Isaiah 9:1-7; John 1:1-5
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Here we are on the Second Sunday of Advent!
For those of us who may be unfamiliar with this tradition,
Advent is a season within the Church
for preparing to celebration Christmas.
And by Christmas, we mean the Incarnation
– the first, true, and ultimate gift that
makes all our other celebrations possible
– God coming down to earth
through the birth of a child,
a baby named Jesus.
One of the repeated ways
the scriptures frame our understanding
of who Jesus is and what Jesus brings
into this world and our lives
is through the image of light.
This Advent season, we are getting ready for Christmas
by reflecting on this theme
– understanding the coming of Christ
as the inbreaking of light – light into our darkness.
When you were a child,
were you afraid of the dark?
When we’re children,
it’s not uncommon to be afraid of the dark
because our innately we fear
what we cannot see.
We do not trust the unknown.
Finding themselves in the dark,
young children imagine creatures – monsters
– that are waiting in the shadows to grab them.
As adults, we may laugh at how silly this sounds,
but the truth is – even as we “grow up”
we can still find ourselves afraid of the dark too.
If we hear a strange noise in our house
while it is the middle of the afternoon
we might think, “That’s a little odd,”
but then, not even give it a second thought.
On the other hand,
if we suddenly hear a strange noise
in the middle of the night,
in our totally darkened house
say at 2:00 in the morning,
most of us would get a little nervous and edgy.
We would not be okay with going back to sleep
until we checked out the source of the sound.
And when we get up and go check out that noise,
are we doing so in the dark?
Heck no! We’re turning out the lights
– all of them depending on how freaked out we are.
Even as adults few, if any of us,
are comfortable being in total, pitch-black,
can’t see my hand in front of my face, darkness.
Most people can’t last in total darkness like that
for more than a few minutes before they begin to panic.
No one likes being in the dark – for long.
Darkness is uncomfortable.
Darkness is confusing.
Darkness can be terrifying.
Today, through both the words of
an Old Testament prophet
and one of Jesus’ disciples,
we are going to confront the darkness in our lives.
Together we will face the darkness that
goes far beyond the physical absence of light.
Together, we will consider the darkness that
eclipses our hearts, our minds, and our relationships with each other
so that we can better appreciate the Light that God has given us in Christ.
Here’s our scripture reading today from
Isaiah, chapter 9 and the Gospel of John, chapter 1.
As Isaiah chapter 9 opens,
God talks about people “walking in darkness “
– and not just any darkness – but “a land of deep darkness.”
But who is Isaiah talking about?
And why is this their situation?
Who turned all the lights out?
Here’s a quick refresher.
Isaiah was called by God as a prophet to the people of Israel,
specifically, the Northern kingdom (also referred to as Ephraim).
The Northern Kingdom of Israel has thrown itself
into darkness by turning away from the Lord
– by doing what was right in their own eyes
rather than living the way God intended
– justly, mercifully, generously, lovingly.
As a community, they were worshipping idols
– which basically means they were
worshipping and glorifying themselves.
Isaiah was sent by God to warn the people
that playing around in the dark
leads to plunging into even greater darkness.
The first few chapters of Isaiah speak of
God’s judgment upon His people
– of leaving them in the dark
if that’s where they choose to stay
– of allowing His people to fall into
the hands of the Assyrian Empire
– at that time, THE superpower in the ancient world.
Isaiah 9 is God speaking in the aftermath of
the Northern Kingdom of Israel falling
under the dominion of Assyria.
The Assyrian Empire now occupies
all the territory in and around Israel
and has imposed heavy taxes on the people.
All their towns have been leveled to the ground
and most of those who survived have been sent into exile
– out of their homeland into the foreign country of Assyria.
Understandably, this was a very dark time for the people of Israel.
Their particular darkness was the darkness
of loss and of scarcity, of the unknown,
of fear and depression.
The life they had once known lay in ruins.
Their relationship with God appeared forever lost.
They found themselves away from home
in a strange and foreign land
captive to an oppressive ruler who intended
to extinguish their existence from the face of the earth.
To say they were uncomfortable
and more than just a little confused
would be an understatement.
This is a people who are
completely disoriented and hopeless,
who are seriously afraid about tomorrow
– wondering if they even have a future
to which they can look forward.
It is from the center of this very present darkness that
the prophet Isaiah speaks of the dawning of a great light.
