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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Of Inaugural Addresses and Enthronement Oracles (A Sermon)

Isaiah 9: 1 - 4
Matthew 4: 12 - 23
Psalm 27

It is highly unlikely, altogether improbable that those individuals who compiled and organized the three year cycle of lectionary readings for the Church were aware that today’s reading from Isaiah 9: 1 – 4 would coincide with the very recent inauguration of the 45th president of the United States of America. So it is a fortuitous – a serendipitous – a providential text, fitting for today even if by nothing more than coincidence. Many biblical scholars believe Isaiah 9 to be part of an enthronement event, a “dynastic oracle uttered on the occasion of the anointing of a new king or at the anniversary of the event” (Scott 231) and, as such, is a fitting text to read as we reflect upon the recent transition of power in the government of the United States of America.

Speeches and songs are part of the pageantry of government – for better or worse. They can be used to inspire and encourage. They can be used to frighten and intimidate. They can be used to uplift and ennoble. They can be used to blame and harass. In his inauguration speech on Friday (January 20, 2017) President Donald Trump described a bleak picture of the way things are as he takes office – of “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” He described it as an “American carnage” (Trump “Inaugural Address”). 

Now whether or not he painted an accurate word picture of way things are or not (I’d say not; his description is either wildly hyperbolic or grossly dishonest), it is not uncommon for new government leaders to describe differences between the outgoing and the incoming administrations in the starkest and most dramatic terms possible. All that is behind was darkness and destruction, and all ahead will be light and glory.  For better or for worse, this is the way that propaganda works.

And it is the way that our passage from Isaiah works as well.  Although historians and biblical scholars cannot say with certainty whether this passage describes the rule of a particular King of Judah or if it is intended to describe the rule and reign of an idealized king of the future, and Christians have interpreted the passage to speak of Jesus Christ, it seems likely that the “oracle was composed to celebrate the ascension of an actual Judean king” in the 8th century B.C.E. (Scott 232). Isaiah describes the way things were as gloomy and filled with anguish. The people were walking in darkness and living in the land of the shadow of death. (Isaiah 9: 1- 2) They were under the heavy yoke of an oppressive foreign invader – the Assyrians. (Isaiah 9: 4) But the new king would bring light, would bring glory; he would change contempt into joy and rejoicing. The new king would be a magnificent figure, a messiah on the throne of David.

Now, please note that I am not equating President Donald J. Trump with the messianic figure of Isaiah 9 – Trump is not a messianic figure. And neither is he the Antichrist. And, let me continue, the same is true of his predecessor: President Barak H. Obama was neither the Antichrist nor a messiah. We read this text today without praising or demonizing either of those men, but to reflect on the ways that we can understand our world today. What makes this passage from Isaiah something more than persuasive political propaganda? What can our president do, and –more importantly- what can we do to make this reading something more than the inflated rhetoric and empty promises of political propaganda?

We can’t say everything that might be said this morning so we will limit our thoughts to two points – a two part plan for bringing light to a once darkened land.

First: We must lift off the burdensome weight of the oppressor. In Isaiah’s case the oppressor was obvious – it was the Assyrians led by Tiglath-Pileser III. The Assyrians were the evil empire of the day, the forces of darkness. In our own day the oppressor may not be the army of a foreign invader, but still threat, still a danger.

In recent days I have been struck by the prescient words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He described the oppressors of our day by saying:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (King “Beyond Vietnam”)

Any political or economic system that favors profits over people and products over persons is an oppressive system. Any law, or practice, or tradition that favors one ethnic or gender or sexual identity over another is part of that oppressive weight that must be lifted, part of the burden that must be removed if we are going to live in light and glory instead of dark gloom and anguish.

Theologian James Cone wrote, “Yahweh is known and worshiped as the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt, and who raised Jesus from the dead. He is the political God, the Protector of the poor and the Establisher of the right for those who are oppressed. To know him is to experience his acts in the concrete affairs and relationship of people, liberating the weak and the helpless from pain and humiliation. For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world” (Cone 62).

The weight of the oppressors must be lifted from the shoulders of the poor and the afflicted.

Second: We must put away our reliance on military force. We must be prepared to burn all the clanking footgear and the blood-rolled clothing; the signs and symbols of that darkness of death are ritually burned as the new king comes to power.

Again from Martin Luther King Jr:

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. (King “Beyond Vietnam”)
We have been at war for a long time, for far too long. We have been at war for my teen-aged son's entire life. I cannot wrap my mind around that fact. And more warfare will not make an end to our warring. We must make the hard choice to give up our reliance on military might. It has not made us safe. It has not brought prosperity to our nation. It has not brought light to the world, only more darkness. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that” (King “Strength to Love”). We must put an end to our warring. We must burn away our weaponry.

But I should stop here and be very clear to note that it was not king who did these things. Whoever the historical king in view in Isaiah’s text may have been, he did not do these things and bring light and glory to the people living in the land as dark as death. God did. “This is God’s own action. It is God who is the cause of the rejoicing, God who has given bountifully, and God who has broken the oppressor’s rod” (Lang). The king was God’s representative, his adopted son (Psalm 2:7), but it was God himself who brought about the redemption and deliverance of the people.

We "praise the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light" (Edwards) for he is our light and our salvation. (Psalm 27:1)

And this is still true today; President Donald J. Trump will not - cannot - save us; he will not deliver us. Our hopes cannot be in individual who occupies the presidential office. We cannot put our trust in princes or presidents who cannot save us. (Psalm 146: 3)

But if we would like to live in that kingdom of light and glory instead of the land as dark as the shadow of death, this must be our plan and program – to lift the away the weights of the oppressors so that everyone is free to share in the good gifts that God has given us, and to burn away our reliance on violence and military force. If we cannot do these two things then we will continue to live in the gloom and anguish of that land of death. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee of the Gentiles by saying "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Today we repent of all our oppressive systems and structures; we repent of our militancy and violence. We repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, the dawning of that great light is near even now.

Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco. 1975. Print.

Edwards, Rusty. "Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness" 

King jr. Martin Luther. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence” April 4, 1967. Riverside Church, New York, NY.

King jr. Martin Luther. Strength To Love. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 1963. Print.

Lang, Dirk G. “Commentary on Isaiah 9: 2 – 7.” December 4, 2012

Scott, R. B. Y. “Isaiah: Exegesis” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume V.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1956. Print.

Trump, Donald. “Inaugural Address” January 20, 2017, Washington D.C.   

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