It was a difficult time in the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Its king believed that it, like the Northern Kingdom, would fall to the wider powers of the world. It was so terrifying a moment that when God directly offered the king a sign, the king wouldn’t listen. God offered a kong-an, and the king refused to answer. Perhaps smiling like a parent, God patiently ignored the panicked king and worked through the prophet Isaiah to say that the immediate crisis would be resolved before the time a newborn, named “God with us,” would learn to separate good from evil. In the midst of the drums of war, God chose a child to calm the nerves of the people.
It is winter. As I write this I feel the absence of the sun, and a deep distress in my community. Isaiah wrote in a time of deep distress in his community. Then, like now, the geopolitical situation was unstable. The Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel were drawn into picking sides with the greater powers of their time. The glow of the unified and triumphant Davidic kingdom was in the past, the present was dangerous and the future, I hazard a guess, was dreary. At just such a time as this there blossomed hope for a future messiah-king, one who would restore justice and whose reign would usher in a time when natural enemies would snuggle up warmly with one another. This was an unrealistic dream for their time, but a dream which held out possibility and hope.
Today, on the first day of the new church year, we read from Isaiah. He was a prophet of Israel who lived and wrote in the 700s B.C.E, long before the advent of Christianity. Yet from its beginning Christianity has relied heavily on Isaiah for various reasons, not the least of which is the perceived prediction of Jesus’ birth. Various Christian beliefs echo today’s passage, include Jesus’s return as a judge and a new heaven on earth. Many imagine that once this comes about humanity “will beat their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-knives; nation will not lift sword against nation, nor ever again be trained for war.