by David Baer, November 19, 2017
Text: Isaiah 9:1-7
Five years ago this fall a terrible storm came up the coast and roared ashore in New Jersey. Do you remember it? I remember the sound of the wind. It was a like a freight train howling down the street all night long, and when I woke the next morning there were giant trees—trees that had stood for decades—flattened to the ground by the wind, and power lines lying limply on the ground. Now, I heard recently that most of the people in Puerto Rico still don’t have electricity, almost two months after Hurricane Maria landed there. I can’t even imagine what that’s like. Here, the lights were out for five days, and our family watched nervously as the temperature in our freezer (where we kept our food) went up, and the temperature in the house went down through the week. Then finally, when we were eating supper on the fifth day, the lights came on, the furnace whirred to life, the refrigerator compressor rattled and churned, and all the clocks blinked 12:00. Amy and I leapt up and whooped for joy, so much so that we scared our 3-year-old daughter to tears. It makes a real difference when you’ve been living in the dark to have the lights come back on again.
Darkness is disorienting. It hides our environment from us, so that we can’t move through it without stumbling. When it’s dark we move cautiously or not at all. That’s why everything changes when the lights come on again.
When have the lights come on for you? Maybe it was the end of a power outage, but maybe it was something else. Maybe after many months of searching for work and doubting yourself you were finally offered a job. Maybe it was a cloud of depression lifting, and you found joy and laughter and hope again. Or it could be a hard conversation with someone you’ve been estranged from that finally brings healing and a new beginning. The lights come on–thanks be to God!—and you can see the world you inhabit in a new way, and move through it with confidence again.
The words we read from the prophet Isaiah this morning offer hope to a people who badly need it. God shines light into a dark place, and the people respond with joy.
First, let’s talk about God’s light. We’ve been reading through the story of God and God’s people in the Bible this year in order. You might remember how we started with the creation story, and the first thing God says is, “Let there be light.” Light is the first thing God creates. Before the light, everything is darkness and confusion, all the disordered elements of the world jostling against each other with no form and no life and no possibility, apart from God, of being anything more than they are. Light means God is about to get to work. It means there is energy streaming into the system from outside of it. It means there are more good things in store for God’s people. Light means a new beginning.
You might remember from a few weeks ago, when we heard the story of the prophet Samuel as a young boy, how the light in the sanctuary where he slept had almost gone out. You might also remember how Eli, the priest who cared for him, had eyes that were growing dim, and that among all of God’s people in those days visions were not widespread. God’s light hadn’t been properly tended, and it was going out. The people were beginning to have trouble seeing clearly. God’s light shone on the world at the beginning, and it gave the elements shape and purpose. God’s light reflects and shines through God’s creatures. I see it every fall in the mornings when the sunlight catches the top of the maple tree across the street, and the red leaves stand out against the blue of the sky. I see it in the way the members of this congregation care for each other when we’re in need. God’s light is real, and it’s beautiful, and it shines in people and things that are alive with God’s purpose.
But when God’s creatures, God’s people, turn aside from living as they’ve been called, when the beautiful form God gave them begins to slip and distort, and the light grows dim. Or when God’s people are oppressed, when they’re prevented from thriving in the way that God intends, the light slips out of sight.
In Isaiah’s time, it was a little of both. Last week I told you how the special family God had chosen and blessed, the Israelites, had been divided into two kingdoms, the kingdom of Israel in the north, and the kingdom of Judah in the south. We heard about how the prophet Amos pronounced God’s judgment on those who strayed from the way of life God had taught them, particularly the people of the north who were exploiting the poor so that they could be rich and comfortable. Amos’s message was that there would be disaster, and the best the people of Israel could hope for is that God would allow some of them to survive. Isaiah lived a few years after Amos. He was from the southern kingdom, and he lived to see the armies of the mighty Assyrian Empire come sweeping down from the north to destroy the northern kingdom and carry off its people into exile, so that they lost their national and religious identity. Israel ceased to exist. Amos’s warning had come true. And now the Assyrians were threatening the tiny kingdom of Judah. They captured the outlying cities, and surrounded the capital, Jerusalem. It was hard to see a future for God’s people now. The light was getting awfully dim.
