Monday, December 29, 2014

Jeremiah 31:7-14 – “Mourning Into Joy…”

Lesson Focus:
Our sin causes us to go into exile.  God, who longs to be our father, comes to rescue us from exile so that our mourning might be turned into joy. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Become familiar with the basic theme of return from exile.
2.     Make a connection between Exodus and exile. 
3.     Recognize that even in our exile God desires to be our father.
4.     Desire to move from exile to homecoming as children of God. 

Catch up on the story:
The context for all of Jeremiah is Exile.  While Jeremiah’s book spans a long time period, the basic theme and movement is the unfaithfulness of God’s people and their subsequent movement toward exile.  Much of the tone of Jeremiah is somber and mournful.  The news is not good.  Despite his efforts, the efforts of those who have gone before him and contemporary prophets, Israel and Judah fail to turn from their unfaithfulness.  Yet, in the midst of Jeremiah’s dark lamenting over Israel, the promise of redemption and restoration hangs in the air.  Beginning in chapter 30 we begin to get hints that God has not completely abandoned Israel but will now turn again towards her to bring her home. 
The Text:
Our passage is part of a larger section, which some scholars refer to as the Book of Consolation (Jeremiah 30-33).  Verse 7-9 and 10-14 make up two separate oracles of salvation, or divine sayings concerning Israel’s return from exile.  We’ll examine each oracle in turn. 

Oracle #1: I am your Father…
This oracle begins with the familiar words, “For thus says the Lord.”  Whenever we read these words in the Old Testament we know that God is about to speak, usually through a human mouthpiece.  In this case, the human mouthpiece is the prophet Jeremiah.  For most of Jeremiah these words have produced in the reader a sense of dread and foreboding.  Now, however, these words usher the reader into a time of glad celebration. 

Loud songs of praise are not often on the lips of people who are in subjugation to a foreign power, but this is precisely what God commands his people to do.  They, as the “chief of nations” (v. 7) are to call out for God to save them.  The phrase “chief of nations” refers to Israel’s place as God’s special and chosen people.  While their chosen-ness has not spared them judgment for their infidelities, it has given them latent hope throughout the exile that God will once again restore them. 

It seems odd, at first consideration, that God would instruct Israel to shout and sing the words, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.”  Why would God do this, does he not already know that they are in need of salvation?  Indeed, God does know Israel’s desperate situation and longs for them not to remain in it, but in uttering these words Israel declares its dependence on God for its salvation.  It may be a bit like admitting to your spouse that you are wrong.  You may not come to complete acknowledgement of your mistake until you vocalize it directly to him or her.  For Israel, however, her acknowledgement of her inability to rectify her situation is not done begrudgingly.  The tone is not sorrowful.  Rather, it is done with a joyful confidence in their God.  Their confidence is built on the knowledge that “God will as certainly do it, as if he had already done it.”[1]

Israel’s salvation is return from exile.  The people’s cry for salvation, their dependence on God for their deliverance will lead God to act for them in a way they could not act for themselves.  He will bring them home.  God will bring them home from the land of the north, from Babylon.  The blind, lame, the pregnant woman who is in labor, together with all of God’s people, will be led home.  A journey of this magnitude would be stressful for the healthiest of persons.  It would be an even greater challenge, if not impossible, for those Jeremiah mentions explicitly.  Their inclusion in the ones who will return from exile points to the grand scope of the miracle that is about to take place.[2]  Salvation will not be just for the strong or for those who are important.  It will be for everyone, even the lowest of people. 

The journey will be made with weeping.  The weeping will most likely be a mixture of joy and sorrow.  They will cry tears of joy because they are finally returning home.  They will mourn because they have been so long in exile and there are many who perished in the events leading up to exile and in exile.  Nevertheless, God will console them, leading them as he had done during the Exodus.  This new exodus, however, will be a smoother journey; they will be led by streams of water in a path that is straight.  The path out of Egypt was neither smooth nor straight for Israel.  Unlike their journey from Egypt, Israel will have no want.[3]

The ending line in this first oracle settles a question that might have plagued Israel as they were in exile: how is it that God will take care of them?  The answer comes wrapped in the imagery of a family.  God will not relate to Israel as it was common for other “gods” in the near east to relate to their people.  Rather, God will be Israel’s father.  Israel will enjoy all the benefits of having a father.  Israel is “brought into close relationship with God, with all the intimacy that a parent-child relationship implies.  They are God’s family with all the blessings of being a part of this household.  Given the sharp experience of suffering, God as parent enters into the suffering of the children (see v. 20) and claims them for life and for freedom.”[4]  Israel’s future is secure.  Her father is the God who created and sustains the universe.

