Sunday, June 11, 2023

Phil Kniss: When it dawns on us...

Good news for those who have walked in darkness
Isaiah, the Fifth Gospel
Isaiah 9:1-7; John 8:12

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The book of Isaiah has had a nickname, for a very long time:
The Fifth Gospel

That phrase, Fifth Gospel, is sometimes applied, controversially,
to early writings about Jesus that didn’t make it into our N.T.
The four Gospels that made it into our Bible
were the ones that held up under scrutiny,
and over time became authoritative.
But there were other collections circulating
in the early years of Christianity.

But Isaiah is another story.
As early as the fourth century,
St. Jerome suggested Isaiah could be counted as an evangelist—
like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—
as much as a prophet.
Jerome saw lots of connecting lines that could be drawn
between the writings in Isaiah,
and what we affirm about Jesus.
And he was right.
Ideas central to the prophet Isaiah
have become central to Christian faith,
and reflect our understanding of Jesus.
It was Isaiah who introduced us to,
“beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks”
“the wolf dwelling with the lamb”
“a voice crying out in the wilderness”
“the suffering servant”
“the man of sorrows”
“a light to the nations”
“good news to the poor”
“Prince of Peace”
“a new heaven and a new earth”
and of course,
“the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son,
and shall call him Emmanuel.”

But even apart from these words and phrases,
we can think of Isaiah as a “Fifth Gospel,”
simply because of the persistent message of hope
that comes through,
despite the presence of evil and darkness
and suffering in the world.
This is what we’re reflecting on these four weeks in Isaiah.
Isaiah brings us good news!
A bona fide Gospel word for a seemingly hopeless world.

Today, it’s good news for those who walked in darkness.

But first let’s remind ourselves.
Isaiah’s good news was written to, and intended for,
an entire peoplehood.
It was not aimed at separate individual believers.
Sure, we can all find personal encouragement here. And we do.
But the strength we gain comes from being part of a people,
with whom God is working to shape into something new—
a new people, for a new day, in a new creation.

So with that, let’s look at chapter 9.

I’ll admit, I’ve often read this encouraging word in verse 2—
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,”
as if it were aimed at me personally;
that my personal short-sightedness or spiritual blindness
is being transformed by the light of Christ.
I’ve read it as personal enlightenment.

But that’s not what Isaiah had in mind,
when he wrote down this oracle, this word from God.
The first 12 chapters of Isaiah are a wake-up call
to all of Israel, and specifically to Jerusalem,
the seat of Israel’s political and religious power.
Israel has rebelled against the covenant they have with God.

God’s arrangement with Israel
was to bless them so they would be a blessing to all nations.
They were to worship Yahweh alone,
and not be drawn into unholy political alliances
with idol-worshiping kings and peoples,
which undermined their covenant with God.
They were to treat the alien, widow, orphan, and the poor,
with high regard,
with compassion,
and protect them from being taken advantage of.
In return, Yahweh would be their defender.
And they would flourish as a people.

But they turned their back on the covenant.
The charges are many,
spelled out in the opening chapters of Isaiah.
1:23 for example:
They ignore the plight of the orphan and widow.
And instead take bribes from the rich and powerful,
and steal from the poor.

The end result,
is that Yahweh withdraws,
is no longer their defender,
which opens the door
for the natural consequences of their rebellion
to unfold before them.
They suffer defeat at the hands of Babylon and Assyria,
eventually leading to the shame and suffering of exile.

But this oracle of Isaiah in chapter 9 is not more doom and gloom.
It’s a surprising announcement of good news.
Dawn is about to break over them.
Verse 1: there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish
“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.”

We are tempted to read this and jump to Jesus right away,
and jump to personal salvation and enlightenment.
But Isaiah was speaking to the people right in front of him.
Yes, in Jesus’ day, 700 years later,
people were still drawing inspiration from Isaiah.
And 2,700 years later, we still are.
But Isaiah was focused on his own audience,
and the most likely reference point,
in this Good News word to the people,
was the comprehensive national reform that took place
under King Hezekiah.

