Christmas Day 2014
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Unto us a child is born.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the birth of a child which he imagines will change everything for the nation of Israel. What he says fits so well with the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that we may lose track of the immediate event Isaiah addresses around 700 BC. The nation of Israel, having grown from one little family to a nation mighty and powerful, has now long been in decline. Their leaders have betrayed them, leaders they expected so very much from, but leaders who fell short of their potential. The latest king, King Ahaz, pretty well represents what the nation has come to. Ahaz has lost his own faith in the one true God. And that’s easy to do. God is silent. God is invisible. God is slow. God lets others get away with bad things it seems. And God allows us to suffer without immediately rescuing us. Losing faith is a regular part of the human journey. There are not faithful people and unfaithful people so much as there are people who are trying to be faithful but can’t quite pull it off all the time. Ahaz has tried but the pressing events of the world and, presumably, his own personal life, have led him to clamor for control rather than letting God lead and guide him.
The nation of Assyria presses in from the north. The huge power of Egypt presses in from the south and west. The superstitious practices of the pagan religions lure his attention. He seeks an alliance with Egypt so as to avoid invasion and capture by Assyria. He turns to idol worship instead of faithfully falling on his knees and turning to the Lord himself.
We do the same thing. Rather than pay attention to the stress of life and ground ourselves in a spiritual discipline which will lead to discernment and peace, we look for control and quick solutions. Kind of like those who make a bad business decision and then start borrowing more and more or getting investors to provide more capital, thinking that surely this next little deal will turn the tide and give us enough money to pay off all that we owe, we keep ignoring the signs of collapse in our spiritual lives. Rather than praying our way through our struggles, we cover up our struggles with purchases or activity or work or family or anger. We seek someone else to blame so that we don’t have to sit with our own responsibilities. We keep hoping something will come along to change where we are but suddenly we are bankrupt emotionally and spiritually and things crash around us.
Ahaz’s world crashes. He even turns to the pagan practice of child sacrifice, killing two of his own children in the hopes that fate will relent but it doesn’t. The nation sinks into chaos. Assyria keeps getting stronger and stronger and the northern kingdom invades and captures, carrying off all the young and able-bodied, so as to demoralize everyone.
It is in that political and spiritual climate that Isaiah speaks. A child has been born, the prophet says, who will restore us and bring about all that we need. We believe Isaiah speaks of the young son of Ahaz, Hezekiah. He will indeed become king and things do get better. There is a spiritual reform of sorts and a new sense of hope. But it doesn’t last very long. Hezekiah isn’t the Messiah. He is just the latest king who will do his best but not be able to provide all that is needed.
We don’t have kings but a new hope, it seems, is rekindled most every time we elect a president. Funny how we don’t pin quite so high hopes on mayors or governors. We kind of know their power is more limited. But with presidents, like kings, we dream of great accomplishments. And every once in a while a candidate comes along who inspires even greater hope than usual. We pin all our dreams on that person and imagine the great new day that will come. The first year or two we start seeing evidence that things won’t be quite as good as we hoped, but idealism doesn’t die easily. Almost always our presidents get reelected: we need to let them continue to try, we think. But then, in the second term, we get disappointed and disillusioned. We turn on our presidents with some anger and, while there are exceptions, their approval rating generally plummets and we all start looking for a change, for someone else who might rise up and really lead us. Presidents for us, and kings for Israel we read, begin in hope and usually end in disappointment or despair.
Every time a child is born, the hopes of that family soar. Children ignite our dreams. We may suffer and know death but a new birth reminds us that life goes on, that there is some unrelenting positive force in the world even greater than the pain and suffering we endure. As our children grow, we don’t usually turn on them like we do our presidents, but we do come to see that they are not everything we had hoped for. How could they be? There is inevitably a little disappointment as we compare the potential and the reality of any one human life.
But the reason the words of the prophet Isaiah are still read aloud and have such meaning for us is that they help us to see the hope in the world that is even more real and true than the hope of any new king or even a brand new baby in our arms. The hope that is truly real is not in any human being or any worldly event. The hope that is truly real is in our God who has always been and who always will be, the source of all life that not only created the world that awes us, but sustains us on a daily basis and turns even the most horrible of events into places where we come to know that we are loved and cherished. We suffer and we don’t like that. But in our suffering we come to feel that gentle spirit of life which shows us that our pain is known and appreciated by something far greater than us. We come to see that our pain matters. The great compassion of the universe eases in and we are comforted. We are given a reason to continue. The pain isn’t erased but joy comes alongside it and transforms it, redeems it, makes it all worth enduring.
The great hope in the world is the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The hope of God is exhibited in the hopes we see in any birth of a new child, but that’s just a little glimpse of it. The hope of God keeps being born anew and will never die because it is life itself. Unto us a child is born. This day. Every day. The hope of God in Christ is here and it is what is truly real. That hope makes all things well, all things worth enduring, it makes all things meaningful. The hope of God makes all things good. The little glimpses we see on this holy morning are just the tip of the iceberg. The hope beneath it is deep and eternal and it cares for us, for each of us. This we know on Christmas Day as Jesus Christ is born for us and for all people everywhere.