend at least five years waiting in lines and two years just trying to get in touch with people by telephone. You can also look forward to spending eight months opening nothing but junk mail and six whole months sitting and staring at traffic lights that refuse to turn green. In fact, if in order to get to work, your time behind the wheel or on the train averages 60 minutes a day, you will spend six 40-hour work weeks just getting yourself to and from your workplace (taken from Jeff Davidson, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing Time [New York: Alpha Books, 1995.]). That is a lot of waiting!
Speaking of waiting, how would you like to wait 800 years for God to fulfill His Promise in sending the Messiah? That is about how long the people to whom Isaiah wrote Isaiah 9:1-7 had to wait for Christmas, in the face of a gathering darkness over their culture because they had turned their backs on God.
In 8:21, 22, Isaiah described a nation that was experiencing emptiness and dissatisfaction (loss of meaning and hope); a nation angry and cursing their government and their God because they believed that no one cared. Does this sound like our nation? America is filled with people who have diametrically opposed political vision calling down doomsday curses on those who do not agree with them. Many spout love for country and patriotism, while on the inside they are angry and empty people living in fear and anxiety. They resemble the Hollow Men in TS Eliot’s poem… “We are the hallow men, we are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw, our dried voices are quiet and meaningless… we are shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without meaning… hollow men, stuffed men.” When we (individual or nation) run from God, we run from meaning and hope and light into darkness and confusion.
Yet, it was in such a cultural context that Isaiah 9 wrote “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan– The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
Matthew quoted this Scripture in Matt 4:15, 16 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a Messianic fulfillment. However, the Matthew text not only refers to the area of northern Galilee where the ancient tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were once located, but also to a more specific region called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This was the region in which many non-Jews lived; those who were despised by the majority Jewish religion, and seen as having no hope and living in spiritual darkness. Thus Matthew saw the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of Messiah coming not only to a run-away culture, but also to those most hopeless, most benighted- those “walking in the darkness,” those “living in the shadow of death.” It is upon these that the great light of Messiah will shine.
And so we see the Promise over against the waiting here in Isaiah 9; the gloom is not final and the darkness is not absolute. A light will shine, life will come, hollow men will become real, hungry people will be filled, and thirsty people will be satisfied. Because… A child will be born, a Son will be given. His name will be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace and His government will never end.
Christmas was promised 800 years before it was fulfilled. Against the darkness of national tragedy and personal humiliation there was a Promise of the Coming of Jesus Christ; a light in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sadness, victory in the face of defeat. I love this because it is an example of the very pattern of God to show up just when we think things are beyond hope. It is in the darkness that the light shines most clearly. It is in the presence of death that we see most powerfully experience the hope of eternal life. Martin Luther saw this pattern in the crucifixion: it was at the moment of greatest darkness and despair for the disciples that God was doing his greatest work. Luther called it the “Theology of the Cross.”
And so, if in this Advent season you are at the end of your rope and feel there is no hope left. “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you… ” (Isaiah 60:1-3) A child has been born, a son has been given and God may be doing a great work in your life! Remember the Cross!