God’s declaration that he is Israel’s father is even more striking when placed in contrast to God’s earlier comments in 3:19-20. God wonders out loud that he thought that Israel could be counted as among his children.  He believes that Israel would call him father, but they have refused to do so.  Instead, they have become like a faithless wife who leaves her husband.  That God now insists that he will be Israel’s father points to his great steadfast love and faithfulness.   

Oracle #2: Gather the Scattered             
 As this oracle begins the audience shifts.  It is not just Israel who will hear this word from God; it will be the nations of the world.  The work that God is about to undertake on behalf of his children will be broadcast to lands that are far away, to the coastlands –the ends of the earth.  The content of the message is that the one who has scattered the people will now gather them back together.  The shepherd will bring together the flock once again.  All through Jeremiah the nations to the north, the ones who bring God’s judgment on Israel, are referred to as bad shepherds.  The good shepherd now comes to gather his flock together. 

God will be able to gather the flock together because God has “ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.”  The two words “ransomed” and “redeemed” figure prominently in the Exodus narrative.  They are also used in combination in Isaiah.  For Israel, one of the dominant images associated with “redeemed” had to do with the process of caring for a widow.  When a man died and left a widow the nearest male relative would take this widow as a wife and provide for her, even providing her with a male heir if necessary.  (For two stories about this tradition in Israel see Genesis 38-39 and Esther 1-10.  In the first story, the part of the redeemer is neglected, while the second story has a happy ending.)  A widow in Israel, or in any other near east culture, who did not have someone to provide for her was likely to end up caring for herself and her dependents through prostitution.  A widow had no possibility of a future apart from the providing care of a man.     

If we shift the imagery of this passage a little bit, at this point in Israel’s history she is like a childless widow.  Her husband has died and she now has no one to care for her.  God will act as her kinsman redeemer and will now take her as his wife.  Her needs will be met and she will now have a future. 

Because Israel has been gathered and redeemed she now has a future.  In verses 12-14 we are met by a series of phrases that depict what Israel will experience because of this gracious redemption by God.  Israel will sing on top of Zion, the Temple.  They will have grain, wine, oil, and livestock.  The barrenness of a destroyed land will be reversed.  The barrenness of a shamed people will be undone. They will be like a garden that has a constant supply of water so that growth happens.  The completeness of this reversal will be met with the singing and dancing of young women and the merry shouts of old men.  There will be none who are left out. 

Before exile, Israel had a false joy in her unfaithfulness.  God promised to turn her joy into mourning.  Now, in a great reversal, God will turn Israel’s mourning into joy.
So What?
Our sin always leads to some kind of exile.  Sin scatters. The Greek word for the devil, diabolos, has a root meaning of thrower.   Sin/the devil throws us about, scattering us.  It may be the exile of a broken relationship.  It may be the exile or addiction, which causes us to sacrifice everything we love for the thing we are addicted to.  Whatever the case may be, our sin and resulting exile leaves us lonely, alone and neglected.  Like Israel, we begin to wonder if God cares for us or will once again turn to save us. 

Even though sin requires judgment, God longs to reverse the barrenness of our exile and replace it with rich blessings (rarely monetarily).  In our exile God comes to us and encourages us to sing aloud and to shout in confidence that the God who sometimes gives us over to the consequences of our sin now wishes to bring us home, to offer us forgiveness and grace.  God does not just want to give us a home, but to fully and completely welcome us and establish us in his home.  We become children of God.  John, speaking centuries later, will declare that those who accept Jesus “receive power to become children of God” (John 1:12).  The wonderful part of this declaration by both Jeremiah and John is that it is not the ones who have it all together to get adopted, but the ones who are insignificant, who are broken and lame.  In our exile, God moves toward us, calling us, redeeming us so that we may become children of God.  So we pray,

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
Forever and ever.

Critical Discussion Questions:

1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     Over and over again in the Old Testament we get the picture that God has not abandoned his people.  While they may sin and live terribly unfaithful lives, God desires to bring them home again.  God is drawing and bringing us back to him. 
b.     God comes to us as a father.  In our sin and exile we are fatherless and provider-less.  God comes and takes us home again. 
c.     God comes to us as a redeemer.  We are widows who have been left to fend for ourselves because of our own selfish ambitions.  God steps up and takes ownership of us, providing for us so that we might have a future.     

