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3. Sunday of Epiphany, 01/23/2011

Sermon on Isaiah 9:1-4, by Hubert Beck


But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy in the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. (English Standard Version, as are all other biblical quotes in this sermon)


Darkness in the Wilderness

When darkness descends upon a person journeying through a strange wilderness, all attempts at getting one's bearings become increasingly difficult. Although the intention is to walk a straight line in the hope that one will cross a path, a road, a stream, some kind of landmark in order to find one's way out of the wilderness, one quite generally walks in circles without being aware of it. The best thing to do is to remain still through the darkness until light returns and one can get a better sense of direction.

That is easier said than done, of course. In the darkness and in a strange place one hears everything with a much more acute sensitivity. Branches rubbing against one another in the wind, an owl hooting, the rustle of grass as an animal moves about or a wolf howling in the distance all cause the hair on the back of one's neck to raise up. Better to keep moving, one feels, than to hear all that and more lest these strange noises affect one too adversely. So the endless cycle of movement continues, for movement itself becomes a distraction from all those fearsome inventions of the mind. It gives one the sense that one is at least somewhat in control even though one is completely lost. It is much like the story of the airline pilot who announces to the passengers, "We are lost, but we are making good time."

Light in the Distance

If, perchance, at one stage of that continual round of movement said person sights a heretofore unseen speck of light in the distance, it changes everything. Unnoticed earlier, it now provides a sense of hope ... of where to go ... of safety ... of shelter. First seen it was only a dot of light, but the nearer the traveler comes to its origin the brighter it glows until, standing on a porch and knocking at the door, a welcoming host greets him. He is invited into a family circle and he rejoices with great euphoria that he has been saved from the terrors of the wilderness. A fleck of light was all that it took ... but oh, what a great light that was.

The Darkness of Israel

That is the way it was when Isaiah wrote the text upon which we dwell this morning. The shadows of an Assyrian army hung over the Galilean countryside. Political turmoil was taking place within the nation at the same time that threats from an invading enemy pressured them from without. Even Isaiah seemed a bit uncertain about what the end result would be. He said, "I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him." (8:9) He nevertheless kept urging Israel to turn from its perpetual inclination to seek its future in the worldly ways of the people around it, warning of the futility of attempting to forge their future in ways like that apart from the God who was their only hope and refuge. If they follow those paths, "they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness." (8:12)

These are the words immediately preceding today's text in which Isaiah, pressing Israel to place its hope in the Lord, said, "There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish." Isaiah's reference to Zebulun and Naphtali is a reminder that this northern section of Israel, including much of Galilee, had already been ravaged in earlier times by invading forces. These occupying nations had already "brought into contempt" a portion of Israel at that time. The powers of the world had had their way - and if Israel pursued the way of the world those powers would continue to have their way. A future built on purely human efforts would always end up the same. It was a way of darkness. The nation would only be running in circles in that darkness of their dependency on their own self-sufficiency.

The Darkness of the World

It takes little imagination to recognize how much this text provides an image of our surroundings today. Our world, too, wanders about in circles of darkness, depending on its own devices to find its way out of the wilderness. Centuries of warfare have not stopped warfare. The "war to end all wars" only led to yet another war and a devastation of the worst sort. We are devoted to violence as a way to resolve international differences. Nor has the world ever learned a lesson from centuries of oppressing the poor so that the rich can stand on their shoulders. Amos' words of long ago continue to ring true though the ages: "Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain ... that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?'" (Amos 8:4-6) The world has learned nothing from centuries of oppression that have followed words such as these. Abuses of every kind, physical, mental, moral, spiritual and political, have never ceased. The more the world gives itself to human ways of dealing with its darkness the more inhuman it becomes!

Such endless cycles of hopeless meanderings mark the passage of the ages. Darkness encases the world, enclosing and surrounding it at every turn. One dare not stand still in this darkness for the wolves howl, the creepy things crawl, the twigs break with the wind and it is too frightening to think of sitting quietly in this wilderness. The world is devoted to distracting itself from recognizing the horror and terror of this darkness in which it is swathed with almost perpetual motion ... this darkness called sin in theological terms. Around us on every side are the diversions the world devises to avoid thinking about the terrible anxiety that consumes it ... an angst resting over the face of an earth that is governed by human efforts to find the way out of the darkness and into a future full of light. The darkness and gloom is pervasive even as we whistle in the dark and move on in our earthly circles with bravado. Israel's darkness in the futility of its efforts at preserving itself with purely human efforts is our darkness also!

Jesus Walked in the Land of Darkness

Matthew tells us in today's Gospel that Jesus "withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali." What was the point of this particular notation? It seems of no particular interest to inform us of where Jesus went - or why he went there. He tells us, though, that this was to fulfill the words of Isaiah over which we have been pondering as though this has a significance of its own in some way.

Historians tell us that this land, occupied off and on by various Gentile rulers over centuries, had become an area of mixed population. Many non-Jews had either been re-settled there by rulers or had found it convenient to live in the region for one reason or another. It certainly was a long way from Jerusalem and the heartland of Judaism. Some even note that Jesus removed himself to this far place "when he heard that John had been arrested," suggesting that Jesus, who had been baptized by John and was a cousin through Mary and Elizabeth, may have wanted to place himself into a safer area far from Herod's venom. Whether that is pure conjecture or fact we cannot say.

