I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I’m like hand sanitizer and 99.9% certain that no preacher wants to tackle Isaiah 9 on Christmas. We’re so focused on the birth of the Messiah and the conflation of the Synoptic stories to worry at all about what boarders on a supercessionist shoe-horning of Isaiah’s oracle for Hezekiah’s reign into a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. The odds are pretty good that one the congregation hears “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” on Christmas Eve, their imaginations are already in the shepherd’s fields waiting the heavenly chorus. Knowing this, the RCL didn’t let us off the hook by simply hiding Isaiah 9 on the Feast of the Nativity. Instead, it makes a triumphant reappearance here on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A.
While the common reading of this text as a precursor to the coming of the Messiah seems so easy and feels pretty good, I couldn’t help but get caught up on this image of the yoke of oppression being broken “as on the day of Midian.” I’ve heard these words for 40 years, but have never given any real thought as to what that that reference was about. Until today. Today, for whatever reason, the day of Midian grabbed my attention. Funny how scripture does that.
According to my HarperCollins Study Bible, Isaiah was references a story recounted in the Book of Judges. Before we get there, however, it behooves us to learn who Midian was. The son of Abraham by Keturah, Midian and his brothers have a story similar to Ishmael. As the children of a wife/concubine, Midian and his siblings were left very little when Abraham died. His family was left to wander as nomads, left without a home. Over time, the descendants of Midian grew in number and eventually became a great tribe, and when the Lord God needed to punish Israel for their worship of false gods, the Lord used the Midianites to oppress the people of Israel. Judges 6-8 tells the story of the Midianite oppression and Gideon’s army’s conquest and Gideon’s almost instant return to idolatry.
It’s an odd reference, given that the relationship between God and Israel was only good for about half a minute, but when Isaiah uses this image of the rod of oppression being broken as on the day of Midian, it helps remind me that this salvation thing is ongoing work. My salvation, as well as the salvation of the whole world, is being worked out day by day, as the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, deeper relationship, and the work of justice and peace. The great light isn’t something we come to see in fullness in a moment, but is revealed to, epiphany after epiphany, through the course of our lives as disciples.