Last summer, I went with my family to visit the Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg. We went on a tour that took us into the old Sterling Hill mine, and as we entered the mountainside, everything changed. Outside the sun was shining on a hot summer day, but in the mine everything was dark. It was damp. It was cold, too—we were glad we had brought sweatshirts. I remembered the story I heard a few years back about a group of miners in Chile, who were trapped deep underground. Their mine was different—it was dark, but the air in the mine shaft was hot, over 90 degrees. They were trapped for 69 days. And then there was a miraculous rescue that brought everyone out safe and sound. One of the miners, Mario Sepulveda, said that when the rescuers’ drill broke through into their shaft, the miners “danced around the tunnel like crazy things. … We then all believed we would be saved. The Devil was down there and so was God. I didn’t see either but I felt both. They were in a battle for our souls. And God won.”1 When light breaks into a dark place, everything changes.
Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” He points to the sign of hope… the birth of a child destined to be king. In a monarchy, royal children are a sign that the nation itself has a future—that’s why there was such a fuss in the U.K. when Prince William and Kate Middleton were married, and since then when they have welcomed children into their family. And it was the same for Isaiah: “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us…” He’s probably talking not about a literal birth, but about the coronation of an adult king. When a king was crowned in those days, it was believed that he became God’s son—you see this language in the psalms (e.g. 2:7). Isaiah is probably referring to King Hezekiah. If you visit Jerusalem today, you can still see the aqueduct that Hezekiah built to strengthen the city against siege. And in fact, the siege broke, and the Assyrians had to leave Judah and return home. God’s people were saved. But for people in the generations after Isaiah, this prophecy about an unnamed royal child was a source of hope and expectation, that God would continue to provide God’s people with a protector, a leader, a ruler. That’s why this passage is usually read in churches on Christmas Eve. Jesus is the child-king whose entry into the world makes everything different.
What have you been saved from? Where has God created new possibilities that you didn’t dare to hope for? When have the lights come back on for you? In our lives we have any number of encounters with darkness. But it also happens that light shines into that darkness and makes a new beginning. As Christians we bear witness to Jesus, the light of the world, who is present from the first and to the last and makes all our new beginnings possible. And we do this, in part, through joy. Not a giddy, mindless joy, but the joy of trapped miners coming up out of the earth and into the sunshine, the joy of lost sheep being carried back to the fold.
We can express that joy in so many ways. Gathering here on Sunday morning is one. Sharing our gifts of time, talent, and treasure is another. Caring for the people God loves both inside and outside these walls is still another. This Friday Highlands will be hosting the Family Promise shelter over at Guardian Angel. And we’ve been filling bags with Thanksgiving groceries for the Center for Food Action. These are both ways that we show our joy over God’s light shining into our lives.
God’s light has shined on you. God has made possible for you any number of new beginnings. So dance! Whoop and holler like those rescued miners if you want! These things let other people see God’s light shining on you, and what a difference it makes. But giving of your resources and yourself is another way, a purposeful way, of showing your joy at what God has done for you. And when joy becomes generosity, God’s light shines all the more brightly for everyone to see. James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17). By reflecting God’s light, you may just help that light find its way into the dark corners where someone else is looking for hope—a homeless or hungry family in Bergen County, a child getting bullied at school, or someone living with a chronic illness. God’s light shines into a dark place, and we respond with generous joy. What shape will your joy take?
Will you pray with me?
God of hope and new beginnings, we thank you for shining light into the dark places of our lives. You have freed us for lives of joy and generosity, for service to one another and the poor and sick and hungry among us. Let your light shine in us and through us, enlightening your world until we need no lamp or sun, and you live in our midst forever and ever. Through Jesus Christ, the light of the world, Amen.
Caroline Graham, “Chilean miners: World exclusive first interview with Mario Sepulveda.” Daily Mail, 17 Oct 2010. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1321230/Chilean-miners-World-exclusive-interview-Mario-Sepulveda.html. Accessed 11/18/2017.