The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
This familiar and well loved oracle is poetry and prophecy. Its song like character has helped expand its original historical setting (probably an accession oracle for a new king). Using rich metaphors of light breaking into darkness, divine absence relieved by divine presence, the joy of an abundant harvest, the spoils of victory, it has become an oracle of hope for all generations. It has found its way into the Christmas season as a messianic oracle.
Isaiah tells us that God will create a new wonderful possibility, one that is unqualified and unconditional. The darkness of despair will be flooded with light, God’s apparent absence will be relieved by the arrival of a divine presence. The signal for this is the birth of a child. This joyous epiphany is memorably captured in Handel’s majestic chorus from The Messiah ‘And the glory’. His combination of Scripture and music reinforces the Church’s claim that this passage is a prophetic foretelling of the coming of Christ.
The theme of transformation so vividly portrayed here is God’s work. Just as the character of the Davidic king, so longed for by ancient Israel would bring ‘justice and righteousness’, so the messiah of Christian understanding will embody all the graces God wants to bestow on the people of God. God’s glory will thus be revealed to all.
This Christmas Eve reading reminds us of God’s promise to us that even in the midst of difficulty, even despair, God, the eternal giver of hope, will journey with us in the person of his son, leading us towards a joyful future.
Loving God, speak to our hearts of your presence gifted to us in the birth of Christ. Calm our fears, strengthen our spirits, and prepare our hearts to receive your greatest blessing: the child who will transform our lives for good. Amen
The Rev’d John A Young, retired minister of Synod of Scotland and member of Giffnock URC