“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - 3 April 1968, Memphis, Tennessee)
Isaiah 9:1-4 is a timely text for the day that remembers the light that dawned in this country when the voice of a twentieth century prophet, Martin Luther King Jr., cried out to lift the yoke of burden from the shoulder of African Americans and break the rod of oppression that kept them enslaved to systems that denied them basic civil rights. I hope that no matter where we stand on the political spectrum we can agree that denying people equal access to seats on a bus or at a lunch counter or the right to vote or what school one can attend based on the color of one’s skin violates the very principles upon which this country was founded. And therefore no matter what we think of Dr. King I hope we can acknowledge he was a man of great courage and conviction whose commitment to justice changed our country for the better. But of course that’s not what Isaiah had in mind when he penned this prophecy as the “he” who brought the land of Zebulun and Naphtali into contempt was the same “he” who would later make glorious their way to the sea. What seems ironic to me, in light of my introductory remarks, is why these two tribes were brought into contempt in the first place. When the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were given the prettiest land in Palestine they didn't obey God’s command and kill the resident Canaanites but lived among them, which meant at some point a Zebulun Romeo fell in love with a Canaanite Juliet and that was not kosher. Of course that’s not the reason the Assyrians brought anguish to these two lands, that happens much later, but it would seem that the very thing that Dr. King preached about having “been to the mountaintop” is at odds with God’s demand for racial purity in the conquest of the original Promised Land. But then the prophet who penned the prophecy could not fully foresee the future that was being promised. The great light that would shine over deep darkness did not come from Jerusalem but from the land corrupted by Romeo and Juliet’s romance. The “he” that would make glorious the way of the sea would lift the yoke of burden and break the rod of the oppressor not by ethnic cleansing but by bearing the anguish of the cross on his shoulders and banishing the deep darkness of death with the light of resurrection dawn. So maybe it is a timely text for a twentieth century prophet who knew himself to be a sinner but by the grace of God a saint as well, a man who like most prophetic voices resisted the call at first but once claimed by the vision did not withdraw even when he knew it would lead to his death.