Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

Plans: I am very good at making them.

You will find a child
"You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." - Luke 2:12 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

December 24, 2017

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

Plans: I am very good at making them.

I plan my vacations. I plan my career trajectory. I even make plans for how my children will live their lives. I often find myself annoyed with those who do not follow the script of my meticulous and brilliant plans, even when the non-compliant one is God.

Israel had plans. Its monarchic structure provided a mechanism for smooth transferal of power from one king to the next. It was a brilliant plan. The leaders consulted prophets to select the right family for this dynastic succession. They built a palace that demonstrated the king’s authority and a temple to symbolize God’s cooperation with their plan. What could go wrong?

As the saying goes, life is what happens when we are making other plans. Human kings remained human, even while they were divinely appointed. David committed adultery, Solomon worshipped other gods, and Rehoboam was a tyrant; and these were just the first three kings of this carefully planned dynastic rule. The nation split, with northerners trying to find a different family who would make the plan work.

Kings were not only supposed to rule the land with justice, but the divine rewards for a pious king would include prosperity to the nation, peace in the land, and a flourishing of native ecology. At the time that Isaiah lived, however, this idyllic rule remained far from the people’s experience. Assyria, which had a huge military machine, came out of Mesopotamia, conquering people on their way to exploit Mediterranean trade and eventually subdue Egypt. Their plans clashed with those of Israel and Judah.

The Assyrian reliefs that lined the walls of their monarchs’ palaces vividly recreate the brutal nature of siege warfare. The panels depicting the siege of Lachish, a Judean city, include the maiming of Judean bodies, and piles of severed heads gathered up by the soldiers. These same Assyrians sacked the city of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, and exiled the elites that they captured.

The oracles in Isaiah 1-39 include material reflecting this turbulent time period. Isaiah served within the Judean royal system in Jerusalem, providing prophetic services to four successive Judean kings during a significantly threatening period of Judah’s history. During his lifetime, the Assyrians destroyed Samaria and Lachish, and besieged Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem avoided being sacked, although different records credited different factors for this outcome. Within Israel’s cultural memory, however, Isaiah became the hero of this miraculous twist of fate.

It might be surprising for those who only hear material from Isaiah through the lectionary to find out that most of the material in chapters 1-39 consists of oracles of condemnation against Judah and its kings for their sinful ways. Like many other pre-exilic prophets, Isaiah depicts invasion as God’s punishment for sin. In Isaiah 5, for example, which depicts Judah as Yahweh’s nurtured vineyard, God lays waste to the vineyard/nation (verse 6) because of their wayward nature. In Isaiah 6, God promises to wipe out the nation completely.

Just like other prophetic texts, however, the collection in Isaiah 1-39 also contains a few images of a blissful future. Isaiah 7:14-25 heralds the coming of a future Davidic king whose reign will be characterized by the political and ecological flourishing that typifies a righteous king. Isaiah 11 contains the poem outlining the peaceable kingdom of an idyllic future king.

Sandwiched in the middle of these two passages, Isaiah 9 also depicts the reign of a king who will usher in a time of peace the prosperity. The light that shines in this poem burns brighter in the context of the dark historic events experienced by the nation at this time. The poem, addressed to those surrounded by the military might of the Assyrians, invites the text’s audience to imagine a glorious future. Verses 3-5 utilize images associated with the aftermath of war, such as plunder and the burning of blood-soaked garments, to replace the reality of the Assyrian invasion with a Judean victory. We may experience defeat today, the poem infers, but some day, we shall win.

The poem culminates in an exaltation of a future perfect king in Isaiah 9:6-7. The poem lists epithets for this king that address his roles as guarantor of justice (Wonderful Counselor), pious ruler (Mighty God, which could also be translated, Divine Might), protector of the people (Everlasting Father), and the one who subdues all external threats (Prince of Peace). Justice characterizes the reign of this idyllic representative of the Davidic dynasty.

In short, Isaiah 9 contains Israel’s plans for its future, and it looks like a brilliant plan. They will stay faithful to the choice of dynasty God has chosen for them, so that God will eventually reward this loyalty with the paragon of righteous rule.

I have noticed, however, that as annoyed with God as I get when my plans are ignored, I end up in a place I could not even imagine. As great were the hopes that I had for my children, the careers that I planned for them, how they would dazzle the world with their talents, I have to admit that I could never have imagined how amazed I am at who they have become. And it is not because they followed my plan, but because they have become really interesting, caring, and moral adults that I love and admire. God’s plans beat mine.

On Christmas Eve the people of God face the same reality. Yes, we can imagine a glorious future, but how we define glory is often not radical enough. While the Israelites expected utopia within a monarchic structure, God imagines a future that deconstructs a system that cannot bring true resolution to human problems. Human kings will always sin; people will always fail; nature will wither. Instead, the radical, self-giving root of real justice will be made imaginable with the birth of a poor child outside of the urban hub of Jerusalem. God’s plans remain better.