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.
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. (9:2, 6-7)
In mid-Advent, it’s hard not to read those words in the setting of Christingle and Carol Service, and to try to look back to what they meant to Isaiah. It seems fair to presume a link back to the child whose birth was foretold in 7:14 and told in chapter 8 – the prophet’s own son. But it’s not clear how this was to be fulfilled – what would become of Isaiah’s son?
When we put this alongside the wonderful vision of 11:1-9, it begins to feel even more compelling to look beyond what Isaiah himself saw. After all, by all accounts many of the Jewish people down to Jesus’ day were still waiting for the real return from exile, when all this would be fulfilled. And we rightly see Isaiah’s words and hopes fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, while we still await their full completion in new creation.
That new creation is a vision of the Kingdom which encompasses all creatures, not just humans – let alone just those who know themselves to be God’s people. It’s a picture of profound peace and reconciliation on earth, not possible by any natural agency but needing God’s work in a new way. After all, even if we manage to get all the governments and all the terrorists in the world around a table to agree on peace, we’ll still struggle to get the lion to lie down with the lamb – or as in the Book of Kells, the cat with the mouse (lions being in short supply in medieval Ireland…) God’s work is about the renewal of all things, not just ‘us’.
And so we can recognise that Isaiah saw in his own son’s birth the hope of God’s renewing grace after the judgement of Assyria. And at the same time we can recognise the greater, deeper fulfilment of his words in the birth of Jesus – and yet again can recognise that the fulfilment that began at the first Christmas is still in progress, until the world is at peace with God and with itself.
With a few days of Advent left, that’s something worth waiting for and praying for.