When Hezekiah saw the mess they were in,
he instituted religious reform, and economic and cultural reform.
He had shrines and sacred pillars and other objects of worship
taken down,
ordered the worship of Yahweh alone.
He righted the economic wrongs that had been done.
He got them realigned with the covenant.
This was in Isaiah’s lifetime, during his prophetic ministry.
So Isaiah wrote,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

So when we use Isaiah to shed light on Jesus, as well we can,
or to help us hear Good News for our time, as well we can,
we dare not ignore what Isaiah was actually referring to in his time:
which was collective repentance,
cultural and economic reform,
widespread restoration of justice for the most vulnerable.
This was a whole people finally recognizing,
that for many generations
we have done wrong collectively, systemically,
and we are still paying for it.
And then working together to repent, that is,
change direction and live differently together.

I cannot help but notice
there might be a message here for the Christian church
in today’s politically polarized age.
In many parts of the church we have lost ourselves
to the culture wars.
Instead of noticing who is suffering or excluded,
and moving toward them gently and compassionately,
we instead notice those who make us afraid,
who threaten our preferred way of life,
or disturb the status quo,
or challenge our place of privilege,
and we act and re-act against those things,
as a means of self-protection.

I wonder what Isaiah would have to say,
if he were listening for the voice of Yahweh today . . .
a day when Christians get more upset over so-called “woke politics”
than about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Or when Christians are the loudest voices
trying to forbid educators to talk to our children
about our collective sins of slavery
and systemic racism and white privilege,
or lobby aggressively for laws that result in increased suffering,
and endanger the lives of those
already marginalized and demeaned?

Whether we’re talking about sexual minorities,
or women in poverty with unwanted pregnancies,
or people of color being shot or beaten by law enforcement,
or people running for their lives
across borders without proper paperwork—
even without assuming any particular position, right or left,
on these obviously complex
moral and political and cultural issues,
why aren’t Christians known first and foremost
for their gentleness and compassion for the vulnerable,
instead of for loud angry rants at school board meetings?

Isaiah condemned his own people, with graphic language,
for their lack of compassion
for the widow, the alien, the orphan, and the poor.
“Your hands are full of blood,” he said.
“From the sole of your foot to the top of your head,
there are bruises and sores and bleeding wounds.”

If we took Isaiah seriously in his context,
we people of faith would be known for embracing those at risk.
We would be at the forefront of
of any national movement of racial reckoning,
instead of pushing hard against it.
In your wildest imagination,
can you see Isaiah, or any biblical prophet for that matter,
supporting a state law to prohibit
someone from saying things that cause discomfort?
Yet, state and local authorities are doing exactly that
all over our country, while Christians cheer them on!

I may already have made some of you uncomfortable this morning . . .
I love you. But I’m not sorry.
Mostly because, I’ve made myself uncomfortable saying it.
It’s not in my nature to be a trouble-maker.
But one thing I’ve learned in life,
is that being authentic, and being comfortable,
don’t always go together.

Having said that, let me return to my comfort zone as a Gospel preacher.
There is good news here in Isaiah,
and we should embrace it.
Good news for us in power, and for those who are vulnerable.

The good news is that God is light.
And light is healing.
And light is restorative.
And that light is dawning on us—in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit.

Wherever God’s light shines in the darkness,
there is new life to be had, if we, collectively, turn and repent.
When this light dawns on us,
we will not continue walking in darkness.
We will see the path in front of us,
instead of fumbling in the dark.

I’m not promoting any sort of national political movement here.
I’m promoting an honest self-assessment
and collective reckoning for us as a church.
If God’s light is overcoming the darkness,
and if God’s light aims to restore
a flourishing life to widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor,
then I think we as a church know where to go.
The path is clear in front of us.
We should walk in the light of God.
We should walk in compassion and kindness to all,
especially the marginalized.
We should make extra effort to stand up for those
who have no one else standing up for them.

God’s light is dawning.
And when it dawns on us, we will know how to walk again.
God, give us courage.
God, shine your light.

Join with me in a prayer of confession.

one God of steadfast love, God of persistent light,
you embrace us as your people, even as we walk in darkness.
We confess we are complicit in systems that perpetuate injustice,
promote idolatry, and deepen the darkness.
all Forgive us. Dawn on us with your restoring light.
one Give us the courage to trust your judgement.
Give us the wisdom to receive your restoring work.
all Give us the love to remain in your light.
one God is here. God is light.
We who once walked in darkness
are now invited to live in the dawning light,
and to walk the road of restoration.
God will walk with us. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, June 10, 2023

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