Summary: Jesus has come, the Light that was promised for centuries. His gospel glows in the darkness of human sin and cannot be extinguished.
The Gospel Glows in the Dark
January 1, 2006
I remember that afternoon very clearly. I had just begun my research for my doctoral project on clergy burnout and was interviewing a pastor from another denomination about the difficulties he was facing in his current church.
He sat slumped in the chair in front of my desk with his eyes cast downward for most of the hour we spent together. His voice was flat and without emotion. On occasion, I would notice a tear in the corner of his eye.
Twenty-two years before, he had entered the ministry full of hope and expectation. He loved the Lord, loved the church, loved people, and genuinely felt called to the pastorate. He’d invested in college and then seminary, both financially and emotionally. He had dreams of doing great things for God.
This particular church has called him as their pastor a few years before. Things had started out well, but over time, relationships began to exhibit the strain brought on by different expectations and worldviews. He was going one way and the church was going another.
When that happens, people will often begin to find fault for reasons that have nothing to do with the original conflict. They started to complain about the way he handled meetings, the content of his sermons, the behavior of his wife, his ability to manage the church budget, and a whole host of other stuff. They finally fired him – this was a congregational-type denomination in which churches hire and dismiss their pastors without input or interference by the larger judicatory.
As I listened to his story, I realized that the church probably had some legitimate concerns. But it was also clear that the pastor was doing his best to try to lead the church toward a new vision and new life. It was unfortunate that the church was unwilling or unable to respectfully and honestly work through their conflict. Instead, they found it easier to just change pastors. Neither the church nor the pastor was helped in that process.
He told me that the reality of ministry and the vision of ministry proved to be two completely different things. His expectations were dashed on the rocks of human behavior which is not always beneficial or even Christian in practice.
I thought of that story this week when I was considering the lesson from Isaiah. The majority of mainline scholars believe that Isaiah is really three different prophecies written by three different individuals at three different times in history. Some conservative scholars disagree with that, and that is part of what makes biblical interpretation fun. But, this is what I was taught in seminary and have found no justifiable reason to change my mind in the years hence.
Chapters 1-39, I believe, were written by the prophet himself in the seventh century BC. This is pre-exile, before the Babylonian armies swept through the region; before many of the people were taken away to Babylon in the chains of captivity.
Second Isaiah, or chapters 40 – 55 were written by another prophet writing during the exile under Isaiah’s name. These chapters begin with that wonderful sign of redemption and recovery.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Eugene Peterson paraphrases those verses like this:
Comfort, oh comfort my people, says your God. Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem, but also make it very clear that she has served her sentence, that her sin is taken care of – forgiven! She’s been punished enough and more than enough, and now it’s over and done with.
In this second section of Isaiah come the promises of a restored land and people. They are to be brought back to their land, their capital, and the center of their worship. Their national nightmare was about to be ended.
The third section of Isaiah then – Chapters 56-66 - was written after the exile, when they had indeed returned to their homeland. They had returned to discover that the reality of restoration didn’t meet their expectations. They expected smooth sailing, sunshine, and blue skies, but much like my pastor friend, the reality didn’t live up to the promise. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah detail the struggles to rebuild the city, the Temple, and the religious life. It was not easy by a long shot. The Promised Land did not fit the hopes that had been kindled in Babylon.
Third Isaiah renewed the promise made during the exile. God, the prophet said, had not forgotten the people. They were not alone. They were not forsaken. They were not left to their own devices. They were not going to have to fend for themselves. There was going to be a light in their darkness.