2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Our response to God’s declaration of the salvation he will bring for us is to call on him to be saved.  God moves toward us but we must respond by admitting that we are unable to save ourselves from our current situations.    

3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     The grief and mourning that has taken place in our lives because of our self-imposed exile will be replaced our Father.  As a people who have been redeemed we can now joyfully stand.  Our mourning is turned to joy because God our Father has redeemed us.    

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Why does our passage refer to Jacob (Israel) as the “chief of nations?”
2.     Why is Israel encouraged to proclaim in joy, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel”? Why doesn’t God just save them?
3.     The passage makes specific mention of the blind, lame and pregnant woman making the journey back to Israel.  Why is this important?
4.     At the end of verse 9, God declares that he has become a father to Israel.  Go back and read Jeremiah 3:19-20.  How are God’s comments in that passage different?  What do these two passages tell us about God’s nature? 
5.     What are some of the ways we experience our own exile today?
6.     God brings even the lowest and most broken people in Israel back from exile.  What does that say to us about how God might bring us back from our own exiles? 
7.     God longs to be our father.  Jesus shows us who the father is.  God as our father wants to teach us, guide us and help us grow.   In what way might you need help allowing God to be your father?
8.     God is at work in the world, gathering people from all different kinds of exiles. How do we as the church participate in God’s work of gathering people?
9.     When God gathers people from exile, it is a joyous event. When we as the church participate in God’s work of gathering, we should do so joyfully. Exiles are coming home! How does joy become an ongoing reality in the life of the church?

[1] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, vol. 3 (Bristol: William Pine, 1765), 2210. 
[2] J. A. Thompson, A Book of Jeremiah, 2nd Revised edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 570.
[3] Wesley, 2210.
[4] Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2002), 431.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Galatians 4:1-7 – Not Slaves, Heirs!

Lesson Focus:
We were slaves, now we are adopted children of God. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that the Law was not evil but unable to set us free.
2.     Understand that the Law acted as a guide for God’s people before Jesus came. 
3.     Begin to identify themselves as adopted children of God. 

Catch up on the story:
Paul, in this letter, is writing to the church(s) in the province of Galatia.  These were mainly Gentile converts to Christianity. Paul is rather forceful in his language throughout the letter.  The reason for Paul’s forcefulness is that the Galatians have abandoned the truth of the Gospel, which they had received at the beginning, for another gospel.  This other gospel that the Galatians have allowed to influence their thinking, is one not based on salvation through the grace of God as a gift, but on works.  Someone had been advocating that these Gentile converts to Christianity must adopt Jewish religious customs and laws.  Paul, as he does elsewhere, strongly disagrees that these new converts need to adopt any kind of Jewish Law.

For Paul, however, the Law is not completely a bad thing.  Paul will use at least three metaphors to talk about the Law and it’s relationship to humanity.  His first metaphor likens the law to a jailor that has kept God’s people in prison.  Jesus came to liberate us from this imprisonment (3:22-23).  Next, Paul likens the Law to a disciplinarian who takes care of children, guiding them and instructing them in how to grow and live.  The final metaphor Paul uses is in chapter 4.  The Law is a guardian or a trustee who makes decisions about a child who has been orphaned.  Before the child has reached full maturity the trustee will make all decisions about the estate or things that the heir will inherit. 

The Text:
When reading Paul’s writings it is always important to remember that we are reading someone else’s mail.  As with correspondences of all types, there is an author of the letter and the recipient of the letter.  In most cases there are also outside people or events to which the letter might refer.  In this letter there is an interlocutor who is shaping the conversation without ever actually being present.  Paul is addressing this interlocutor as well as the Christians in Galatia.  Before we move on to discuss the text itself, we will outline these three different voices which have shaped the dialogue.  Of course, we will need to keep in mind that we only have one side of this conversation.   

The Author:
There is no dispute that the author of this letter is the Apostle Paul.  Paul spends a good portion of the beginning of this letter retelling the story of the beginnings of his ministry.  He does this to build his credentials as one who has preached Christ and Christ alone without needing to adhere to the Law.  Keep in mind, however, that Paul was a Pharisee and a zealous one at that!  Paul is writing this letter to help the Galatians see that they are actually moving backwards in their faith.  Someone has caused them to abandon the gospel they first received for a counterfeit one. 

The Audience:
Paul is likely speaking to a mixed crowd of Christians at several churches in the province of Galatia.  Most of these Christians are Gentiles who have converted from the pagan religions of the area.  A small number of those in Paul’s audience are Jewish converts.  Obviously, for these Jews, the Law has played a crucial part in their development and understanding of God and their relationship to God.

