Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Light in the Darkness

Light in the Darkness
Isaiah 9:2-7[1]
If you’ve ever tried to capture the beauty of a sunset or the grandeur of an unforgettable landscape, or even the precise shade of your grandchild’s incredibly cute outfit, you know that our eyes are amazing organs. In order to imitate the marvelous ability of our eyes to see color and detail, camera manufacturers make more sensitive chips and more accurate lenses, all of which cost far more that many of us care to imagine! And yet, whenever we amateurs look at those pictures we try to take, even with equipment that doesn’t come cheap, we are reminded that our eyes can see subtle variations of light and color not easy to reproduce artificially.
Not only do our eyes see all kinds of colors, but they also have the ability to adjust to varying degrees of light. “Night vision” is the way we refer to this. After spending enough time in the darkness for our eyes to “adjust,” our eyes have the ability to pick up details even in places where there is no light. Of course, the drawback to this is when our eyes have adjusted to the darkness and we’re suddenly thrust into bright light. Until our eyes “adjust” again, we say that the light “hurts” our eyes, and we squint to protect them until we can see normally again. It takes time for us to be able to see clearly when the light shines into the darkness.
In our Scripture lesson from Isaiah, the prophet announces that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2). In the context this is meant to be an announcement of great joy. They were living in a time when foreign adversaries had conquered them and were undermining their way of life. The people worked to provide for their families only to see a substantial portion of it going to the despots who were masters of their land. Given those circumstances, you would think they would welcome the promise of a new king who would bring them justice and peace.
But I wonder about that difficulty we have when light shines suddenly into the darkness. I wonder if at least some of the people of that day had become so accustomed to living the way they were that they failed to see the joy in the light that God promised to send them. I wonder if they shielded their eyes and turned away because they were accustomed to the darkness. Perhaps at least some of the people Isaiah addressed saw the light of justice and peace not as something joyful but rather painful. They were comfortable with the way things were, and they didn’t want them to change.
Of course, we assume Isaiah is talking primarily about Jesus here, but to make that assumption would mean that his message didn’t really apply to the people living 700 years before Christ. It’s very likely that Isaiah was talking in the first place about the birth of a new king in his own day and time.[2] This new king would be a king who would walk in God’s light and lead the people to freedom through peace and justice. That promise was the basis for their hope that the current situation of injustice and oppression would not last indefinitely. Rather, this new king would change things in such a way that it would be like shining a light into the darkness.[3]
When we think about this promise, I think it’s important to clarify some of the terms. “Peace” doesn’t just mean the absence of conflict. Rather it refers to the total well-being of those who “walk in the light of the Lord,” who live their lives by following God’s ways.  And “justice” doesn’t refer to crime and punishment. Rather, in the Bible, God’s justice means that that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, and the widows and orphans and the immigrants have someone to watch over them.
Given this perspective on the peace and justice that God promised his people, I think it’s easy to see why some would welcome it as good news and some would not.[4] For those who were oppressed, I would think they welcomed this light as the dawning of a new day, as the dawning of a new hope for them and their children. For those who collaborated with the oppressors, I doubt that they were that pleased with the idea that the conditions that they benefitted from might change. They were accustomed to the darkness, and the light for them would have been unwelcome.
Even though Isaiah probably wasn’t referring to Jesus in his original message, the fact that the best of the Jewish kings fell short of “doing what is right in God’s sight” gave rise to the hope that one day a king would come who would truly and finally fulfill the hope for lasting peace and all-encompassing justice.[5] And the apostles and prophets of Jesus’ day rightly saw that he had come to fulfill that promise.[6] And yet, with all that he did, we recognize that he has not yet completed his work of bringing peace on earth and justice to all. While the new day has dawned, we still wait for the fullness of that light to shine over this world.
We’re not so different from the people of Isaiah’s day. There are some who have been walked on by the injustices that run rampant in our society. There are others of us who are comfortable and see no need for anything to change. We’re quite happy with the way things are. You might say that we’ve become accustomed to the darkness, so much so that the light of God’s peace and justice in our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ may make us shield our eyes and turn away. But even though it may make us uncomfortable, the only way to truly find the joy of Christmas is to turn and embrace the light of peace and justice that will eventually determine the fate of this world.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/25/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” New Interpreters Bible VI:122, “The reasons for celebration—release from an oppressor, destruction of battle gear, and the birth of the ‘Prince of Peace’—are not in the future but in the past. These events form the basis for confidence in the future.”
[3] Tucker, “Isaiah 1-39,” NIB VI:123, “From Isaiah’s perspective, the birth announced in v. 6 is a sign of hope. The ancient promise of a son of David on the throne is reaffirmed. Both the names of the child and the final lines of the poem promise perpetual peace with justice and righteousness.”
[4] Cf. Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 87: “Yet next to [the] vision of just and righteous government stands the stark and sober portrait of a prophet under siege, of a God who is sanctuary for some but a snare and a stumbling block for many. Before we encounter a people who see great light, we must first encounter a people thrust into thick darkness.”
[5] Cf. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 75: “What kingship shall become in Israel, and for the nations, it becomes with reference to the Immanuel child and the historical rule of King Hezekiah. Out of that historical matrix a model for kingship emerges that is filled full in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Messiah of the nations.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 4: “The theology of the early Church said that in this event God ‘became man’—became human. But the mystery really begins with God’s becoming a child. The great, all-comprehensive rule of God begins as this child’s rule of peace.” (emphasis original)

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