The appointed Old Testament lesson for Christmas Eve is always these poetic verses from Isaiah and likely, to be honest, will not be the basis of a sermon when Luke 2 is the Gospel reading.
Yet, even with this lectionary reality, year after year we continue to read Isaiah in tandem with Luke's story of Jesus' birth. How can these words of Isaiah lift up or draw attention to Christmas themes that might help us hear this good news of great joy in perhaps a different way?
While the lectionary begins the reading at verse 2, it is worthwhile to consider verse 1 for its historical and geographical (enter "Geography Maven") significance. This is an example of how our modern day bibles make it more, rather than less, difficult to read scripture. 9:1 functions better as the conclusion to chapter 8, which is actually the versification in the Septuagint. The bulk of chapter 8 is words of judgment for Ahaz who has chosen to align himself with the Assyrians rather than God and to ignore the signs of God's presence (see 7:14). Of course, the setting for First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) is the prophet's counsel to the southern kingdom of Judah against the looming threat of the Assyrians (for a review of the history of Isaiah, see www.Enterthebible.org ).
The place names in 9:1 refer to the areas of the northern kingdom of Israel that became Assyrian provinces under the rule of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III, around 733-732 BCE. Assyria is in the process of taking over the world as it was known then and Israel had already fallen. It will be only two-hundred years later for the southern kingdom to fall to Babylon. Why this history lesson? The people of 9:2 are the inhabitants of the northern kingdom, Israel.
Chapter 8 ends in darkness and despair that will surely come with the foretold Assyrian invasion. This sets the stage for a dramatic shift in imagery and mood that comes in verse 2. Out of the depths of oppression, depression, war, and separation from God, all symbolized by the presence of darkness ("They end up in the dark with nothing," The Message, Eugene Peterson), comes assurance. Verses 2-7 signal the promise of a new king, a coronation hymn of sorts, one who will come from the royal Davidic line, who will bring light and life and hope to a suffering people.
It is important to observe that before verses 6-7 toward which Christian listeners immediately gravitate is an address of thanksgiving. Note the use of the second person "you" (9:3) before the change in tense to a future reality that will be made possible because of God's never ending love for God's people. The first words in this pericope are a statement of faith, trust, and gratitude for what the Lord has already done. Grounded in this certainty makes the next words of promise and future hope believable. While it appears that the powers of this world have a firm hold, God's power will have the final victory.
It is helpful to remember that in the Hebrew Bible canon, the prophets are understood as historical books. The Hebrew Bible puts the prophets in their historical location and ends the Scriptures with the general writings (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.), whereas Christian Bibles end with the prophets as testimony to the anticipated Messiah believed to be Jesus Christ.
Situating Isaiah in its political, historical, literary, and geographical location might better witness to its meaning for Christians beyond the level of foretelling or prophesy as we tend to think about it, especially when it comes to the expectations of the coming Christ. In other words, what might happen when Isaiah is not only heard as proof of the fulfillment of God's promises but as testimony to this aspect of God that is at the heart of who God is? In preaching Isaiah, there is the realization that God is not just about future plans but present promises here and now. In the midst of that which creates despair and darkness, God's light shines as that which is the fulfillment of all that we need and everything that we wish could be.
On Christmas Eve, when candles burn bright to witness to the God's light that shines in all of our darkness, we are reminded that this is not just a claim for tonight, or because of Jesus, but points to the nature of who God is and always has been. When the candles are extinguished, the lights put away, and the decorations stored until next year, this promise is indeed what we will need.