The audience knows Paul personally.  Paul himself planted the churches, of which these readers are a part.  The relationship between Paul and the Galatians is a good one.  The Galatians were kind to Paul in a time of sickness and helped him recover.  All the while, Paul preached to them the good news concerning Jesus Christ.

The Judaizers:
There is a third voice, or conversation partner, present in this dialogue between Paul and the Galatians.  We will refer to them as the Judaizers.  These Judaizers were Christians who still maintained very tight connections with the Jewish faith and all of its laws and rituals.  While Paul’s message was Christocentric, the Judaizers message continued to revolve around adherence to the Law as a means of gaining or maintaining good standing in the eyes of God.  Certain things, such as dietary laws and circumcision, were thought to be extremely important.  It was not out of malice that these Judaizers sought to infiltrate the Galatian churches, but rather out of a misunderstanding of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Paul’s argument in this letter is set squarely at defeating the influence that these Judaizers have had on the Galatians. 

The Law:
With all of this in mind we now turn to the text itself.  Paul has spent the last few chapters detailing the relationship of God’s Law to God’s people.  He has said that the law was like a prison guard, which sought to keep God’s people imprisoned.  He has also said that the law was like a disciplinarian whose job it was to keep the people in line.  Now, however, he shifts images again.  The Law, Paul says, is like a guardian or trustee who has been appointed by a father before his death to ensure that, upon his death, the father’s estate is managed correctly.  When the time comes, when the heir reaches the age set by the father, he will receive all that the father had promised him. 

Paul stresses that the child who is under the authority of a trustee is no better than a slave.  Even though he is one day to receive the promise of the full inheritance, the child is not yet ready to receive it.  This image, Paul says, is how we were before Christ came.  We were heirs to the promise of blessing and salvation but before Jesus came we were under the Law.  The Law, in this image, is a good thing.  It provides order, guidance and protection for those under its care.   But, Paul says, the time has come for us to receive the promise because we have come of age. 

It is easy to view the Law as a bad thing.  Indeed, some of Paul’s images regarding the Law lead us down this path.  The Law, understood properly and as it was intended to be, fits the image that Paul is using rather well.  The Law was never intended to be a harsh burden or an impersonal set of requirements.  It was intended, from the very beginning, to guide and shepherd God’s people.  It provided God’s people with a way to flourish in response to the blessing and salvation they had received from God by being rescued from slavery in Egypt.  It was never meant to reign supreme.  The Law had its place, but the time for the Law, as Israel had understood it, has passed.  This is not to say that any type of moral law does not bind us.  No, we are bound to Christ and the law of Love (loving God and loving our neighbor).  We act as morally righteous persons in the world because Christ enables us to do so.    

The Elemental Spirits:
Paul mentions that while we were under the Law we were enslaved to the “elemental spirits of the world.” (The NIV translates this as “the basic principles of the word.”)  There has been much debate as to what exactly this phrase means.  There is a good chance that the phrase can mean different things for the two different groups of people Paul is writing to.  For the Gentiles, this phrase could mean the very basic elements that make up the world.  Some believe that this reflects a pagan worship of nature and their cultic practices.  For the Jewish Christians it could mean the very beginning of knowledge, the ABC’s, if you will, of how to live as God’s people.[1] Regardless of the exact meaning of this phrase, the result is clear, when Jesus came; he set both Jew and Gentile free from slavery to these principles or spirit.

The Fullness of Time:
Paul’s argument continues; the fullness of time has come.  As heirs to the promised inheritance, we have come of age.  Our coming of age, however, is nothing that we have done; it has not been at our initiative.  Rather, God has decided that the time is right and sent his Son to be born of woman.  Jesus is born of a woman and takes on the entirety of what it means to be human, including our slavery to the Law.  It is this being born under the Law that lets Jesus stand in solidarity with us.  One commentator puts it like this; “He assumed the existence of Adam after the fall (cf. Rom. 8:3).  He was vulnerable to all the conditions of human life which constantly threaten and unsettle –fear, loneliness, suffering, temptation, doubt, and ultimately godforsakeness.”[2]  He fulfills the Law and redeems us from the curse of the Law.  The Law as we know it now has no power over us. 

