Saturday, January 22, 2022

“A Great Light” - November 28, 2021

Text: Isaiah 9:1-7


On this first Sunday of Advent, we are beginning this season with one of the best-known advent texts, from the prophet Isaiah.  The background of this moving passage is pure doom and gloom.  The nation of Judah had been taken into captivity in Babylon.  The first verse that Phyllis read for us recalls nearby nations that had fared far worse than Judah.  There did not appear to be a lot to feel hopeful about.

Interestingly, the prophet writes in the past tense – as though all that was written had already taken place.  The readers and hearers of this prophet understood the idea of the prophetic past.  God’s action was so sure that the prophet wrote as though it was already accomplished.

Isaiah uses a variety of images and metaphors that make this such a rich passage.  He begins by saying, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

Most of us here have not experienced the kind of literal darkness that the people did when these words were written.  For that matter, most of us have not experienced the same kind of darkness that most humans experienced for most of human history.  Today we talk about light pollution – the phenomena of having so much light that it is hard to see the stars.  We may have various devices charging in our bedrooms, with their little LED lights, and a dusk to dawn light outside, along with streetlights and maybe a motion detector light that may get set off by the wind, or by a squirrel or raccoon, along with vehicle lights driving past all through the night.  It is never really dark, not like it was in a pre-electrified, pre-industrial society.

In other words, for the ancient Hebrews, when it was dark, it was really dark.  And so if you were having a difficult time of it, you couldn’t wait until the dawn, until the break of day.  The Psalmist wrote, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  There really was joy about the light of day breaking in.

Now in our own experience, what happens when we turn on a light?  What changes?  What is different?

With light we get clarity and awareness.  We can get our bearings.  Things are less scary.  We feel less vulnerable, more in control.

To be out in the darkness in the ancient world was to be vulnerable – there were no streetlights, no flashlights, no cell phone lights, no emergency call boxes.  And this described the state of the nation.  This described the people.  It was a very precarious time.

But here is the thing.  When we turn on the lights, we see what was there all along.  And so often, we realize that there was really nothing to be afraid of.  For the Hebrew people, even in captivity, God was there the whole time.  Even when we are feeling vulnerable and uncertain, God is there.  The light is reassuring.

The image of darkness and light is powerful, and it is frequently used in scripture, but I do want to say that it can be powerful in ways that are damaging.  In a racialized society, it is easy to say light is good, dark is bad.  The hero wears white and the villain is dressed in black.  There are all kinds of subtle ways that this goes on.  

This is not about pigment.  It is not about color at all.  This is about clarity.  This is about being able to see.

And so, those who are feeling afraid and vulnerable will gain awareness and clarity and security.  There will be rejoicing.  Isaiah compares the rejoicing to a couple of things.  It will be like rejoicing at the harvest.  Some of you farm or maybe grew up on a farm, and you understand how important the harvest is.  The joy of the harvest means security, life, less vulnerability.  You can pay the bills.  You will make it through the winter.  It means that you have made it through an anxious time.  You can be happy that new green plants have emerged from the ground.  You can be happy that a crop is growing and looking pretty good.  But harvest is another level.  It is joy.  In an agrarian society like ancient Israel, there is a reason that pretty much all of the festivals were harvest festivals.

There will be rejoicing.  Like the harvest, a joyful time.  And then, it says, like people exult when dividing plunder.  I have to say, I wish this verse were not in there.  An image of war and violence.  But again, it means that the war is over, and the people are no longer vulnerable.  And so there is joy.

That is what the joy will be like.  What is the reason for this coming joy – joy so sure the prophet uses the past tense?  Three things are mentioned:

First, the yoke of their burden has burden lifted, and the rod of their oppressors broken like the day of Midian.  This is a reference to a battle where Gideon led the Israelites and God said there were too many soldiers.   So Gideon comes up with a smaller force and God says, it’s still too many.  Gideon pares down the troops until finally, God tells Gideon to have the remaining warriors get a drink from a lake.  Some cupped their hands to get water and some lapped it up like a dog.  God said, just take the lappers.  There were 300 warriors, a pitifully small force.  They didn’t even use weapons, just clay pots and torches and trumpets.  They smashed the pots and held up torches and blew the trumpets and it caused such a commotion that their enemies ran in fear and were done in by friendly fire, as it were.

