“The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light!” With those words Isaiah prophesies to Israel, in a historical time when they really were in deep darkness. They were soon to be overcome by the Assyrians. Jerusalem, their capital would be destroyed, and half of the population would be force marched into exile and servitude in Babylon. And in the midst of that, Isaiah had a vision of a future that would redeem and rehabilitate Israel.
Did Isaiah have some special open line of communication to God’s thinking, so that he could discern what God had in mind beyond the captivity? He certainly interpreted the exile as punishment because the Jews had turned away from God. He had seen that kind of action and interpretation before, in the stories of his people. With that mindset, perhaps he could also see that God’s punishment would not last forever, because God had operated in that way in the historic stories. In the past, when their time of trial was over, the people would again be favoured by God.
And of course, it happened as Isaiah said it would. But should that be seen as proof that he could see and predict future events? Perhaps. But I want to open up this passage of scripture beyond this one event, and this one way of interpreting it, because I believe it to be a passage of prophecy which has great relevance for us today.
Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar who has written several books about the Hebrew prophets, including “The Prophetic Imagination”, and “Finally Comes the Poet”.
You can see by the titles, that Brueggemann doesn’t primarily see the prophets as soothsayers who can divine bones and entrails for predictions of the future. He argues for a vision of the prophetic community that is an alternative to the dominant consciousness – he calls that dominant consciousness “the imperial view of reality” based on control by fear and power. He says that one of the roles of the prophets, was to empower the imagination of the people, to have a vision of the world that was different from the imperial consciousness, and to find the courage to live into that alternate vision.
The prophetic vision both criticized and energized. It criticized the nation when it turned away from God and embraced the imperial consciousness, as it did regularly. It energized the nation with visions of the future based on turning away from the dominant world view, and turning back to a commitment to God. And all of this happened, as the prophets imagined a future that was different from the status quo, and invited people into that imagination.
The thing about the prophetic imagination is, that it wasn’t restricted to one particular time, and one particular course of events. When the people looked back to the words of the prophets, they could often see their own time and situation, described in the prophetic vision.
Of course, specifically, Isaiah’s words were directed to his own time. The dominant world view of his time, was that of the Assyrians. They had the power. They were in control. To have any other sort of expectation was supposed to end in fear and despair, because the dominant world view was just too strong. Isaiah said that if you believed that, then you were being unfaithful to God who promised that all things would be made new. He offered a new vision. A child of God would be born who would lead the people in God’s way. He would offer them hope, and reveal to them, their power through God’s vision, to change the world they lived in. And it came to pass as he described it.
But, in Jesus’ time, his followers believed that Isaiah was talking about them. The dominant world view then, was that of the Romans and the Jewish leaders were, by and large, puppets of the Roman government, who instilled in the people, a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness, in the face of Roman power. But Isaiah’s prophecy seemed to criticize the leaders for turning away from God and toward Rome. His vision energized the people to dream of a future that was in God’s hands. In Isaiah’s vision, a child would lead them into this new age, and Jesus’ followers knew that it was him that Isaiah was talking about in the prophecy. Here was the wonderful counselor, the prince of peace that Isaiah had foretold.
Was Isaiah actually foretelling the coming of Jesus? His life seemed to fit in so clearly, into the story Isaiah told. Or perhaps the prophetic imagination that Isaiah set loose, helped his followers to see in Jesus, the child that Isaiah was describing. It really doesn’t make a difference. They did see in Jesus the child that Isaiah described – they embraced Jesus’ vision of a world of love and justice, peace and compassion. And they were set free from the power of the Roman imperial consciousness, as they began to hope for a different kind of world. And, the community of the faithful exploded.
And so, this brings us to our world, and to this Christmas, and again, it is an unsettled and unsettling time. In the nations of the mid-east and of Africa which have been ravaged by war and terrible poverty, people realize that though they have been promised peace, and the kind of prosperity that the rest of the world enjoys, those promises have just been empty words. And so, they are on the move, leaving their homes, in search of the lives they have been promised. And often as not, their migration brings them to places where they are in direct conflict with others who are feeling their world disrupted – people in our own society who have realized that the burgeoning economy has left them behind with earning power that has stayed the same or diminished, and futures that seem to be in jeopardy and entirely out of their control. And that is often leaving the exploited of one part of the world, in conflict with the exploited of the other part, and they are told that it is that other part who is the enemy. But the prophetic vision would say that, it is really the imperial consciousness that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people, that is at its work once more. And the false news of our day is that, with the trickle down effect of that wealth and power, that we will all prosper. But that story leads to more powerlessness and hopelessness. It is not good new.
One part of Isaiah’s vision seems to hold in our day. Does the other? Does the prophetic imagination still empower and invigorate us if we let it? Where is the child of promise for our day and age? Certainly not in the many leaders in many places in the world right now, championing a vision based on fear of “the other”, and offering themselves as the protector. Or perhaps, it continues to be the Bethlehem baby who is the one to bring the vision of love and justice, peace and compassion to this age.
There are many in our society who are suspicious of that possibility because, through the ages, the church has often been a creature of the imperial consciousness rather than of the prophetic vision. And, it simply confounds me but it is true, that in much of the world, those who are the loudest defenders of the vision of fear and division, of suspicion and conflict – those who are the biggest supporters of the imperial consciousness, also say that they are followers of that Bethlehem baby. Let’s be clear, in Alabama this past week, it was the Christian right who were the base support for the candidate representing fear and hatred, and it was a great groundswelling of black women, the marginalized and exploited in that state society, who accomplished the election of the candidate who stood for decency and inclusion. They were the ones who stood for the values and vision of that Bethlehem baby – perhaps many of them were also his followers, but if they were, they didn’t mouth the values – they simply lived them.
I see signs that the vision of the prophets seems much more possible today, than it did in either of the other two eras that we have looked at. In many ways, the world is really becoming a different place. There are so many examples that could be given, but I want to cite three statistics. Seventy five years ago, 240 people per million in the world were killed in wars each year. Now, it is 11 people per million. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of the world’s population was considered desperately poor. At the beginning of the 21st century, it was 11%. At the beginning of the 20th century, 85% of the world was illiterate. At the beginning of the 21st century, 85% of the world is literate.
There is an alternate world, already in existence. But the prophets didn’t say it happened if we just tried a little harder. They said that the conflict and oppression happened, when humanity turned away from God’s vision of love and justice and peace and compassion. Conflict and oppression had no power, when we turned toward the light. That is why this prophetic vision has such a great strength when we turn toward the light. “The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light!”. We cannot let fear turn us away from that light. We cannot let the lure of power, turn us back to the vision of a world based on conflict. Through two thousand seven hundred years, Isaiah throws that challenge down to us. Let’s not flinch from answering it.
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