Without any warning Paul shifts the image.  He has been talking about us as sons and daughters, heirs to the inheritance.  Now, as we move forward in the text, we are orphans in need of adoption.  Jesus is the true Son, and he has now made a way for us to become full sons and daughters of God as well.  In Rome, rulers often adopted sons from outside of the family to whom they would pass on their position of authority.  A son could be adopted even if the father and mother were still living.  The adopted one would leave the old family behind and be fully integrated into the new family, even receiving a full inheritance.  This could happen even to adult children.[3]

So, Paul says, we are adopted into God’s family, freed from the curse of the Law.  The time has come, and we will receive a full inheritance.  Not only have we been adopted into the family and have becomes true sons and daughters of God, but we are given the gift of the Spirit to enable us to claim our adoption and live as children of God.   As children, God’s Spirit comes to us so that we can call God our Father and so that we can begin to learn again what it means to be a child of God, and part of what it means to receive the Spirit and be a child of God is to fulfill the Law.

Our text ends with a reminder that we are now no longer slaves to the Law, or anything else, but we are children of God and as children of God we are full inheritors of God’s Kingdom.  This is good news for us.  For, left up to ourselves, or even to the stewardship of the Law, we would only find death!  As children, however, we share with Jesus in his inheritance! 

So What?
When we think of adoption we normally think of parents who want to bring a small child into their lives to become part of their family.  There are many wonderful reasons a couple, or parent might want to adopt a child.  There are also many helpful images that our modern conception of adoption could provide for us that might help us understand this passage more fully. 

Unless a child is adopted as a newborn infant the child has experienced some of its life under a set of rules and guidelines that may be different than the family that adopts them.  When a child moves into their new home, life is bound to be different, hopefully for the better!  Children who are adopted will need to adjust to their new life. 

This is especially true for children who are older when they are adopted.  I have friends who have adopted brothers who are school-aged children.  The brothers came to our friends first through the foster care system.  Soon enough the couple decided to make the boys a permanent part of their family.  The life that those boys lived before they came to be with my friends was not a good or easy one, and the adjustment to life in their new home has not been easy.  The boys, for their part, sometimes act in ways that seems to indicate that they would rather not be a part of their new family.  Of course, if you really asked them, the boys would believe that they are better off in their new life.

The truth is, like our friends’ two boys, we have been adopted from a life that was not the best.  Through our baptism into the family of God, we have been freed from our former life and from all that entangled us.  Yet, at times we are deceived and begin to believe that there is a better life apart from this new family.  This is the same lie that Adam and Eve believed, that there is something better and more fulfilling apart from God.  There is not!

The simple point is this, our time has come, and Jesus has burst onto the scene freeing us from every imaginable force or spirit or power that might keep us in slavery.  We have been freed.  We must look forward, we must move forward.  The Spirit helps us to do this.  The Spirit now helps us to take on the responsibilities of being sons and daughters of God.  Let us not return to anything that might promise to make us free but in reality cannot, be it religious laws and rules or any kind of immoral living.  We are not slaves but children and heirs through God!   

Critical Discussion Questions:

1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God has not left us as orphans.  God has not left us as slaves to the Law.  God has adopted us as sons and daughters and has given us his Spirit so that we might learn to become true members of God’s family. 

2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Our salvation looks like God’s movement toward us to adopt us as his children who will receive a full inheritance.  It is solely God’s movement toward us, not our adherence to the Law that makes full children. 
b.     Our holiness looks like remembering that we are now children and full heirs of God.  We should no longer look elsewhere for anything that might make us acceptable to God.  Our only response is in response to God and the giving of his Spirit that enables us to become full sons and daughters of God.      

3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     This passage once again calls us to be a people who have experienced Exodus.  We have been brought of out slavery and condemnation under the Law and have been brought fully into the family of God.  We must be careful that we do not settle back into a slavery of rules and legalism in the same way that Israel repeatedly longed to go back to the perceived safety and security of Egypt.  No, as people who celebrate Christmas, the fullness of time, we celebrate our liberation from sin and death.  We are children of God and we must now learn to live like it. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Read the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20:1-18.  God gave these laws to Israel right after they came out of slavery in Egypt.  Why did God give Israel these laws?
2.     As time went on, Israel began to understand the Laws that God gave them as a set of rules that they must follow if they were to gain God’s approval.  Do you think this is the right way to understand God’s Law?  If yes, why? If no, how should it be understood?
3.     Paul uses several images to talk about the Law.  First, he says it was a prison guard meant to keep Israel in prison.  Next, he says it was a disciplinarian whose job it was to keep Israel in line.  Finally, in our passage, he says the law is a guardian or caretaker for an orphaned child.  Maybe a good question would be: which image of the law do you identify with the most and why?
4.     Why do you think it is important that Paul stresses that Jesus was born of a woman and born under the Law?
5.     Paul says that we are redeemed from the curse of the Law because Jesus was born under it and thus we are adopted as children of God.  What does it mean to be adopted as children of God?

