Powers and Principalities
Duration:16 mins 26 secs

Throughout the season of Advent, indeed throughout all of December, our preaching texts will be drawn from the prophet Isaiah. Today we turn to the ninth chapter and read verses 2-7. These early chapters of Isaiah are drawn from the reign of King Ahaz, a wicked king who sought to ally himself and Israel with other nations in hopes of finding protection against the Assyrian empire. It did not work and Judah became a vassal to the Assyrians with all the accompanying oppression that entailed. Isaiah spoke a word of the Lord through it all. Most of his speeches are warnings and predictions of judgment upon Israel for their unfaithfulness to the Lord, and yet, woven throughout we find visions of promise and hope. Let us hear this word of God.

2 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.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 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 onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In Isaiah’s day light was a precious commodity. Of course there was sunlight and at the height of day the heat it brought could be oppressive. So, you could count on sunlight. Beyond that, light was much more limited. When the sun set, you had two options: a fire or a lamp. Wood is fairly scarce in Palestine due to lack of available water, so fires were made with care. Lamps used oil that was expensive. Thus, lamps were very small, often fitting in the palm of your hand. A lamp that size gave off enough light to light your way, but certainly not enough to completely illumine a room. So, once the sun set, darkness always threatened to overwhelm the light.

But that is not the case for us today. The sun continues to shine as it does on this cold morning. And when the sun sets we turn on the lights. We just reach for the switch on the wall. When we reach for the switch on the wall, how many of us ever fear that the light will not immediately illumine? We have incandescent lights. We have florescent lights. We have compact florescent lights. We have LED lights. We have halogen lights. We have neon lights. We have flood lights and twinkling lights and colored lights. We have overhead lights and book lights and flashlights. If someone needs a flashlight today they will most likely just pull out their cell phone and turn on the light. Yes, when darkness threatens, we turn on the lights and lots of them.

The result is that we are never truly in the dark. Drive along Riverwatch Parkway here in Augusta at night and it is lit up like an airport runway. Fly over this country at night and you see cities, highways, cars, and homes easily identified by their light. The ever present screens on our televisions, computers, tablets, and phones maintain a constant glow.

So perhaps we struggle to hear our text for today in a way that the people of ancient Israel did not. For they truly knew darkness. They truly knew the oppression of a foreign empire. They truly understood the despair that comes from a lack of hope.

Listen again to the words Isaiah speaks to them; listen especially to the verbs and their tenses: “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.” At a service this week, our own Tim Owings reminded me that when we read scripture we have to pay attention to the verbs. And the verbs in that verse are all in the past tense. Did you catch that? 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. Yes, for those who first heard these words from Isaiah, their present reality was of one of darkness, and yet the prophet speaks with such assurance and confidence that he can use the past tense. The vision of great light was a promised future, but it was so certain it could be described as having already occurred.

But we are a people who live in the light already. We are surrounded by great light. On us light constantly shines. I wonder if that makes it harder to hear this text. Yes, in the midst of a world so full of illumination, without the back drop of impending deep darkness, it can be easy to miss the great light that still shines. A light, as the Gospel of John expresses it, that the darkness cannot overcome.

Yes, I fear we miss the light that came into the world of darkness and sin in the birth of a child. Isaiah held that hope – “for unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given” (again in the past tense.) We know that this child is born not in a palace, not with great human fanfare, not with a celebration for the ages. No, this child was born to parents far from home, with no room for them in the inn, in the town of Bethlehem. The announcement was given by angels to shepherds watching their flocks on a hillside outside of town in the darkness of night. They could not wait to go and see the one who was the light of the world so they left their flocks and went. Later Magi saw a star in the sky at its rising and for years they followed its light until they found the place where the child was with his mother. They were compelled to go by the light breaking into the darkness.

But what about us? If there is already so much light in the world can we even make out this “great light” of the one who is the “light of the world?” Is it even possible to find Jesus when our eyes are so accustomed to constant light?

We need prophets like Isaiah to point us in the right way. On this Second Sunday of Advent we often encounter another prophet named John. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this prophet named John serves as one who baptizes Jesus and calls people to repentance. However, in the Gospel of John, this one crying out in the wilderness is instead primarily a witness who points us to Jesus. As it says in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

Yes, we need prophets like Isaiah and John to point us to the light. For the challenge is greater for us today than for those who walked in darkness and lived in a land of deep darkness. We have to be vigilant. We must be expectant. We must be willing to wait. We must be willing to admit that all of the light we have in this world is merely a veneer, it seeks to hide the ever present darkness which lingers and threatens.

My friends, I believe that if we want to see Jesus. If we want to know the great light, we need to enter into that darkness. Popular business consultant and speaker Steve Maraboli puts it this way:

Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.

Yes, if we pull back the veneer of light flooding our eyes, it will not take long to discover the many that wait in darkness, who understand the brokenness that lurks beneath the illuminated marque we call life. They know the darkness of grief and loss. They know the brokenness of pain and despair. They know the divisions of race and class. They know the fear of violence and hunger. They know the hopelessness of unemployment and illness. They know darkness and it is not just “them.” That darkness dwells in us too.

It would be easy to just stay in our artificial light and ignore the reality of darkness. For the light appears warm, but really it burns so cold. I suspect that Christ is found most often right in the midst of the darkness we fear. The prophets point us to the true light which has come into the world. The true light does not try to overcome the veneer of artificial light. No, this light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

We who have heard the prophet Isaiah, who have listened to John the Witness, who know the story of the child born in Bethlehem so many years ago are now the prophets who can share that light with others. We are going to need to put down our phones, extinguish our lamps, and turn off the neon so that we might begin to see. Yes, so that we might not fear the darkness but with Christ himself, enter in. As author L. R. Knost has written:

Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention.
So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: