Unto Us: A Child

Isaiah 9:1-7
November 19, 2017
Catherine Thiel Lee

This week I listened to the radio while driving around on the highway, as I often do these days, sipping my coffee and seeing how long I can tolerate to drone of the regurgitated news cycle before I have to resort to more interesting podcasts, or give up all together for another episode of Two Dope Queens. In the quiet, repetitive cascade of commentary on tax policy and sexual assault allegations, my ears startled to reports from Zimbabwe.

On Wednesday Zimbabwe’s national army took control of the government, placing the President Robert Mugabe under house arrest. This morning the government voted to sack 93 year old Mugabe, ending his 37 reign. Mugabe came to power as a leader in the black nationalist revolution, leading to the overthrow of white minority rule in 1980. Since then he has ruled the country as an autocrat, amidst widespread human rights violations and severe economic decline.

The ruling party, backed by the military, has appointed a successor, known by some as the hope-and-change inspiring designation, “the Crocodile.” Though thousands rallied this weekend in the streets calling for Mugabe’s resignation, it is unclear if a change in leadership with result in much change for the people.

Perhaps it will. Change is needed. I met a couple from Zimbabwe two summers ago at Mennonite World Conference who were part of my discussion group. I was struck by the nonchalance with which they spoke about their country, how they and many they knew went years without any income, how entire communities of people continue to just work, even though no one is paid. But it was no utopian, alternative economy. The couple was clear about the desolation of poverty. “Pray for our country,” they asked with calm simplicity.

All of this sparked my attention for lots of reasons, but the most relevant to this evening is that Zimbabwe is enacting a scenario that sounds eerily like our reading from Isaiah tonight on some level. For Isaiah speaks clearly of transfers of power, war, and politics. The movement of a government, held in one set of hands, placed into another.

“For unto us a child is born…and the government rests upon his shoulders” (Is 9:6).

Isaac talked last week out the broad lens with which the prophets of the Old Testament often speak, the way they zoom out to look at a picture larger than our individual piety, though always involving the piety of our participation in those larger systems. If last week’s dive into Amos was about a prophet’s commentary on economics, this week’s dive into Isaiah is about government.

Isaiah is a book full of rambling prophetic oracles. Jewish scholars tell us it is a book better read as a series of interwoven, historically fluid and complex poems than a tight prose narrative. The first half of the book is filled with pronouncements from Isaiah son of Amoz, a prophet living after the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel but before the Babylonian exile. He announces God’s displeasure with God’s people, a displeasure which is intensely personal and political. In chapter 1 Isaiah announces his vision replete with God’s voice to the people:

“When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood…cease to do evil, learn to do go; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Is 1:15-17).

Chapter 9, which we read together tonight, is much more comforting than all that, and much more familiar to our Christian ears. It contains one of the most famous passages in the Old Testament claimed by Christians as a prophecy about Jesus’ birth.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Is 9:6).

Many of us can even sign along. Handel’s Messiah, a beloved classical oratorio of Scriptural quotations, is already piping through the Holiday stations and shopping malls, the “Hallelujah Chorus” lifting hearts and minds, quieter movements calming anxious nerves.

“And the government shall be upon his shoulders,” booms the chorus before it reels off the throne names announced with flourish, titles capitalized, like when Winnie the Pooh is trying to tell you something is Really Important.

“Wonderful. Counselor. Almighty God. The Everlasting Father. The Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6).

Isaiah chapter 9 is one of the few breaks in the gloom and doom of the book’s early chapters. Isaiah takes a break, interrupts his own doomsaying to offer a flourish of hope. And Isaiah’s hope is profoundly political.

His hope has been interpreted in a variety of ways over time. Early on it was a hope of release from political captivity and avoidance of the downfall of Jerusalem. Later Jewish readers came back to Isaiah’s text as a predictor of a future Messiah who will restore the fortunes of God’s people. And Christians, of course, have carried Isaiah’s text into the Christmas season, naming it a prophecy of Jesus, the infant who would come, God birthed into the world to save.

Here Isaiah speaks of magnifying joy. The beleaguered nation grows, is secure, and rejoices (9:3).

Isaiah speaks of the disruption of oppression. He repeats himself three different ways in one verse, “the yoke of their burden…the bar across their shoulders…the rod of their oppressor.” God breaks up the injustice, shattering it to pieces (9:4).

Isaiah speaks of the end of war. His words in Hebrew are awkward, as though the lines are stammered out, as though he can’t quite speak them they are so unbelievable: the “tramping” boots of soldiers, their bloody garments, all of the dressings of war will be “burned as fuel for the fire” (9:5).[1]

Isaiah speaks of a new day. He takes the image of the yoke, the burden, the bar across the shoulders of the people and he recasts it. For as the yoke is shattered, and as war is ended, a child is born. The child’s shoulders bear a different burden, a transformed yoke. Now “ the government shall be on his shoulders.”

The government. Authority. Administration. All the possible translations have a remarkably politically modern and relevant sound to them, but I suppose the more things change the more they stay the same. Isaiah sounds like he is saying that our great hope lies in a transfer of power, and of political power.

The tenses of the verbs drive the verses forward with poetic muster, from past to an imperfect present to the strength of the infinitive: this new authority will work, will do things, will change things “to increase…to establish…to uphold.” There will be “endless peace…with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (9:7).

Isaiah’s hope is expansive and specific. It is clear and resounding. It is no wonder we have sung out his words for generations with such great rejoicing.

But the more I look at this passage, the more I question its triumphalism. As this little piece of Scripture worms at my mind, it makes me question my own longings and hopes.

There are a few details that keep throwing me off track when I look closely.

One of them is verse 4, “You have broken the rod of their oppressor,” it reads, “as on the day of Midian” (9:4). The “day of Midian” is in Judges chapter 7 and tells the tale of Gideon. Gideon is cunning and charismatic, “with the bearing of a prince.” His miraculous routing of the Midianites, with God’s help, saves God’s people. And like other stories in Judges it is rife with savage brutality, prideful leaders, missteps, idolatry, and oppression. “Midian’s defeat” is a loaded phrase at best, as the book of Judges tends to recall miraculous breakups of oppression even as it parodies leadership and power, all in the same breath.

Gideon is known for smashing jars to confuse and defeat his enemies, shattering a yoke of oppression. He is also known for melting down the earrings of his enemies (a weirdly specific detail of memory) into a golden ephod which his people then bow down to. They worship their plunder. Curiously Isaiah mentions the “joy of plunder” right here in verse 3.

And that burning of the boots and bloody war robes in verse 5? Maybe it includes the burning of Gideon’s garments too?

All of this confusing imagery leads me to wonder, what am I to expect from this new heir on whose shoulders authority is to rest? This transfer of power Isaiah envisions—is it going to work any better than any other transfer of power I have seen?

In my confusion this week I stumbled onto the tiniest, most obvious detail I have encountered in a familiar passage of Scripture in quite a while. And forgive me if you already get this, but it has been sitting with me all week.

Isaiah is announcing the reign of a child.

“Unto us a child is born.” A child.

I know those words. I can sing the song and recite the verses like Linus in the Peanuts’ Christmas special.

But this week I have wondered if my imagination, and the imagination of the church through time, as so often skipped the literal nature of Isaiah’s pronouncement because we are so caught up in our notions of kingship, our capitalized titles invoking God and father and princes, our need for hope that is mighty and controlling and powerful-to-set-things-to-right. We skip to some other image and imagine the government resting on those shoulders: a powerful Messiah, or a table turning Jesus, or a Savior defeating death politically or mystically, whichever your preference. Those are great images, but they are all of rather adult looking shoulders.

I can’t quite conjure what Isaiah is talking about here, but one way of reading him would be that the government is resting on an infant’s shoulders. If I am honest, that it is something that so confounds me I cannot imagine it.

So I went in search of someone who maybe could.

~

In college I was introduced to the art of Howard Finster in a Religious Studies class. My professor wanted to show his undergraduates another side of religious expression, something about religion beyond creed and ceremony, something beyond the boundaries of organized theology and logical constructs. Something kinda weird and beloved. So he introduced us to Howard.

Howard Finster is the grandfather of outsider art. A preacher in the northeastern Georgia, Howard heard God tell him to go and “make sacred art.” So he did, and with abandon. He began to paint and draw, sculpt and tinker. He fashioned thousands of pieces over the course of his life, including more than 46,000 installations all throughout Paradise Garden, the folk art sculpture garden he created at his home in Georgia. Paradise Garden consists of such wonders as a giant cement shoe, a five foot tall statue made entirely of pennies, and a two story bicycle tower constructed from bicycle and lawn mower parts held together with wire. He called himself “God’s junk man” and a sign on the front porch of his house announces, “I took the pieces you threw away and put them together by night and day/washed by rain dried by sun a million pieces all in one.”

His paintings are of a particular style, perspectiveless faces, often of sacred, historical, and pop culture figures. There is are fair amount of Elvis involved. Howard’s angels are my favorite. He painted lots of angels, flying sideways, wings stretched back long and fitted into their shoulders at odd, impossible angles. Sometime they carry trumpets.

And Howard, ever the preacher, used lots of words. His art is crammed in corners with rambling thoughts on his life and quotations from Scripture, filling the columns on buildings, scribbled across angels’ wings.

I couldn’t help but think as I paged through photographs of Howard this week that he might not be entirely welcome in our congregation. He was prone to visions. There is a photo of him wrapped in an American flag, a Dr Pepper machine in the background and a plastic trash bucket announcing loudly in block letters, “JESUS SAVES,” all caps. Yet something in his art is so suffused with a literal, nutty whimsy that I can’t help but experience the sacred of his crazy.

And as I thought and thought about this passage from Isaiah, wondering how to make sense of this image of the child with the government draped across his shoulders, I couldn’t do it, couldn’t summon the picture I sense Isaiah is trying to draw. Up against the limits of my own imagination, I thought of Howard. I wondered what Howard would do with Isaiah’s image.

So I searched online. I flipped through books in the art library. I poked here and there to see if this mad man of visions had something to offer me, to offer us.

I couldn’t find anything. There are some quotations from Isaiah scattered around Paradise Garden. But if Howard painted or wrote about Isaiah 9 I didn’t find it.

But I really, really wanted to. I was disappointed when I couldn’t.

And I have thought about that too. About why I put investigative hope in Howard’s work, why I found myself wandering the stacks of outsider art in the middle of a busy week when I really didn’t have the time. Why I would bother to tell you all about that little adventure.

I think it is because I realize I don’t have any good images. When I try to imagine the reality of Isaiah’s hopeful future all I can come up with are variations on Zimbabwe, power transferred from one set of hands to another. Or some medieval fantasy of a noble king. Or a broken American electorate, delusions of democracy.

None of that really does it for me.

And maybe that is OK. Maybe I am right where I need to be, realizing that God’s vision of a political future might have more to do with a crazy artist’s fractured visions than the reasonable arguments which occupy most of my thoughts and conversations.

Maybe I am looking for something new.

Maybe I need a community of artists and thinkers and lovers, including some outsiders and crazy visionaries, to help me remember the simplest things that I already read and see and sing and celebrate year after year, and somehow miss. “Unto us a child is born…”

And the authority of the mighty God will rest on those shoulders. Strange as that may seem.

~

I sat this week with one of my favorite patients. Bonnie is 93 and she will tell you she loves the Lord. I drove to the house of this old dying woman on the highway listening to dispassionate Western news reports about Zimbabwe, about transfers of political power in a nation halfway around the world, and all of this is absurd.

We sat in Bonnie’s living room and she told me about the frustrations and joys of growing old and facing death while her oxygenator hummed in the background. We read a Psalm together.

And then she said this to me.

“I love the Bible. But some parts of it I still don’t understand.” She paused and smiled and shook her head. “I think there are some parts we aren’t meant to understand.”

I know it is not that easy, to shrug and say we don’t understand.

But I am also ready to shrug off those old understandings, the ones that remake Isaiah’s child into a king, into a despot, into my own image.

I am ready to look for new visions. Longing to paint new pictures, dream new dreams.

Perhaps our work now is to do that together.

~

[1] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 24 (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2005), 133.

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