Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine. You will enlarge the nation of Israel, and its people will rejoice. They will rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest and like warriors dividing the plunder. For you will break the yoke of their slavery and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders. You will break the oppressor's rod, just as you did when you destroyed the army of Midian. The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned. They will be fuel for the fire. For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven's Armies will make this happen! (Isaiah 9:1-7, NLT)
All the great stories build up to a turning point, a hinge upon which the story turns one way or another. The movies we love do this through establishing a climax (or maybe two) that builds the suspense for the viewer. The setup for these turns comes in many forms and in many ways, depending on the story being told. Each installment of The Lord of the Rings (one of my favorites) comes with crucial decisions and actions that lead to either great victory or more ill-fated themes. The tension that builds is what we love, largely because we have an inborn sense of story that exceeds the boundaries of what we know as time. And God is the author of that story.
Among the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah stands out for his vision of what is to come in the story of Israel. This passage in particular, immortalized by Handel in The Messiah rings especially true. And, as I heard it again this past week, I was reminded why the first candle of Advent is traditionally lit for "Hope". It is the "hope of the prophets" as called out here that so appropriately kicks off the season leading up to Christmas. For this passage and so many others point to the turn in God's story when Hope is born as a human and changes everything. It was Isaiah's forward gaze which gives way to our own.
Wrapped inside the hope is the promise of a kingdom, and a kingdom of peace at that. In the face of the political turmoil Isaiah and the Israelites faced, this was a significant promise. The line of kings had all but failed and to hear that the throne would one day be restored must have been a great encouragement. A Son, one Who had always existed, was to be given to them. He would enter their story as the catalyst for the turning point - the Promised Hope Himself! And yet, when He came, they were all wrapped up in other things and didn't really notice. Hope was right under their nose and they couldn't see it.
But if we step back and look at the Great Story of God, we see that just when it appeared He had abandoned us, He enters our world and sets the stage for what will become the Final Act. He takes on the very worst of our suffering so that He can conquer it and leave it behind once and for all. Our Hope of permanent and final redemption is fulfilled as a tiny baby appears, born to a peasant tradesman and his yet-to-be-wed bride. As the songwriter said, "What a strange way to save the world."
But through this all, Isaiah clearly brings us the message that God is "up to something" ... and that Something is the Hope of All Ages. As I walk my own Crooked Path and pass through the annual cycle of Advent, I need to remember why we light the candles and tell the stories. They are part of our backward glance that leads to our longing gaze toward the future. As I pass through the Manger again this year, may I do it with sincere reflection on the turning point in God's story that so impacts me ... the Hope that is Christ.
- Have you taken a fresh look at the words of hope the prophets have spoken? Would you be willing to do that?
- And if you're willing to do that, how about taking a look at the manger as the turning point in God's Great Story? Can you see the significance of what God is "up to"?
- So, where is your heart this Advent season? Is it still stuck in a dark and disconnected world, or can you see the ray of Hope that shines as the story turns?