You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.” (Isaiah 9:3-4)
I can’t speak for all of you, but I’ve found that unless you’ve got the proper equipment and protection, walking in darkness is not the brightest idea in the world, no pun intended. Almost every time I’ve tried walking in darkness, something bad has happened.
I’ve stubbed my toes against furniture. I’ve smacked my knees into door jambs. I’ve scraped my shins on bed frames. I’ve scratched my face with thorns and branches, tripped over rocks and roots, and fallen into various substances.
I’ve even had the occasional encounter with sleeping pets and a stray Lego or two. There’s nothing quite like a small, hard, sharp cube of plastic pressed into your bare foot at about 800 pounds per square inch to test your 8th Commandment ability to “explain everything in the kindest way.” Yes, walking in darkness is rarely a wise decision.
Given our choice, then, most of us prefer adequate illumination to perform the functions of our lives. Our homes, businesses, streets, parking lots, and church all are lit to varying degrees. Our cars and airplanes and ships all have lights to avoid running into things, and so that others can see them at a safe distance.
Light can be a beacon to lead us, a signal to warn us, a source of illumination to help us see, or something that allows others to see us. Today, light in the form of lasers is used as a tool to manufacture things we buy, to play music or movies off our disks, and even as a surgical tool to repair our bodies or to destroy parts of it we don’t want.
If attempting to traverse through our lives without light is a great hazard to our physical well-being, think for a moment just how dangerous it can be for us to wander along our spiritual paths with our souls in deep darkness.
Chapter 9 of Isaiah, which we heard as the Old Testament lesson today, is among the more well-known portions of Old Testament prophecy. We certainly recall the section about the people walking in darkness having seen a great light, which also appears as a quotation in our Gospel lesson from Matthew today.
But you may not remember without looking that the very next portion of this same chapter contains that familiar Christmas prophecy, “for unto us a child is born…unto us a son is given”.
In Isaiah’s time, there was little brightness and joy in the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. These were two of the tribes of Israel, which had settled in the northern part of Canaan, in what eventually became Galilee. They had become unfaithful to the Lord God, and as a consequence, they had been greatly decimated by the Assyrian invasions which destroyed Israel, and threatened Judah and Jerusalem. As we heard today, God brought them into contempt. He humbled them. He wanted them to repent, to return from the darkness of their sins to the light of His promises. But they had not. They remained in darkness. And often, it seems, so do we.
The darkness in which we walk comes from both within and without. We are certainly surrounded by the darkness of the world: hatred, greed, crime, anger, hopelessness, despair, strife, selfishness, disasters, and false beliefs. Satan rejoices that he has led so many so far away from God, and laughs in joy when he can get Christians to participate in this darkness, too.
We not only participate in it, we have this darkness within us, as well. Every sin that surfaces in the world, every bit of selfishness that leads to the evil we see everywhere, springs forth from individual hearts, and we are neither immune to it nor innocent of it. We are thankful that the Holy Spirit has led us to faith and salvation, but we know that our new, holy selves do not always win the struggle for our minds and bodies.
Instead, often the old Adam in us shakes off the drowning he received in baptism, regains his strength, and raises his ugly head to take us down dark paths of unrighteousness, where we will trip, stumble, and fall.
We find, in the course of our lives, our own creative ways to break every one of God’s commandments.
We create or worship other gods—not blatantly as graven images, perhaps, but at least as greater priorities. We carelessly use His name and fail to give it proper reverence. We shortchange His word in our lives, or feel that on some Sundays, we’d rather sleep in than make the effort to come here to His place of harvest to worship Him for all the blessings He has provided, and to share His Word and Sacrament. We disrespect and criticize those placed over us, whether parents or other authorities. The list is long, the list is ugly, and the list is dark.
But our loving Lord knows that we need light. Not just to see, but to survive. Light was the very first thing God explicitly created in the Genesis account, merely by His speaking. With His word, time began, in light.
By a pillar of fire, He gave light and guidance to His chosen people on their wanderings in the stark, lonely desert, just as He has always given His people the light of His Word—His Law to guide and illuminate our wandering and straying hearts, and His Gospel to assure us of His presence in the stark, lonely times of our earthly existence.
But it is a far greater light that Isaiah writes of here. To Galilee of the Gentiles, to the people dwelling in darkness, comes the great light. The crowds that followed him, from all over Palestine and beyond, were basking in that light, even if they didn’t know it. Many of them remained in the dark about Jesus. They took Him to be a great teacher, sure. A mighty prophet, absolutely. And certainly a worker of great miracles, healing every disease and every affliction they brought to Him, even casting out demons.
But a lot of them didn’t come to the realization that here was the Messiah, the Anointed one. Here was the one that Zechariah told of when he sang at the birth of his own son, John the Baptist. That song, which we know as the Benedictus, echoes the words of Isaiah’s prophesy, by predicting that John would prepare the way for a Savior who would come like a rising sun from heaven, who would shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.
To Galilee of the Gentiles, then, and to 21st-century America of the pre-occupied, God of God and Light of Light comes. He who was begotten of His Father, even before “let there be light” was ever uttered, comes preaching repentance. He shines His light into the dark, hidden crevices of your sinful soul, and there’s nowhere for you to hide. He walks alongside the waters He created, splashes some on you, and with His word He says, “Follow me.”
From that point on, you are caught, and you are His. His unbroken net of love and grace and mercy is cast over you. He drags you up from the bottom, out of the muck and filth of your sins, and He teaches you what it means to be His. No matter what your affliction, regardless of your disease, whatever pains you, oppresses you, or tempts you—His Gospel is the only cure you need.
We’re nearing the end of this year’s very short Epiphany season. Because of the early date for Easter this year, there’s only one more Sunday before we begin the season of Lent—a season that is more somber, more penitential, and much darker in tone than Epiphany, the season of light. In the school chapel service this past week, the students learned that the words “epiphany” and “manifest” both were related to something being made known, something being made more clear. In a sense, you might say that Epiphany is all about things being “brought to light,” as it were.
So here on this 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, God not only brings things to light, He brings light to all things and to all people, especially to us. He brings us the One whom Simeon took in his arms and called “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of His people Israel.” He brings us the One for whom the prophet John prepared the way, testifying concerning the true light that gives light to all, witnessing to the light of life, and the Lamb of God. He brings us the light that shines in the darkness, not being understood or overcome by it.
Jesus calls Himself the light of the world, and He instructs His disciples to walk in the light while they can. He calls His disciples, too, the light of the world—because He has placed the light, Himself—the very Gospel—within them, and they are to spread that light to all places and all people. And He instructs them that they are to work while there is light, because the darkness is coming when no one can work.
Burdened and oppressed though you may feel, weighed down by the bar across your shoulders and struck down by the rod across your back, you need not stumble in the darkness. Let the light of the nations come to you. Let the light of His love and grace and mercy shine upon you, and it will shine within you, too. As one of the translations of the beloved hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” states it, “He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod, and wins salvation glorious.”
His glorious Gospel light of salvation isn’t suitable for hiding under a bushel. Rather, it’s a light just perfect for raising on a cross as a beacon to all, illuminating uncountable hearts and souls. It’s a light that drives away the darkness of sin and the shadow of death, and all their gloom and despair.
He’s called you out of darkness, and into His marvelous light. Follow Him, and walk in His light, rejoicing all the way.
In the holy name of Jesus (+), Amen.