Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all the nations to see! For the glory of the LORD is shining upon you. Darkness as black as night will cover all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the LORD will shine over you. All nations will come to your light. Mighty kings will come to see your radiance. —Isaiah 60:1-3, NLT
Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will soon be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light—a light that will shine on all who live in the land where death casts its shadow. —Isaiah 9:1,2, NLT
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. And the government will rest on his shoulders. These will be his royal titles: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His ever expanding, peaceful government will never end. He will rule forever with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David. The passionate commitment of the LORD Almighty will guarantee this! —Isaiah 9:6,7, NLT
There is something different about America, and that difference is often referred to as American exceptionalism. We are a nation of individuals united not by a common history or because we share the same class or race, but because we agree about the importance of a specific set of core values: equality, individual liberty, private property, entrepreneurialism, republicanism. Or, as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Millennia before America began thinking of itself as special, there was an even greater claim of exceptionalism by an insignificant tribe of people descended from Abraham. They had been chosen by God, they said. The God of creation had promised to pour out his blessing on Abraham’s sons and daughters and make them an example to the world.
They would be a light in times of darkness.
Thus begins the next chapter of Handel’s Messiah. The music is heavy, speaking somberly of the people who “walk in darkness.” We are those people: the unelected; the misinformed; the unforgiven. We have stumbled through history like blind men walking in unfamiliar terrain.
But the prophet has a secret — from the children of Abraham will come a child, a King of kings, who will rule in peace and with justice forever. This King will be a light to all people, not only the chosen sons and daughters of Abraham.
Handel’s music brightens. Jewish exceptionalism does not mean Jewish exclusivity. God has drawn all, Jew and gentile alike, into the circle of his love.
Handel’s chorus practically shouts Isaiah’s promise of the child King. He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He will be a light to the entire world, because God has promised it. He will put out the darkness, because God has desired it.
Who is this exceptional child?
Photo credit: Original Messiah manuscript, British Library