[1] Richard N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 41, Galatians (Dallas, Tex.: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 165-66.
[2] Charles B. Cousar, Galatians: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,  (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 94.
[3] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982), 197-98.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-7 – A Great Light!

Lesson Focus:
Our king comes.  He is the light of the world and the Son of David. His Kingdom, characterized by justice and righteousness, will never fail. 

Catch up on the story:
Judah, the southern portion of what was once the unified nation of Israel, is ruled by King Ahaz.  Ahaz is a rather inept king whose policies will not help Judah as she is confronted with pressure from the north in Assyria.  The prophet Isaiah, for his part, seeks to encourage Ahaz to exercise radical obedience and faith in God.  Ahaz refuses and so Judah suffers immensely.  To be sure, Judah’s fate is not all Ahaz’s fault. They have been faithless in their relation to God for quite some time.  Oracles of doom and gloom are abundant in the chapters leading up to our current passage, but hope is latent in Isaiah’s encouragement to Ahaz to follow God.   

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 
3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

The Text:
As we begin to approach this text we are greeted with a theme that has run through all of our passages this Advent.  Anguish and pain are being replaced through God’s action in our world.  This particular passage has a long history of being read by the church in a Christological way.  That is, seeing that Jesus is the focal point of the passage.  Ultimately we will read the text the same way.  With that being said, the passage takes place in a very real and concrete setting in Judah.  Understanding the passage’s historical setting will help us see with greater clarity God’s work for his people then and now. 

Verse one is actually verse 23 of the preceding chapter in the Hebrew text.  It connects the judgment found in the later parts of chapter 8 with the hope of chapter 9.  This is coupled with the “former time” and the “latter time” which gives us a sense that judgment and anguish lay in the past while a new beginning is being created for Judah.  As we look at the passage in its historical and literary context, the “former time” is the time of the great failure and subsequent oppression by Assyria under the rule of King Ahaz.  The “latter time” then will be the new royal leadership found in and through Hezekiah.  Hezekiah will be a good king who will establish justice and righteousness. 

More generally, however, the passage can be read to specify the time of the exile and the postexilic time.  Exile is certainly a time of oppression and anguish while the return from exile represents homecoming and restoration.  If we expand the reading even further, then we can understand the “former” and “latter” times as being the times before God incarnates himself in the person of Jesus, and after Jesus’ death and resurrection.[1]

Certainly Judah in exile, and humanity steeped in its sins, represent times of great darkness.  We are a people who walk in darkness, longing for the light to illuminate our way so that we might not stumble and fall.  The prophet announces for us the words we so desperately need and want to hear: that in the midst of this great darkness there is a light that is dawning. 

Verses 2 and 3 form the first section of this passage.  The prophet announces that a great light now shines.  For Judah, in her context, that light is a new king with a new administration that will bring peace, prosperity, justice and righteousness to God’s people.  Their leaders have failed them for so long.  The coming of this new king, who will be in the line of David, will bring a time of great joy.  This king, for us as well as for Judah, comes now only through the power and creative movement of God.    

Verse 3 tries to describe, in images familiar to the day, the type of joy that will be experienced.  It will be the joy that comes at the end of a harvest, when the crops have all been collected.  In an agrarian culture there is always the fear that the harvest may not come, that something will harm the crops.  Without the harvest there will be no food.  Without food there is little hope for the future.  Our own Thanksgiving holiday has roots in the celebration of the successful harvest of agricultural goods.  Many of us, in contemporary culture, do not live with this type of angst and celebration.  If we were to write this poem today, we might describe our joy at the successful application for a well-paying job, or the joy at the completion of a successful pregnancy.  Or, perhaps we can compare it to the completion of a college or masters degree.  Any event, which if not completed successfully significantly limits our ability to live full and productive lives, is a candidate for producing the type of joy the prophet describes.   

The second type of joy is that of those who collect the spoils of war.  For Judah, this has more to do with a victory that frees them from an oppressive regime and allows them to once again experience lives of plenty.  When the war is over and victory has been secured, joy breaks forth because the prospect of life that is now not constantly endangered is over.  While, in most of our lifetimes, we have not experienced the type of warfare about which the prophet speaks, we can understand the joy that comes from enduring any situation that threatens our life.  We experience this joy when we survive significant natural disasters, or when we defeat a sickness like cancer.  What is at stake is life itself, and when we come out on the other side, we emerge with great joy and celebration. 

