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Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night

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Isaiah 9:2-7

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.

3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,

you have broken as on the day of Midian.

5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood

shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7 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 with righteousness

from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This scripture may sound perfectly safe, but it’s actually full of potential pitfalls for the preacher. Let’s start with the fact that few of us can hear these words without hearing it in the rhythm and cadence of Handel’s Messiah. So when I say “For unto us a son is given,” your mind goes on with “And his name shall be called Wonderful (do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do)…” The second pitfall is that at least part of it is so familiar, we don’t hear it any more. The third problem is that we’re so sure this is a prophecy about the Messiah and therefore Jesus, that we ignore its original context and meaning. And finally, the metaphors of light and dark have become problematic in our racially-charged world. It’s understandable that in a time before artificial light, darkness was considered dangerous and light was good and safe and beautiful. But although it seems like a giant leap to go from extolling light and disparaging dark, to extolling light skin and disparaging dark skin, it is still part of the racism inherent in our language. So I typically try to avoid the light/dark dichotomy. With this text, with this story even, it’s hard to do.

The scripture is talking about a time of political pain—a time when life was dangerous, when they couldn’t see the way ahead, when their nation was at war. Their world was in turmoil; their leadership had failed them; their place in the world had been jeopardized. But then a child was born, an heir to the throne of David. They could see a new dawn, a new direction. A child had been born; a leader was coming. The language of the text is the language of coronation.

However, it is not this new king who will save them. It is God alone. The reference to “the day of Midian” is referring to the time when Gideon was facing a vast enemy but was commanded by God to send away all but 300 of his troops, , so that it would be clear that God brought the victory, not the people. The same is true here in Isaiah. This is God’s doing.

One scholar I read this week called God’s action an “irruption into the history of God’s people.” Not eruption, but irruption. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, erupt and irrupt are descendants of the same Latin verb which means “to break;” but with different prefixes, they have slightly different meanings. “To irrupt” means to break in or rush in, while “to erupt” is to burst out.[1] The people may have felt like they were about to explode. They may have felt like their stability was faltering and their world was about to blow up.

But instead, our scripture represents God breaking into, rushing into, the people’s difficult situation, to exchange darkness for light, to end the oppression, to put a stop to the bloodshed. And don’t we need that! In a time where victims of violence are vilified, when asylum-seekers are tear-gassed, when racism results in innocent lives lost, when it feels like our country is a powder keg—we need some in-breaking. We need a divine irruption.

And we need to help. If we are ever to know the peace this passage proclaims, the tools of oppression must be dismantled. The yoke of forced labor, the bar of forced submission, the rod of limited opportunity…these are still signs of oppression, which we are called to interrupt.

Maybe you need the same thing personally. Maybe you need God to break into your life and shine light on the places you hide. Maybe you need a divine irruption to break the yoke of your burden. If so, you’re in luck—or, rather, you’re in blessing—because God’s deliverance is near. God’s deliverance is here.

God’s deliverance is the message for our first text today, this passage from Isaiah. It is also the message of our second text, this one from music. Hear these words from the familiar carol, and notice how the verse is addressed to God, while the chorus is addressed to the people.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh; to us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in her ways to go. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Desire of nations, bind all people in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease, fill the whole worth with heaven’s peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

The song is both entreaty and encouragement, both petition and proclamation. The speaker, in the midst of praying, is already announcing it to be so. And isn’t that the embodiment of faith? We pray that God will disperse our gloomy clouds of night, and before that can even begin to happen, we hold on to the belief that God will. We long for all people to be of one heart and mind, but even in our disunity we proclaim that God will come to us. We name death’s dark shadows, and still we say Rejoice. This is part of the already / not-yet dichotomy that is faith, that is at the heart of Advent. We wait to welcome the coming of Jesus, even as we know Christ is already with us. Already / not-yet.

Whatever in-breaking you need this morning, whatever yoke you need lifted, whatever tool of oppression you are called to lift . . . my prayer for you as we begin this Advent season is that no matter what you pray for, you will know that your deepest prayer has already been answered, for God has come to you. Already.

Let’s sing the carol together now. Sing the verses to God, and sing the chorus to yourself and to one another.

[1] Merriam-Webster online dictionary

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