With no illusions about the reality of their despair
and how desperate things are for His people,
Isaiah points not to God’s absence
but of the Lord’s presence
as the light that will end Israel’s darkness.
The people are being assured
their seemingly endless night
would not last forever.
Even as all their fields are scorched
and their crops are dead,
God’s promises the eventual arrival
and joy of their springtime
– of a harvest festival that will
not only restore their land
but enlarge it and increase their joy.
In the throes of one of the
bleakest midwinters of Israel’s history,
God promises peace even as war is still raging
– that the very means of violence
by which His people suffer
will be retired and put to rest
once and for all.
However, it would be many years
– centuries of waiting –
before this prophecy would be fulfilled.
This word of hope
flickered like a candle in the dark
as the people waited for the light
God promised to dawn.
More than 500 years
before the start of the Gospel,
as the people of Israel returned
back to their homeland
after their long time of captivity
in Assyria and then Babylon,
Jewish religious leaders began
to write commentaries
on various Bible books called “Targums.”
One of these Targums dealt with
the prophecies out of Isaiah.
And in that Jewish commentary on Isaiah,
the prophecy we are looking at
became understood to be part of
God’s promise to send a Messiah or the Christ.
But who exactly would this Messiah be?
When we turn to the Gospels
– specifically, today’s passage,
we see the writer, one of the disciples named John
is telling us quite clearly, the answer is Jesus.
John takes the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem
that Matthew and Luke tell so intimately
and casts it against the wider canvas of the cosmos
– of all creation.
The beginning of John’s Gospel with its emphasis on light
– v4. that in the life of Jesus is the light of all humankind,
– v5. that Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness,
the light the darkness has not overcome,
and if we were read a little farther in v7.
that Jesus, in coming into the world,
is the true light that enlightens every person,
John wants us to understand
the great light God promised
through the prophet Isaiah
the One later Jewish teachers
came to expect as the Messiah,
is fulfilled, the dawning of the Light
comes with the birth of a baby named Jesus.
I could just move on right now,
but I’d imagine there is at least one person asking,
how does John know that Jesus IS the Light
God promised through Isaiah,
the long awaited and expected Messiah?
The answer is, if we more closely at Isaiah’s prophecy,
we discover God reveals where the promised Light
would initially be focused and minister.
Open up your Bible to Isaiah, chapter 9,
notice in verse 1, how Isaiah specifically talks about
“the land of Zebulun and Naphtali”
as being in the spotlight
for the coming of the Messiah.
Do you see it?
Okay, stay with me now.
Years before this prophecy
(shortly after the death of King Solomon),
ten of the tribes of Israel
rebelled against their King
and split off to form the new nation,
the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Meanwhile the remaining two tribes
in the south became of known as
the Southern Kingdom of Israel
or the land of Judah.
Now, Zebulun and Naphtali were two of those 10 tribes
in the new Northern Kingdom of Israel.
But here’s the thing, as Isaiah mentions,
they were relatively insignificant tribes.
Do a quick bible survey and you’ll notice
they are rarely mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament.
And when they are mentioned, they are never spoken of
as having any important role in anything.
That is until God mentioned them here in Isaiah 9.
Notice again, these are the ONLY tribes in the northern Israel
that God included in connection with the coming Light, the Messiah.
Now, let’s realize what the disciple, the Gospel writer John has realized
– what he experienced first-hand.
Where did Jesus live during his earthly life?
Where did Jesus conduct the majority of his ministry ?
Jesus grew up in Galilee in the town of Nazareth.
Jesus, when he started proclaiming the Kingdom of God,
relocated to Capernaum and continued to travel all around Galilee.
It was in Galilee that Jesus performed his first miracle.
It was in Galilee that he selected the majority of his 12 disciples.
And it was in Galilee that He spent most of His time
preaching and teaching and performing various healings and miracles.
Now, guess which tribes of Israel once inhabited the land of Galilee.
That’s right – Zebulun and Naphtali.
This is how John knows that Jesus is the Light
God promised through Isaiah
– the Light, John wants us to understand
that has dawned not just for Israel
but for all the world, for all creation, for you and me.
But who is this Jesus?
And just how powerful is the Light Christ brings?
How does the Light of Jesus save us
from the darkness all around us?
Isaiah offers us several different ways
of seeing and appreciating
the Light that Christ offers.