Judah is joyful because her God is now fighting for her, bringing the possibility of life where none had existed before.  We are joyful because the light of Jesus now shines upon us so that we might have victory over sin, death and the grave.  Our very lives have been saved. 

As the passage continues with the second section (verses 3-4), the prophet describes further reasons for joy that are grounded in and compared to God’s acts of victory in the past.  While God is always working in new and expected ways, we can be sure that those new ways will still produce the same saving results as in days past.  Judah’s “yoke of their burden” is broken.  “Yoke” here refers not to the yellow part of an egg, but a farming tool used to harness two beasts of burden together to accomplish work.  In Israel’s prophetic literature, “yoke” almost always carries a negative connotation.  A yoke, for Israel, is the burden of being oppressed and ruled by anyone other than God.  But the prophet announces, however, that the oppression will cease.  God will intervene and redeem Judah as he has done on another occasion, namely the “day of Midian.”

“The day of Midian,” refers to the great victory that God won for Israel through Gideon in Judges 6-7.  Gideon’s victory was inexplicable apart from the mighty hand of God.  Judah’s victory will be won as it was won on that day, by God’s hand.  Similarly, the victory that Jesus has won for us from sin and death is inexplicable, too.  It makes little sense that loving self-sacrifice would defeat the forces of death and evil.  As God has worked in the past, in surprising and unconventional ways, so God works now. 

The defeat that Judah’s enemies experience is complete and final in nature.  The prophet describes what becomes of the clothing and implements of war that belonged to Judah’s enemies.  These enemies are so completely defeated that every thing they have is used as fuel for fire.  The victory is complete and the enemy will not rise again.  So also is the final victory that Jesus will bring. 

The third and final section of the passage, verses 6-7, amounts to a royal announcement.  Until now no royal agent has been named.  The only thing known is that God is bringing about these changes.  Now, however, we learn that a child has been born, a child who will exercise great power and authority.  For Judah, this is a new king who will sit on David’s throne.  He will have authority like David did, as one who has been anointed by God.  He will be wise, shrewd and discerning. He will be a “wonderful counselor.”

He will be “mighty god.”  One commentator points out that this does not point to a claim of divinity for this king.  The Hebrew word translated as “God” is the generic name for a god, el not the more specific Yahweh or even elohim.  Rather, the title points to the power that the king will wield especially in regards to the military.  “Everlasting father” then refers to guaranteeing power that the king possesses.  Finally, the title “prince of peace” indicates the type of order that the king will establish.  Peace, and the policies that are needed to establish peace, is in stark contrast to the reign of Ahaz.[2]

For us, as we apply these titles to Jesus, we begin to see the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus is and will finally and fully be our Wonderful Counselor, the one who leads us with wisdom and discernment.  He is, indeed, our Mighty God as he is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,” as the Nicene Creed confesses.  Because he is God, he is our Everlasting Father and our Prince of Peace, the one who will establish peace for all of eternity. 

In verse 7 we are told that the authority of this king will continually grow resulting in endless peace.  But peace is never established without justice and righteousness.  Judah’s king, and our King Jesus, will only bring peace through a kingdom that rests on justice –right treatment of all people, especially those without rights– and righteousness –right relatedness between humanity and God and humanity and humanity.  The king comes to establish justice and righteousness so that peace, or more specifically God’s Shalom (peace, wholeness) might always exist. 

Important Terms:

Justice & Righteousness:
It is hard to separate these two terms as they are used in the Old Testament.  Both terms are relational in nature.  Often times, in North America at least, our understanding of the biblical idea of justice is blinded by how our criminal justice system understands the word.  Justice is served when one who has committed a crime receives the appropriate penalty for his or her crime (retributive justice). 

The biblical understanding of justice is much broader.  While it includes this sense of retributive justice it also includes the systems that make up society.  A just society, according to the bible, is one in which all people are able to participate fully and freely in the community.  An unjust society is when people or groups of people are excluded from participatione in the community, creating a class of poor and outcast.  The constant concern of the prophets in the Old Testament is that Israel act justly, allowing for the full participation of people on the economic, social and religious margins.  Systems and polices which constantly trapped people in economic or social bondage were to be confronted and changed (See, Jeremiah 22:3-5, Micah 6:8, Isaiah 1:12-17; 58:6.  Without justice, God’s peace cannot be known.   