It may be something far different, though. Matthew ends his Gospel by reporting that Jesus tells his disciples just before his ascension, to "go and make disciples of all nations." Perhaps Matthew is placing a great parenthesis around Jesus' ministry by very intentionally telling us that the first words of Jesus reported by him were spoken in the upper reaches of Galilee which was marked by a mixture of Gentiles with Jews through previous centuries of history. When, therefore, "from that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," his audience is, from the very beginning, an appeal to Gentiles as well as Jews. Beginning his ministry in an area where Gentiles would hear his call to repentance, he ends his ministry by giving his disciples the instruction to take this call into all the world. Thus Matthew, a Gospel clearly addressed to Jews, reaches beyond the Jews in the very moment he addresses them! Matthew, in fact, quotes Isaiah in today's Gospel to the effect that "the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned." The light has dawned on the Gentiles as well as on the Jews in the coming of Christ, the Light of the world! Let that be clear!

The Light that Lightened Israel's Darkness

It is the light of hope to which Isaiah pointed when he said, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined." It was undoubtedly a dim light at best that the people of his time saw when he spoke those brave words. The internal turmoil swirling around them would not be easily resolved, nor would the Assyrian threat disappear. They were in the midst of the darkness created by all that turbulence. Isaiah, however, does not say that "the people who now walk in darkness will, hopefully, see a light breaking someday that will tear this darkness asunder in some now-unknown way." He speaks with all the certainty that one to whom the word of the Lord has been given must speak. He does not even speak in a future tense. The light has already begun shining. A "great light" need not be a glaring spotlight or a great magnification of light. When one is wandering in the circles of darkness, even the dimmest light in the distance is "a great light," for it speaks of warmth, security, shelter. The very smallest of lights in a far place is "a great light" that becomes even brighter the closer one approaches it.

Isaiah speaks of a promise ... a promise of God ... a promise that the darkness surrounding them at the time of his speaking will give way to such a light that the nation will "increase its joy." "The yoke of his burden and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian." These are words of assurance that God, whose word once given is already as good as done, will protect Israel from the tyranny that had overtaken Zebulun and Naphtali and the region of Galilee "in the former times." The chaotic times in which they lived would find their resolution in God's time and in his way. It was a light to which Isaiah turned the eyes of Israel so that they could endure the present and be assured of their future. Isaiah's words actually go on to speak of the one who would bring this to pass in words that we hear every Advent, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the governments shall be upon his shoulder," etc. Isaiah is not shy about speaking the word of the Lord shining like a beacon, drawing God's people into the future of God's making.

The Light that Lightens Our Darkness

If it was difficult for the people of Isaiah's time to see the dim light in the distance by which their future would be secured, it was doubly difficult for those gathered at the foot of the cross to see a light in the darkness of Jesus' death. His light, in fact, seemed to be extinguished in this unjust and cruel death over which darkness descended for three hours. (Matthew 27:45) How the hearts of those women standing watch over that death sank. John, of whose call to discipleship we hear in today's Gospel, was entrusted with the care of a bereft mother who surely must have seen this as her very darkest hour. Was not this three-hour darkness placed by God as a shroud over this scene because there, on that cross, the last great struggle between the tempter and the tempted, between the champion of evil and the Son of God, between life and death took place ... and it was more than human eyes could bear ... more, in fact, than human eyes could in any way possibly assess or understand.

From the human point of view, the darkness that covered the earth at its creation was a brightness compared to the darkness hanging over that cross. But in that strange paradoxical way by which God is forever at work in the world, to an eye watching with the eye of God, a light was shining forth from that cross. It grew very quickly into full bloom in three days when the light of life sprang out of the grave. The sin of the world that seemed to have conquered the man on the cross, dooming the world to an endless walk in the dark circle of death, was itself conquered by the God of Light, the God of Hope, the God who delivered his Son into death so that sin might be overcome and the light of life might shine through the darkness. Israel's light was revealed as the Light of the World there!

At the baptismal font the paschal candle stands lit as a sign that in those waters darkness is being cast aside by the marvelous grace of God using those waters to bring life where death casts its dark shadow. On the altar candles are lit as the Light of the World gives himself through the bread and wine to people whose lives are ever so threatened by the darkness around them. There God's people bring their worries, their fears, their anxieties, the various shadows that darken their lives ... and God casts his light upon them through his Son's body and blood.

Sometimes that light of God's promise delivered through words such as these in Isaiah is but a candle in a far-away window, breaking the darkness. It is, nevertheless, a constant that enables life's journey to stay on course. It always leads to the place of God's peace, God's shelter, God's future. Our future, like Israel's future was, is always in God's hands, of course, but at that place where Christ's body and blood are offered we see through the darkness of the world's pressing, clutching, grasping, constricting darkness, for the light of God shines upon us through his Son who is the Light of the world, present there for us. In those moments we dare to "rejoice before God as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of [sin's] burden, and the staff for [the adversary's] shoulder, the rod of [our] oppressor, [God] has broken as on the day of Midian."

Just as Isaiah pointed Israel to that light in the window of the future, turning Israel from an endless wandering in the circle of human efforts to a hope emanating from God, so he points us also to the light shining in the darkness ... the light in which hope resides and our lives are given direction to the place of shelter, security, and safety from the perils of the darkness. The psalmist said it well. "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1)

The Light of the World

One more thing, though! When the light of Christ comes to us, it is not intended that it is to make us containers of that light. We are, in the moment that light shines on us, windows through which that light shines on to others. His light, to be sure, claims our eye, our attention, our way of life. It gives us direction on our journey through the darkness of the wilderness in which we walk.

But at the same time our lives become transparent. Through our lives the light of Christ becomes visible to others so that they, too, may find the path to the warmth of God's love. If we try to contain that light as a treasure unto ourselves we will only find ourselves all too quickly back in the darkness again. Jesus, himself, said as much. "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

Through us, then, this text becomes as alive today as it was in Isaiah's day. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined...You have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest." The light of hope shines through the darkness to us - and through us to those who walk in darkness around us. Amen.

Lutheran Pastor, Retired Hubert Beck

E-Mail: hbeck@austin.rr.com