It is the Light of a Wonderful Counselor.
From Jesus, we receive wisdom that
goes way beyond anything
ever known to us before.
It is living wisdom that comes to us
in the thick of troubles and despair,
understanding all our worries and our fears,
and assures us we no longer have to
figure things out by ourselves.
Christ is with us and His Light knows
the way forward and will lead us home
– to the full and abundant life
for which we were created.
It is the Light of Mighty God.
Jesus is not the Lord’s representative or spokesperson.
Jesus is God incarnate – in person.
All power and authority are His.
Nothing and no one is beyond His reach.
No enemy, no opposing force is His equal.
From His resurrection from death itself,
Jesus proves what John declares
–that the darkness cannot overcome His Light.
It is the Light of our Everlasting Father.
Eternal and enduring,
not only will this Light never ever go out,
it shines on us to remind and assure us
that we are eternally and enduringly God’s children.
Jesus comes to bring us back to our Father
– a Father who comforts and provides
– a Father who in Christ does not
impose himself on us,
but one who sacrifices Himself for us.
It is the Light of our Prince of Peace.
The English word “peace” here
is actually the Hebrew word “shalom.”
Shalom is about harmony and balance
– all things being made right again.
The Light of Jesus doesn’t just reveal
what is hidden, what is missing, or what is broken.
The Light of Jesus changes the landscape
– its heat and warmth bringing growth like the Sun above.
Relationships are reconciled.
Sin is forgiven.
Justice is exercised.
Health is restored.
The Light of Jesus fosters shalom
– wholeness, well-being, prosperity,
security in our lives and in this world.
Prince of Peace.
To all these images from Isaiah,
John further describes the Light of Christ
as the Word of God.
John here goes well beyond
just implying that God is speaking
to the world through Jesus,
though that is certainly part of it.
John declares the Light of Christ
to be the Word made flesh.
‘Logos’ is the Greek word
translated into English as ‘Word,’
and in the Bible, Logos refers
to the creating action of God through his word.
The Lord speaks, and whatever it is
– creation, revelation, redemption, it happens.
It is done. Talk isn’t cheap with God.
The Word brings life.
John’s point is because Jesus is the Word of God
– meaning God in all God’s self-revealing action
– the creative power of God – Jesus is then,
the bearer of the life of God.
In declaring Jesus to always have been and to always be,
the creating Word of God, John is underscoring just
how powerful the Light of Christ is.
Jesus as the life of God is therefore, the Light of Truth
– the revelation of how things truly are
and the illumination for leading all things
to fully become all they were created to be.
And this Light, the Light of Jesus will
never burn out and never fade away.
The Light of Jesus will keep on shining
– bringing life everlasting, leading us forward into eternity.
Like the people to whom Isaiah was first speaking,
like those to whom John was writing long ago,
we can find ourselves walking in darkness.
Opposing forces still try to darken our world.
War. Famine. Partisanship. Racism. Sexism. Ageism.
Persecution. Injustice. Economic disparity and hardship.
Over much of this past year,
we have been living through one of
the strangest and darkest times in world history.
Everything about this global pandemic is uncertain,
contested, frustrating, and so overwhelming.
Everyone has an opinion but we’re not all on the same page.
The leaders will normally look to
for offering guidance or a steady hand
are struggling to do so
– not that we believe
or accept what they tell us anyway.
As many are struggling,
as many are devastated,
as many have been lost,
and as many are just pretending
or demanding that everything go back to normal,
the future remains uncertain.
Can we all just admit we’re afraid of the dark right now?
Can we all at least confess
how much we are anxious and worried
about what we cannot understand
and frustrated about all that we can’t control?
But maybe your darkness is more personal – closer to home.
In the midst of all that is going on out there,
the darkness some are facing is in here or here.
We’re going through the motions of living
but underneath we feel weighed down.
Ours is a darkness we know is there
but we just can’t seem to put our finger on, it eludes us.
Perhaps we are haunted by the shadows of an opportunity missed
or a chance not taken.
Could be it a past trauma or secret wound
we keep trying to deal with all alone
– sweeping it under the rug or stuffing it in a closet
– but it just keeps looming over us
– rearing its ugliness and pain when we least expect it.
Division within familes and friends, in our nation, and our world.
Heart-wrenching trials and suffering – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
It doesn’t take much to see the growing shadows all around.