Righteousness we can define as right relationships between people.  Injustice or unjust societies always damage relationships between individuals and groups of people.  While one starves and the other grows fat there can be no righteousness.  For to ignore the causes and systems of injustice which force one to starve is an outright devaluation of the other person.  The same can be said for issues of racism and any kind of discrimination.  To withhold from another the opportunity to participate fully and freely in a community devalues them.  When one person or group of persons is valued more than another person or group of persons, righteousness cannot be known.           

So What?
The light that has dawned, for Judah and for us, is the light of a king who comes to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  For Judah it was an earthly king who was anointed by God to do God’s work on earth.  For us, this King is none other than Jesus whose birthday we soon celebrate.  If we look back over the lessons we have learned this Advent, we fill find that we have been saved by this King even though we have been in our sins for so very long.  We find ourselves always waiting for God to intervene.  But God does intervene. When we think there is no possible way of salvation, God works in some new way that achieves the same saving outcomes that God’s actions always produce. 

Our salvation does not stop with merely our escape from those things that pursue us to our destruction.  No, in our salvation we long for the hands that so lovingly crafted us to take our broken and misshapen lives and make them beautiful again.  And as our lives are reshaped we are beckoned to cry out from the tallest mountains the good news we have received and experienced.  We are called to be evangelists.  Our call as evangelists was never meant to be only verbal.  We are commissioned to participate with God in binding up the brokenhearted and repairing the ruined cities of people’s lives.

Certainly the salvation and liberation that God gives is for us.  But it is for us so that we might participate with this King Jesus in what he is doing, establishing justice and righteousness so that peace might prevail.  Our faith is for us, but it is for us so that it might be put to work for others.  As we celebrate the birth of this King Jesus, we do so by working through the power of God’s Holy Spirit to establish justice and righteousness in our lives, families, church, towns, countries and world. 

Jurgen Moltmann, a contemporary theologian, believes that if we want to bring righteousness to the world we must first start from our experience of God’s righteousness.[3]  This Advent, and hopefully every Advent, as we move toward King Jesus’ birth, we have experienced in our own lives God’s justice and righteousness.  May our experience of God’s righteousness and justice in our own lives compel us out to proclaim Christ’s birth by working to establish righteousness and justice here and now.  

Critical Discussion Questions:

1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     We are shown the nature and character of God in Jesus Christ as we read verses 6 and 7.  All authority rests on Jesus’ shoulders; he is a wise and shrewd leader.  He is our God forever and he will provide peace through establishing justice and righteousness. 
b.     God’s peace and wholeness will not come through violence and war, but through the justice and righteousness that entails judgment and mercy, holiness and forgiveness, faithful love and freedom.      

2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Salvation is always God’s initiative.  It is God’s movement toward us, offering us light to replace our darkness.  It is God’s power to undo the deathly situation we put ourselves into, delivering us from all that enslaves and oppresses us. 
b.     Our response to this salvation is our joyful sanctification, our being set apart.  We respond, in joy, by working for peace and by seeking to do justice and righteousness in our world here and now.   

3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     Our first response should be that of joyfully proclaiming Jesus as King.  This joy is the joy that comes at the end of the harvest, or the successful application for a job.  Or the joy that comes with the pronouncement that one has defeated a life threatening illness. 
b.     Our second response is to seek peace through justice and righteousness.  We must find ways, in our current contexts, to right the wrongs of injustice and to establish right relationships between ourselves and those around us.      

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     The text talks about “former times” of darkness and gloom, and “latter times” where darkness and gloom are no longer.  Describe a time in your life that was filled with darkness and gloom.  Describe a time in your life when you emerged from the darkness and gloom into the light.  What feelings were associated with that movement?
2.     Who are the people who have “walked in darkness” and what is the light that now shines for them?
3.     The prophet describes the joy the people have in this new light as the joy at the end of a harvest and at the collection of plunder after a war.  What similar life situations might produce those types of joy in us today?
4.     In verse 4 the prophet describes the “yoke of their burden.”  What is that yoke?  How is God going to deal with that yoke?  (For more context on the day of Midian, read Judges 6-7)
5.     Who is the child that is born in verse 6 for Judah in its social and political context?  Who is the child for us today? 
6.     How have you experienced Christ as “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” or “Prince of Peace?”
7.     What does justice mean?  What does righteousness mean?  How might they be related to the peace God intends for creation?  What might is look like for us to seek to establish justice and righteousness?   

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah, Vol. 1: Chapters 1-39, 1st edition (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 82.
[2] Ibid., 83.
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 65.