The point was to show that it was God that brought the victory and not the Israelites.  And so there would be a celebration because God would end their oppression in a powerful way.

And then, the boots of warriors and bloody garments were burned like fuel for the fire.  Again, it is an image of a time when fighting is not necessary, when vulnerability and fear were gone away.

And finally – the big one, the one we have heard so many times.  

For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.    
From darkness to light, from uncertainty to clarity, from vulnerability to safety, from oppression to joy – and it is all God’s doing.  And it comes about through the birth of a child.   

It is really interesting that a nation that was feeling vulnerable, that was experiencing powerlessness, would find hope in a child.  I mean, a newborn child does not seem like the solution to vulnerability.  A newborn child is the picture of vulnerability, the essence of vulnerability, right?

And yet, so often it is in children, in young people, that we find hope.

Ask a group of people where they find hope for the future and I can almost guarantee you that several will talk about young people they know who they find committed and inspiring.  Some of those young people are in our church, and it gives us hope.

I think of college students who are studying here and going out to become teachers and engineers and scientists and veterinarians and people of faith who make a difference.  I think of middle school and high school students who share their gifts and talents and are so much fun.  I think of our younger children who are funny and kind and imaginative and thoughtful, and when we think of them we know that the future will be in good hands.

And in fact, many of us have hope because the younger generations today seem more concerned, more attuned to the big problems our world is facing.  More concerned about global warming and care for the earth, less concerned about race and tribe and more concerned about including everyone.  Children and young people can certainly be sources of hope.

But for Isaiah, this seems on a different level.  A nation in captivity would find its hope in a child.

Passages like this gave hope to the Hebrews in captivity, and the people would indeed be freed and return to Jerusalem.  It was prophetic hope that saw them through such times.  Centuries later, Christians would read these verses and see in Jesus the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, a child who would bring a great light and a great hope.

Now, today is the beginning of the church year.  The liturgical calendar begins with Advent, a time of preparation and anticipation leading to the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.  Christmas is followed by Epiphany, and then after a few weeks comes the season of Lent, concluding with Holy Week and the great joy of Easter.  The season of Easter, 50 days, culminates with Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the Church.  Then there are many weeks of what is called Ordinary Time, or simply Sundays after Pentecost, ending with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday, celebrating Christ’s rule over creation.  And then we start with Advent again.  And do the same thing.  Again and again, over and over.

That is the way the church year works.  And really, that is the way life works.  It is the same thing, over and over and over.  Same as it ever was.  Nothing is really new.  And yet it is not the same thing over and over.  Because we are always different.  We change.  We grow and learn, hopefully.  And it is not the same thing over and over because the world keeps changing and so the way we see and understand is always changing.  This year is not like last year and last year certainly wasn’t like the one before.  And by God’s grace we become open to new light, to new clarity, to new understanding.  We become open to serving God in new ways.

And so life and faith are always the same and always different.  Church is always the same and always different.  But for things to really be different, for change to really happen, there has to be hope.  It begins with hope.  I mean, we can start with complete hopelessness, and that is no doubt where many of the people were when Isaiah wrote these words – and no doubt where many are today.  But something has to bring a glimmer of hope.  We can live without a lot of things, but we cannot really live without hope.  The prophets spoke honestly about how things were and in the midst of that brought hope to a beleaguered people.  They spoke of the coming of Christ, and Christ continues to bring us a great light and a great hope. 
For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Our great hope is that in Christ, God will take our vulnerability and fear and our captivity to all sorts of things and bring security and joy and freedom and life.  It is not just the same thing over and over again.  We have a great hope.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.



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