It can be easy to just surrender ourselves to the night.
It can be tempting to opt to stay in bed through the winter.
Sometimes it can feel like the darkness will consume us.
But the darkness is not all we have.
Christmas is about remembering the Light
– the Light that has come into our darkness.
The message of Christmas does not deny that it is very dark out there
– chaotic and confusing, at times, bleak and even a bit scary.
However, the revelation of Christmas is
for we who walk in darkness,
the source of our hope is something
outside of ourselves – beyond us.
We can’t dispel our own darkness.
Coming together to work harder
for the common good is a great idea,
but it won’t dispel the deeper darkness
within each of us.
Being kind and sharing our abundance
with others who don’t have enough
is the right thing to do,
but it will not dispel the deeper darkness
within each of us.
We can’t fix ourselves
because the true darkness
with which we all struggle,
of which we all fear
– the darkness within
– is of our own making.
After all, God did not,
in the beginning, say “Let there be darkness.”
No, God said, “Let there be light.”
We only know there is darkness
when we look away from the light.
Darkness exists when
we refuse to live in the Light.
And so, we cry out to our God in
the darkness of our own collective making:
“Save us, save us from ourselves!”
And it is directly into
this darkness, our darkness,
that the Christ child enters,
that the Light comes back into the world.
Our hope is not built on the inspiration
of human actions or human institutions.
Our hope is grounded in the illumination
of a star over a baby born in Bethlehem.
Our hope shines through the radiance
of God miraculously viewed through
the face of a child.
Our hope endures because of
the sunrise that reveals an empty tomb
– that once held the body of
this same God who was bruised
and broken on a Cross to cast out
all the darkness in our hearts,
all the evil in this world once and for all.
Whenever you are right now,
whatever doom and gloom
that has befallen you,
here the good news of the Gospel
– the Light of Christ comes,
the Light of Jesus is born
in the darkness of places.
There is no place, no road upon which we walk
– no matter how covered in shadow
– that Christ does not walk before us
– guiding us through our nightfall
– whatever evil has befallen us
or whatever hell we have brought upon ourselves.
We have but to stop focusing alone
– only on the darkness – on all that is wrong in our lives
– and to look to and follow the Light of Christ
– the One is good, true, and right.
In the midst of all worries, fears, and doubts,
let us keep our eyes on and follow Jesus,
because, the light of Christ, as John declares,
is “the light that shines in the darkness
and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The Greek word John uses here for “overcome”
means “to grasp, to seize, to overtake.”
So, in other words, John is assuring us
whatever darkness we are facing cannot
catch up, grasp, seize and overtake
the Light of Christ.
On the other hand, once the Light of Jesus
pierces our lives, the darkness is overcome
– diminished, weakened, and
ultimately, eliminated altogether.
We witness the truth of this
through how light works in the natural world.
In a cave of absolute darkness
or in a room that is completely blacked out,
just a sliver of light
– a single ray of sunshine or flame of a candle,
can cut through darkness like
a hot knife through butter.
And eventually as the light increases,
it fills up the whole space
and removing the darkness altogether.
The more of the Light of Christ
we allow into our lives,
the more the darkness
in our lives will be dispelled.
The more of Jesus we listen to,
abide in, and follow,
the more our lives are fueled,
inspired, and guided by
the heat, the warmth, the Light of Jesus.
Christmas is the time when
the gift of Jesus meets the grit of life
– when the Light we need
enters into our darkness
and begins to lead us out of the valley
and on our way home.
The question is
are we looking to that Light
– being guided by it?
as we hang all our other lights this season,
as we place lights in our windows,
our doors, and our yards,
as we get home each night
and walk into a dark house
and flip on a switch,
let’s don’t forget the Light
we have been given in Jesus Christ.
If we’ve embraced Christ,
we each carry that light of Jesus within us.
And the best indication that
we are letting His light shine in and through us
is that we are lighting up the lives
of others who are wrestling with the darkness.
Now, perhaps more than ever,
let us look to the Light of Christ.
Before the darkness all around us,
let us together reflect enough light from Jesus,
in the form of an act of love, a word of truth,
or a quiet act of service,
that we bring some cheer into
the darkest corner of the life
of another person.
May the light of Christ shine
brightly among us
– casting out all our darkness
and guiding us to live
as a people of truth and of hope. Amen.