Below are the notes for the sermon I preached at Bellingham Covenant Church on November 29, 2009 – the first Sunday of Advent. As I was just beginning to prepare this sermon, I bought and started to read Darrell Johnson’s book The Glory of Preaching. Handily enough, the book included a sample outline of this very passage. So I used that as a base, modified it and expanded on it.
Unfortunately, there will be no audio posted on the Internet, because there was a problem with the sound that day.
Isaiah 9:2-7 – “For Unto Us a Child Is Born”
Intro: Happy New Year! This is the first Sunday of Advent, the time leading up to our celebration of Christmas. It’s the time when we start to think about what we are celebrating, and why we celebrate it. This is a well-known text that you see on greeting cards, and that you hear in the music of Handel’s Messiah. Today we’ll talk about why it is important.
We are going to start, though, by talking about fear. The phrase “Do not be afraid” occurs in the Bible 74 times, and it is usually God who says those words. We’re going to talk about fear today, but we are also going to talk about a reason why not to be afraid.
Background: Assyria was the greatest empire at the time this passage was written. On the map, the dark green was the Assyrian territory in 824 BC. The light green was the Assyrian empire in 671 BC. This prophecy was given around 730 BC. That means the Assyrian empire had been expanding for 100 years before this, and would continue to expand for another 60 years. Everyone was terrified of Assyria, and the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel (Judah, the southern kingdom, is the yellow blob on the map) were right in the middle of everything.
Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrian king, took part of Galilee, which was in the northern kingdom, sometime before 731 BC (2 Ki 15:29). Ahaz, who was king of Judah beginning in 735 BC, saw what was happening to the Northern Kingdom and was afraid. Because of this fear, he adopted a pro-Assyrian foreign policy. Pekah king of Israel and Rezin king of Damascus (Aram) attacked Judah because of this pro-Assyrian policy in 735 BC (2 Ki. 16:5, 2 Chr. 28:5-15)
Ahaz was terrified by the Syro-Ephraimite threat, and sent to Tiglath-Pileser for help (Is. 7:2, 2 Ki. 16:7-9). It is here that this passage (9:1-7) lies: about 735 BC.
Isaiah comes to the king and says: you are not depending on God to save you. You are depending on Assyria. You want Assyria to come; well, Assyria will come, all right. He’ll come like a flood, and the waters are going to be up to your neck! (8:8). The problem with King Ahaz was that he was depending on the power of Assyria to defend him and take away his fear instead of on the Lord. He didn’t want to give God control of the situation; he wanted to keep control for himself. This prophecy was fulfilled 30 years later under Sennacherib of Assyria (ca. 704 BC) (Is. 36). He invaded Judah, and was at the gates of Jerusalem, but in the end, he mysteriously withdrew. But that is another story (found in Is. 36-37).
But despite his message of judgment, Isaiah is ultimately hopeful. Judah has leadership that tries to keep control instead of relying on God, but these verses look ahead to a child who will be born and change everything.
Verses 4, 5 and 6 of this passage all begin with the Hebrew word ki. It’s a “key” word. It means “for,” or “because.” The things that happen in verses 2 and 3 happen because of what we find in verses 4, 5 and 6. And they escalate, building up to verse 6, which presents the central idea of this passage: Because this Child is born, everything changes; because the son is given, there is hope in the face of fear.
Four things happen because the child is born. Because the child is born:
Light shines in the darkness (9:2)
Chapter 8 ends with the words, “they will be thrust into utter darkness.” There is ultimately no hope for those who do not consult God. Ahaz wanted to do everything in his own power. He didn’t consult God because he didn’t want to depend on God. He didn’t want God to ask him for anything he didn’t want to give. He would rather rely on his own skills and intelligence. But his own skills and intelligence were not good enough.
But chapter 9 begins with the word, “Nevertheless.” Nevertheless, God will shine a light for those who can’t see for themselves. These people did not create this light for themselves. God gives his presence, his light, to people who are groping in the darkness. They can continue to grope around in the dark, or they can walk by the light.
