“The hopes and fears of all the years”: a Lord’s Supper Homily on Isaiah 9.1-7

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July 22, 2012 by jmar198013

I delivered this communion address during Advent of 2011.

Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this. (Isa. 9.1-7 CEB)

Preparing for the Lord’s Supper during the time of Advent and Christmas is always a hearty challenge. The gravity of the service–of the season itself–pulls us urgently to the birth of the Savior. To welcome this Mary-born, manger-cribbed, swaddling-clothed Savior into our midst. Just now we must somehow resist–even if only slightly and hesitantly–the gravitational pull of the season. For this meal calls to welcome Jesus not only as the child who is born to us, but also as the abandoned, rejected, naked stranger who dies for us. On account of us. This meal reminds us that we cannot segregate the person of Christ from the work of Christ. That means acknowledging that being saved means welcoming Jesus as he comes: born to a poor peasant family from a backwater town (to an unwed mother, no less). Killed by the powers that be because they deemed him a dangerous agitator. Being saved means being constituted by that very particular story. It is not a forensic transaction between the Father and the Son. Rather, to be saved is to be welcomed by and gathered around Jesus. Whether that gathering is around his manger, his table, or his cross–wherever that gathering is, that is salvation. To be saved is to welcome Jesus, and also to be welcomed by him–this child born for us, this Son given to us–however he comes to us.

One of the songs of this season is “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which contains the line, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee.” This is exactly what the prophet Isaiah described: a people living in fear, an exiled people, who are nonetheless prisoners of hope. Isaiah gives voice to the hope of a people who live in the midst of fear: “For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” The hope of those living in fear was not a half-formed concept of eternal, ethereal bliss beyond our time. Their hope was born of God’s acts of deliverance in times past. Their God–the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, they called him–had gathered them safely before. Why should he not do so again? So they called out for a new Gideon, who would “break the yoke of their slavery and … the oppressor’s rod.” They prayed for an end to war and violence, a  time when “the boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned” as fuel for the fire. They asked for a child, a son, to restore the throne of David. For a kingdom upheld “with fairness and justice … for all eternity.” A savior who could truly be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And they trusted that “the passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen.” “Lord of Heaven’s Armies” was their old battle-name for the God who had parted the Red Sea before them, knocked down the walls of Jerico, and shattered the Midianite armies in the days of Gideon. They called on this God to gather them safely again. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee” names what happens when the people who walk in darkness see a great light on the horizon.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the evangelist Matthew uses the words of Isaiah to describe the ministry of Jesus. In the fourth chapter of his gospel, beginning long about verse 15, he records that in “Galilee of the Gentiles”: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined.” Matthew would have us know that Jesus is that child of David for whom the people had prayed. The “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” who will establish his kingdom and uphold it “with justice and fairness for all eternity.” He is the hope that meets all fears. Matthew goes on to relate how he did indeed go to “those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow” and shined a light. He went to the sick, the demon-possessed, the epileptics and the paralytics, and he healed them. These acts of deliverance astonished people, and crowds were drawn to him. Yet it was those very same crowds who in the end joined their voices to those shouting for him to be crucified. Although he attracted them, and they admired him, they were still unable to see that he was the one who would break the yoke of the oppressor; the fire that would consume the trampling boots and bloodstained garments; the son born to them, the child given to them. For Jesus is not only the answer to our prayers–prayers often born of fear, even when they are full of hope. He is also God’s prayer for us. Those who will not answer “yes” and “amen” to that prayer must go on sitting in darkness, “in the land where death casts its shadow.” The crowds gave up hope, trusted their fears, and chose death.

That the crowds who were astonished by and attracted to Jesus’ preaching and healing were the same ones who said, “Crucify him!” is a warning to the church. Admiring Jesus does not make us the church. Acknowledging that we who have sat in darkness in the land where death casts its shadow have seen a great light does not make us the church. Even the presence among us of those who bear the marks of Jesus’ healing in their bodies and minds does not make us the church. All of those things could also have been said for Matthew’s crowds, and yet they still chose death. We are not the church simply because we can say the right things about Jesus, or even because we have experienced miracles or breakthroughs. Being the church means being gathered by and around and in Jesus. It is to be gathered up in his very particular story: A poor peasant, cradled in a manger, grows up to confront the powers of this world. He is rejected by the world, and crushed by the most vicious evil the rebellious powers can unleash: death. But the powers spent themselves out in doing so. He absorbed even death into himself. He emerged victorious, and shares that victory with those gathered in him. This is the story which gathers up the church, that grants us the ability to know Jesus as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Earlier I said that we are pulled by the gravity of the season to the Mary-born, manger-cribbed, swaddling-clothed child born to us. And that we must also welcome Jesus as the abandoned, rejected, naked stranger who dies for us. It is therefore serendipitous, I believe, that in this congregation, the Lord’s Supper comes to us with bread wrapped in cloth and placed in a basket. This calls to mind both Jesus in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and Jesus in the tomb, wrapped in the garments of death. That means that each Sunday we can rehearse his birth, death, and resurrection. We can welcome him, we can take him in, however he comes to us. As we gather around his table this morning, let us do so as people who confess that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee.” As those who have, in fact, set aside our own hopes and fears in order to welcome him as the answer to our prayers. As those who are able to be welcomed and gathered by him who is God’s prayer for us. Gathered up in his story of rejection, suffering, and victory, let us name him “Wonderful Counselor,” for he is the great light that has illuminated our darkness. Let us name him “Mighty God,” because he has broken the yoke on our shoulders and the rod of the oppressor. Let us name him “Everlasting Father,” for authority rests on his shoulders, even if that authority is the beam of a cross. Let us name him “Prince of Peace,” because he is the fire that will consume the warrior’s trampling boots and every bloodstained garment. By all these names, let us welcome the child born to us, the Son given for us.

 

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