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There are some biblical passages it is incredibly hard to hear with fresh ears: this is surely one of them. Sing it with me:
For unto us a child is born!
Unto us… a Son is given!
Georg Friedrich Handel has made it nearly impossible for us to hear these words of Isaiah without also hearing his glorious setting from “Messiah,” surely the greatest oratorio of all time.
And, by extension, has made it nearly impossible for us to hear these words without thinking of Christmas. Not too long after Jesus walked the hills of Galilee, his followers started scouring their scriptures—what we would call the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament—for words to illuminate their experience of his presence among them. They found many, and this was one of them. Again, we could sing it:
Wonderful Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!
Since that time, Christians have understood these words to point forward to Jesus—that’s why we normally hear this passage on Christmas Eve. Jews, too, have come to understand these words to point to a some-time-in-the-future Messiah.
Today, however, we are going to try to hear the words of the prophet in their original context. This is going to take some work, because the original context is not an easy one. To help us reframe it, I’d like to share some words from the English poet Wilfred Owen. The poem is called “Dulce et decorum est.”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.[i]
In that last line, Owen quotes the Roman poet Horace, who said, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”—“It is sweet and good to die for one’s country.” Owen calls that, “the old Lie.”
I know that was jarring to hear, juxtaposed with that gorgeous passage from Isaiah. Owen was born in Shropshire, England to a working class family and modestly educated. He was a soldier in World War I. “Dulce et decorum est” is typical of the shocking, realistic poetry that gained him the reputation as THE English language poet of that war. The poem describes a poison gas attack. Every war seems to add new and horrifying ways in which human beings can harm one another, and the use of various kinds of poison gas was one of distinguishing features of that war. Owen was killed in action a week—almost to the hour—before the signing of the Armistice. He was 25.
In every age, it is as it ever was. In an 1879 speech to the graduating class at Michigan Military Academy, retired General William Tecumseh Sherman said,
I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.
Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell![ii]
This is it—the context of our passage today from the prophet Isaiah—a long and bloody siege of the southern kingdom of Judah by the mighty Assyrian Empire. It is late in the 8th century BCE, and the northern kingdom has already been swallowed up, and is no more. Just as Owen wrote his poetry, Assyrian artists also worked to preserve memories of war: cities mowed down, as if they’d had Panzers and poison gas at their command instead of Iron Age chariots.
And if you look again, you’ll see that the memory of war is tucked right into this passage. Hear again how the words conjure up the images: walking in darkness…the dividing of plunder… the rods of oppressors… the boots of tramping warriors… the garments rolled in blood…
War is hell. The prophet Isaiah agrees. It is a particular hell that we human beings seem hell-bent on inflicting on ourselves, over and over again.
And yet, that is not our take-away from this passage. That is not the final word, when God has something to say about it. Isaiah points people to the sign: a baby.
We are accustomed to associating this passage with one particular baby born about eight centuries later, in Bethlehem. The words of prophets are always spoken in a particular time and place, but they also find new meaning in new times. When Isaiah is writing , Ahaz the King of Judah, has his back to the wall. In order to fight a war against the northern kingdom he had allied himself with Assyria. And now Judah is a wholly owned and occupied vassal-state. The king is a king in name only. The glorious era of the Kings of Judah seems to be at an end.
But then, Ahaz becomes a father. Isaiah announces the good news:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, 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 onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. ~Isaiah 9:6-9
Yes, there has been war. And it has been brutal and bloody. But God is not finished. God has something else to say. God has something else to do.
And Hezekiah, that baby, grows up to be very unlike his father. He undertakes sweeping reforms of the religious practices of the people of Judah, re-establishing worship of the one true God.
For the moment, he is still a baby. But the promise of this baby is enough to open the hearts of the people to other glorious possibilities…
That where there was darkness, there will be light…
That where there was sorrow, there will be joy…
There where there were shoulders bowed down with burden, there will be lightness and freedom…
That where there were warriors’ boots and blood-stained garments, there will be a roaring fire, providing warmth…
That where there was war, there will be peace.
God comes into our most desolate places, the places where we are the most destroyed and hopeless, and plants tiny seeds of hope. For Isaiah and the people of Judah, it was a powerless little baby. For us… what is it?
What is your tiny little seed of hope? What is your flickering flame, springing up in the darkness?
For me, the SNAP challenge is one such little seed. A handful of people trying to live empathetically for just one week, by living on the typical food stamp allotment.
Another is this: The president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, will camp with the people of Tacloban, the area most devastated by last week’s typhoon, until help arrives.
And another: Hundreds of people in San Francisco turned out this week to help a little boy with Leukemia, Miles Scott, step out of the reality of living with cancer, and instead live his dream of being a superhero crime fighter, BatKid.
And another seed of hope: you. I look out at this congregation, and there is not one person here whose kindness I haven’t seen, whose empathy hasn’t shone in some way, whose love hasn’t been demonstrated—whether for someone else in this community, or for strangers far away, or for me.
God comes into our most desolate places, and plants seeds of hope. I invite you this week to tune your vision, sharpen your hearing, stir your senses to notice seeds of hope. Faces, places, moments, times when…
Where there was darkness someone shone a light…
Where there was sorrow someone brought joy…
Where shoulders were bowed down, someone lightened a load…
Where there were signs of conflict, someone brought peace.
God is busy, zealous, already doing all these things. All we need to do is notice, and to say, all thanks be to God. Amen.
[ii] William Tecumseh Sherman, as quoted by Dr. Charles O. Brown in the Battle Creek Enquirer and News, 18 November, 1933. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_Tecumseh_Sherman.