Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Little Light to See

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9; Matthew 4:12-17[1]

So I have a confession to make. I’m still kind of afraid of the dark. Well, maybe not afraid. But I do still get a little anxious when I’m walking in a dark place by myself. I’m not sure just what it is about the darkness that provokes that fear. Maybe it’s not being able to see; or maybe it’s not knowing who or what’s there. Or maybe it’s that being alone in the dark feels really alone. There’s something about it that closes in on you and suffocates you. On the other hand, I find it amazing that light, any light, dispels the anxiety darkness provokes. It is comforting just to see a light, even if it’s some distance away. In some respect, it’s like a visible reassurance that there is somebody there, somewhere. And, of course, the closer you get to the light, the less you feel that anxious fear.

Our lessons for today speak of the good news of what God is doing in our world in terms of light in the midst of the deepest darkness (Isa. 9:2). It would seem that the particular form of darkness the people of Israel were living under was oppression.[2] It’s not hard to understand how they might feel that same kind of fear that you and I may feel when we’re enveloped in darkness. But the good news that the prophet Isaiah announced to them was that God was coming to bring light into their darkness. And that wasn’t just some abstract promise. The prophet looked forward to the birth of a king who would bring freedom into their captivity, who would bring justice to set right the injustices, and who would lift the yoke of oppression from them.

Well, there’s no evidence that ever happened in the history of Israel. At least not to the extent that Isaiah envisioned it. So we either have to take it for wishful thinking, or we have to look at the promise in a different way. While the prophet focused his attention on an heir to the throne, I think we should notice that throughout the Hebrew Bible, in a very real sense it is God’s presence that is the light.[3] That’s why the Psalmist could say, “the Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps. 27:1). God’s very presence among us is what makes the burden not so oppressive, it is the light that dispels the fear of darkness.

The funny thing about light in darkness is that it can still be just as dark around you, but seeing a light—any light—relieves the anxious fear of the darkness. I’m not telling you anything new by saying that fear can influence us in powerful ways. Fear can make us think that whatever we fear is our true reality even when nothing could be further from the truth. It can make us miss the reality of God’s presence, the good news that God’s light is always there to lift our burdens and dispel our fear, that God loves us no matter what may happen and nothing can separate us from that love

So we have to reckon with the fact that light doesn’t always dispel the darkness. But what it does is to dispel the fear of darkness. In the same way, God’s presence doesn’t always change the circumstances of oppression or injustice that create fear—at least not in the way we might anticipate. But God’s presence does lift the fear itself and remind us that whatever we may have to suffer in this life is not the ultimate truth of our lives.

I think our gospel lesson makes a similar point. In a very real sense, it would seem that Matthew wants us to understand that the “light in the darkness” that Jesus brought was the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 4:17). But it is unclear whether Jesus’ message was “the kingdom is here” or “the kingdom is near.” To some extent, I think we should say it was both. Jesus proclaimed the good news that God really and truly is working in this world to bring light and love and peace and freedom and justice and goodness and mercy and grace and joy and life to all people and all things.[4] The Advent joy of “Immanuel,” God with us, is one that we can take with us throughout the year.[5] The light is here, however dark it may still be.

But at the same time, Jesus proclaimed the good news that the kingdom of heaven is “near.” We may wonder why there’s still so much darkness around if God’s light has come. But the good news that the kingdom is near is that God is not finished yet. God will continue working in this world to bring light and love and peace and freedom and justice and goodness and mercy and grace and joy and life to all people and all things until the promise Immanuel is fulfilled. The light will ultimately dispel not only the fear of darkness, but the darkness itself!

So at least part of the good news is that because God is always with us, we need not fear. Sometimes we need to take practical measures to overcome fear. We may need to learn to be more present in the here and now—and to become aware of God’s comforting presence—rather than anxiously looking to a future that may or may not come to pass. But at the end of the day, the promise of the good news is that God is always with us, like a light in the darkness. The darkness may still be all around us, but God’s presence gives us “a little light to see” and that light can displace our fears with faith and hope. [6] It reminds us that the ultimate truth of our lives is that God loves us no matter what may happen and nothing can separate us from that love.[7]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/23/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12, 395, where he suggests they even may have felt like they were living in what they would have considered hell on earth, in that all that was good in the world had been taken away from them.

[3] Cf. Wildberger, 395: “ ‘Light’ is a symbol for the saving presence of God.” He continues, “whoever ‘sees a great light’ ought to have confidence even in the darkness, in the realm of the dead, to know that the protecting and saving presence of Yahweh is there.” Cf. also H. Berkouwer, General Revelation, 232-34; and H.-J. Kraus, Theology of the Book of Psalms, 39.

[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.3.434, where he says that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom reinforces the faith that “God Himself undertakes to speak and act and give His help on earth, to be God for and with the man who lives on earth.”

[5] Wildberger, 408, points out that the present passage in Isaiah represents an extension of the “Immanuel” promise.

[6] The phrase is from Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 100. She says the reason she takes her son Sam to church (despite his objections) is that she wants him to have a “path” in life and “a little light to see.”

[7] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalm 1-59, 337; he calls to mind Paul’s affirmation of faith in Romans 8:33-39 and says, “those who are threatened with death still are sure that nothing can separate them from God.”

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