Consistent with the season of Epiphany, the Lectionary readings from the Old Testament continue to focus on the Servant Messiah as the light of the world. It’s a message we need to hear because we live in particularly dark times, as did the nation of Judah to whom these words were addressed.
The time of Isaiah’s ministry was indeed a time of darkness. Assyria had already overwhelmed the northern kingdom of Israel (which was mostly never to be heard from again) and this was discussed in Isaiah 8 (see below). Soon enough Judah would also be threatened by the people who conquered Assyria; viz., the Babylonians who would deport most of the people of Judah over time and lay siege to Jerusalem before finally conquering it and destroying also the precious Temple of Solomon in the early 6th century B.C. The world was a dark, turbulent place in the 600s & 500s B.C. and Israel/Judah was often caught up right in the middle of it all. No one had to look far to discover the meaning of people walking in darkness.
In that dark time of international tension and terror, conspiracy theories abounded, as we read in Isaiah 8:12-14. As people “breathed with” (the literal meaning of “conspiracy”) each other about what was “really” happening in their country, the darkness deepened when they sought advice from “mediums and spiritists” who “whisper and mutter (8:18-22).” In other words, as their desperation increased people sought unorthodox sources of information, “consulting the dead on behalf of the living,” instead of “inquiring of their God.”
Seeking light in the dark places, the people of God found only deeper darkness, as described in verses 20-22 of Isaiah 8. “If they do not speak according to [the law and the testimony of God], they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” This is the background against which our text promises light for those who have been “walking in darkness.”
It is easy to see the parallels with our time, as international tensions and internal dissension leave our people filled with fear. What is really happening? What will happen next? Conspiracy theories abound on all sides. Even Christians fall prey to this atmosphere of suspicion and dread. They need to hear Isaiah 8:12-14, “Do not call conspiracy everything these people call conspiracy…. The Lord Almighty is the one… you are to fear…. And he will be a sanctuary….” Sadly, people look for guidance everywhere but the Word of the Living God.
Into this present darkness comes this Word of the Living God. “Nevertheless…,” a lovely word, a contrarian word, a version of that great two-word summary of the Gospel, “but God.” Here’s the darkness in the world, but God has something else for his people. “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” Then, referring to those northernmost portions of the northern kingdom, the territories that were the first to be attacked by Assyria and thus the first part of Israel to be subject to pagan darkness, God promises a reversal of fortune. “In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan….” (Here again God points beyond his people Israel to his people among the Gentiles.)
And now here are the words read at Epiphany services around the world, and rightly so. “The people walking darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death (or as the newer translations of this text and Psalm 23:4 have it, ‘in the deepest darkest shadows’) a light has dawned.” The Christian church has claimed this as a Messianic prophecy because Matthew’s gospel explicitly applies it to Jesus’ move to Galilee (Matthew 4:12-16). “When Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee… to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah….”
Isaiah speaks of the coming of this light as an accomplished fact, but, of course, there were many centuries of darkness ahead. Even after that Light dawned on this world, there is still plenty of darkness around us. So, this text is a call to faith, and to joy. By returning Israel and Judah from Exile, God has “enlarged the nation.” And by sending his Son to be the Savior of the whole world, God has enlarged the Kingdom to include people from every nation and tribe.
Our response on this Third Sunday after Epiphany should be one of joy, the kind of joy people feel when there is an abundant harvest. In 21st Century urban cultures, we don’t feel as dependent on the land as do people in nations where there is food insecurity. So, maybe we can’t relate to that joy. And perhaps we don’t know the joy of “dividing the plunder” after a war is over. But we do know about celebrating victory after a long hard battle, whether it was in WWII or at the end of a long sports season or after months of treatment for cancer. That’s the kind of joy God’s people should have in this season of Epiphany when we are reminded again and again that “a light has dawned” in this present darkness.
To help your people experience joy at the dawning of the Light, it might help to review the reasons for joy that Isaiah gives the people of Israel. (This will require stepping outside the bounds of the Lectionary reading for today, but that division seems arbitrary and unhelpful anyway.) We find those reasons in verses 4-6, each introduced by “for” in the Hebrew, though the second “for” doesn’t appear in the NIV translation of verse 5: for God has delivered from oppression, for God has destroyed all the gear used in war, for God has given a Son who will bring the peace that all people crave.
It shouldn’t be hard to apply these reasons to our lives. When Isaiah writes about the “yoke that burdens, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” that God has shattered, he is clearly referring to the Babylonian conquest and captivity. For some of us, the oppression that burdens our lives may also be political or societal. For all of us, it is the spiritual yoke of sin that lays across our souls. In sending Jesus as the light of the world, God has shattered the bondage of sin and is shattering the chains that bind people in their societies. We should rejoice in our new found freedom, even if it isn’t fully enjoyed yet.
When Isaiah writes about the burning of boots and garments, he means that all war will cease. Not only will swords be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2), but even the uniforms and combat boots will be destroyed by fire. There will be no more war. For those who have grieved the loss of loved ones killed in battle, or witnessed the destruction of their land, and struggled with the lingering effects of PTSD, what good news it is that God will bring a peace that cannot end.
But how can there be peace in this world? Only by the grace of God that appeared in the birth and life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, our light-filled prophecy ends with the greatest reason for joy. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders.” Not on the shoulders of mere men and women, however qualified they may be. Even the most skilled and charismatic leaders have never been able to bring the peace the world craves. No, it will take a ruler who exceeds all human possibilities.
That’s what Isaiah describes in those 4 famous names given to this Son: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. I won’t try to explain those infinitely deep words in these brief lines. Let us simply point our people to the way those names soar above our present political realities. Only such a person can bring peace.
In fact, in a world where politicians come and go, where nations rise and fall, where governments are formed and dissolved, where there is always tumult among and within the nations of the world, it seems impossible that even this Ruler can succeed. But listen to the way Isaiah describes his reign. “Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end.” Not only will he endure, but he will continue to increase. Things will just get better and better under his reign.
Like David (indeed, sitting on David’s promised eternal throne), he will establish a peace characterized by justice and righteousness. In previous pieces, I have noted that many wars are caused by the unjust peace that ended the prior war. It is the absence of justice among the nations and of righteousness in the peoples that causes continued war. But this Son with the impossible names will be able to establish a peace that will last because all will be treated with fairness and justice. It will be a herculean task, but this Child can do it because “the zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
On this Third Sunday after Epiphany, the reality of the Dawning Light should fill us with overflowing joy because of these promises of a new world governed by the Child who has been born to us and who died for us and who now reigns over us and who will come again to establish that peace among us.
It shouldn’t be too hard to illustrate what it was like to live in a tense and fearful world where conspiracy theories abounded. Just the other day a family member said, “I just don’t know how our country can survive if Trump wins another election.” An hour later I heard a news report in which a Trump fan said, “If Elizabeth Warren gets elected, it will be the end of America as we know it.” Given those kinds of statements, it is no wonder that folks on both sides of the battle are prone to believe wild theories about what their opponent is doing or will do if elected. And it is no wonder that dread is everywhere.
To illustrate the joy to which Epiphany should move us, it might be helpful to show on your overhead screens pictures of, say, the Berlin Wall coming down (its 30th anniversary just happened), or the wild celebrations at the end of WWII or after the Washington Nationals won the World Series, or the exuberance of parents and grandparents at the announcement of a pregnancy.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-4 Commentary