Joy emerges in the gloom (9:3)
This is an incredible contrast with what has come before. Isaiah has just prophesied destruction, and here he is talking about joy.
The tense these verbs are in is the perfect. “You HAVE enlarged the nation.” God is giving his people hope. Even though there will be judgment, it will be followed by joy. It will surely come. Joy emerges, even in the gloom.
Freedom breaks through the oppression (9:4)
Why is there joy? FOR God has delivered his people from oppression. Too often, Christians think that true oppression, true bondage is to personal sin from which Jesus frees us. Other people say that Jesus came to free people from political oppression. Which one is it? The answer is: both. Jesus came to free people from bondage to sin. The main reason for the conflict between people is first that people are in conflict with God. But we can’t get right with God and act like that is the end of the story. When we love God, we have to love our neighbor. And part of loving our neighbor means participating with God in freeing people from oppression. This means fighting against human trafficking. This means fighting against poverty. There are two yokes that God frees people from. We can’t forget either one.
“Midian’s defeat” is talking about Judges 6-7, where he delivered his people from a real-life oppressor. In case the people of Isaiah’s day didn’t believe him, he points to a concrete example that everyone would recognize: Remember when God came into this hopeless situation and freed you? He did it then, and he can do it again.
Peace overcomes strife (9:5)
How is God going to get rid of oppression? He’s going to get rid of war.
Earlier in this book, Isaiah said that armies would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (2:4). But here he goes even further. Not just the weapons, but even the boots and the bloody garments will be burned. There will be absolutely no warfare.
There is joy BECAUSE God has delivered from oppression, and he does that BECAUSE he has brought an end to war. How can this happen? Because of the son with all the names:
Wonderful Counselor – “wonder of a counselor”
wonder – power (as in God showing his wonders in Egypt).
counselor – wise. The kings of Israel and Judah lacked wisdom, but this figure is perfectly wise.
Mighty God – The person who is being talked about is none other than God in human form. He is not just a great person.
Father of Eternity – He is father forever. Many ancient kings called themselves fathers to their people. In the ancient world, fatherhood is about taking care of people. This person will be a father, a protector, forever. Some people have difficulty thinking of God as father. When the Bible talks about God as father, it is not saying that he is a father like any other father, or even a king like any other king. He is the father that other fathers were meant to look like, and the king that other kings were meant to look like. He will protect and take care of his people forever. He will never fail. Earthly fathers fail. Earthly leaders fail. God will never fail.
Prince of Peace – He is not the kind of prince who squashes all defiance. He doesn’t throw his weight around, like the king of Assyria. He doesn’t rely on the strength of others, like the king of Judah. He will base his kingdom on justice and righteousness, rather than violence and coercion. And he will do this forever.
Now that we know what this child does, we can ask: Who is this child? Ahaz’s son Hezekiah was a good king, but he didn’t do all the things that this passage talks about.
No one fits the bill until the night Jesus was born, when the sky filled with angels saying, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” (Luke 2:10)
Matthew makes this explicit in 4:15-16, when he describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry by quoting this very passage.
If we follow Jesus and put our trust in him, this passage applies to us. So because Jesus has been born, and the government is on his shoulders,
We can know light in the darkness.
We can know joy in the gloom.
We can know freedom in the oppression.
We can know peace in the strife.
The theme of this section of Isaiah, is “trust.” King Ahaz needed to trust God rather than his own wisdom. That is still the message for us. Where do you need to give Jesus “the government” today?
When he is given control, everything changes. It isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy in Isaiah’s day. Even when Isaiah confronted him, Ahaz wouldn’t give up control.
It’s scary for us to give up control, but that is because we’re selfish and have trouble trusting.
But Jesus is trustworthy, and giving him control of all of life is the only thing that gives life.
Invite him into the darkness. Invite him into the gloom. Invite him into the oppression. Invite him into the strife. Give him the government. His shoulders are big enough to carry it.
“For unto us.” Because unto us. Everything can be different.