Isaiah the prophet gets a workout for Christmas. We lean heavily on his oracles about the coming Messiah and the Day of the Lord that his presence would bring into existence when we read Scripture during Advent. They tend to mesh nicely with the season of preparation for the birth of the King.
Some of those oracles describe the kind of world this new King would bring about. The general heading for these images is "the peaceable kingdom," as Isaiah describes at some length how even natural enemies such as predators and prey would live together in harmony. No longer would lions say, "I love oxen! They taste like chicken!" but instead both would graze together. For that matter, so would the chicken.
In this particular passage, Isaiah speaks of the physical and spiritual restoration of the people and of their homeland of Israel. Remember he kind of straddles the fall of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon, so some of his words came to people who had been uprooted from their ancestral homeland. They mourned now, lost without their land and their connection to God, but Isaiah predicts a time when both shall be restored. Verses 5 and 6, with images that Charles Wesley would adopt for his "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," may be some of the most familiar to us, speaking of blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped and the formerly lame leaping like deer with joy. But we also read of fountains gushing forth in the arid wilderness, streams in the desert and burning sands turned into pools.
Some of these visions can present problems for Christians. We say that one of the messages Jesus proclaimed was that the Kingdom of God was at hand. It was actually his earliest message, echoing the one John the Baptist preached. We understand that to mean that, in the very person of Christ, the Kingdom of God was no longer separated from our world, but had begun breaking into it. The only problem is that this presence of the kingdom seems to bring about none of the changes that Isaiah and others say accompany it.
How can this Kingdom be "at hand" when almost everything we see and hear suggests that if it is, it's pretty well hidden? In order to believe that, I think we have to remember again that Isaiah wrote to an exiled people whose homes had been destroyed and whose lands were laid waste. So he framed the idea of the Messiah's life-changing impact in terms of a restored land. We also remember that this was a time when people didn't understand blindness, deafness and physical disabilities like we do, and might even view them as signs of God's disfavor or punishment. At the very least, these conditions limited people's lives much more than they do today -- no laws guaranteeing access, no support system to make sure they were taken care of, no Braille alphabet or cochlear implants or wheelchairs. So he frames the Messiah's new world as one in which these things no longer diminished people's lives as they did around him.
If we were Isaiah, inspired by God today to bring a message of the incredible change brought about by the presence of God's Messiah, how would we describe those changes? What images would come to our minds, specific to our world? I suspect they would be similar to some of Isaiah's images, but our culture would have its impact on them and some of them would be different. We might speak of a world in which people's freedom isn't limited by the bad luck to be born with some tinpot thug as a national leader. Or where people determine each other's value not by skin color or age or gender or income, but by the worth inherent in them as children of God.
But those are all big-picture things, changes that may have to come about slowly if at all, and some of which might really require divine intervention to be made real. If we look for them as evidence that the Kingdom is at hand, we are almost certainly going to be disappointed. As Christians, we also say that living life God's way brings about changes in on a much smaller scale as well, the scale of our own lives, decisions, thoughts and words.
The Kingdom of God may be made manifest in a world free of hate and racism, for example, but it's also made manifest in a people who continue to show God's love in what they say and do to each other and to the people they meet. Maybe we don't see a world free of hate, but if the world looks at us, can they see people who are free of hate, or at least making an effort to be? Do we demonstrate love to our enemies, or do we seek vengeance on people who done us wrong?
I'll freely confess to Christianity's detractors that our proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand could use some more evidence when you look at it on the macro, big-picture troubles-of-the-world scale. But on the scale of the individual believer, the Christian who proclaims Christ has changed his or her heart and who says God has made a new creation in the place of the old...is the Kingdom at hand there?
You tell me.