Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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The Light Has Come

Isaiah 8:20-9:7

 The concepts of light and darkness are powerful realities for us.  

 Darkness can be very frightening.  Of course, as children, many of us were afraid of the dark.  Hopefully, we outgrow that at some point.  But even as adults, the darkness can still be unsettling.  Not because we’re afraid of the dark, but because the darkness has a way of intensifying the fears and the doubts and the uncertainties that we have.  

 And of course, darkness is frequently used as a picture of all kinds of unpleasant things.  Darkness can signify death, fear, doubt, despair, hopelessness, evil, injustice, and so on.

 One of the practical ways that we can see the effect that the darkness has on us is the feelings that happen in many people at this time of the year.  These are the shortest days of the year right now.  And it’s been observed for a long time that people in northern climates with short days and cold temperatures tend to experience some degree of depression or fatigue at this time of the year.  For some people, it even rises to the level of clinical depression.  There’s a condition called SAD, seasonal affective disorder that affects some people in the winter months.   

On the other hand, light can be very positive.  It can be comforting and reassuring.  It can drive away our doubts and fears.  It can give us a new sense of courage and resolve.  Light can be used a picture of many positive things:  Hope, goodness, life, God, truth, and so on.  

 Even a little bit of light has the power to pierce darkness.  I remember hearing a long time ago about a study that was done on the ability of the human eye to perceive light.  One of the things that stood out to me was a finding that in perfect darkness, the human eye is capable of perceiving just a single candle from 20 miles away.  That was pretty amazing.

 I can remember a story from my life when light changed my perception greatly.  I enjoy backpacking, and I usually go backpacking by myself.  Partly because I have a hard time finding anyone to go with me, and partly because I enjoy the solitude.  Several years ago, I was going in late April to hike a trail up in north central PA.  It was a trail that I had tried the year before and had failed and given up.  So already I had some doubts.  It was a very difficult trail.  And as I was making the two hour drive to the

trailhead, it was dark and unpleasant looking outside.  It was cold, maybe 40 degrees.  It even rained for a bit on the way up.  And by the time I got to the trail, I was seriously thinking about just going home. But I started hiking, and a half hour down the trail, the sun came out, and I felt a lot better.  The sun stayed out for the whole trip, and I had a great time.  My mood changed in a matter of minutes when the sun came out.  In the light, everything seemed less threatening and more enjoyable.

 The story of Christmas can be understood as the story of light driving away darkness.  Even the timing of Christmas can illustrate light overcoming darkness.  December 25th is just a few days after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which I think is either on the 21st or 22nd, depending on the year.  

 This may be the reason for the timing of Christmas.  We don’t know when Jesus was born.  We don’t have any way of knowing that he was born on December 25th.  In fact, Christmas was not even celebrated as a Christian holy day for several centuries after the establishment of our faith.  There are some traditions about why Christmas is on December 25th.  But it may also be that December 25th was chosen because it came just after the solstice.  A number of ancient societies had celebrations just after the solstice, to celebrate the return of light.  And that may explain why Christmas falls at this time of the year.  Regardless of when Jesus’ actual birth day was, the meaning of Christmas can very well be understood as the triumph of light over darkness.  

 That theme of light overcoming darkness was very important in Isaiah’s prophecy that we just heard.  This is one of many prophecies about Jesus Christ that can best be understood as having more than one level of meaning.  Isaiah was delivering a message of hope to people in his day.  But he was also revealing something about what God would do in the future with the coming of Messiah.

 Isaiah ministered during a time of great upheaval and turmoil in the Old Testament.  He prophesied in the 8th century BC.  At that time, Israel was divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.  The Northern Kingdom was called Samaria or Ephraim or simply Israel.  The Southern Kingdom was known as Judah.  And the Empire of Assyria was on the march against the Northern Kingdom.  During Isaiah’s lifetime, the Northern Kingdom fell, and the Southern Kingdom almost did too.

 Isaiah’s prophecy begins with a message of defeat and captivity.  He mentions the lands of Zebulun, Naphtali, Galilee, and the land along the road between Jordan and

the Sea, what is sometimes called Transjordan.  Those lands were the first to be defeated and their people taken into exile by Assyria.  They were the first of the covenant people to be taken from the Promised Land, the first to experience the desolation of captivity.

 But those regions were also the first to see the light.  They were the first lands to receive Jesus the Messiah.  His ministry began in Galilee and was focused there.  The first to experience darkness became the first to experience new light.  

 And God would break the chains of captivity and restore his covenant people.  He would establish peace.  And the sign that God would do this would be the birth of a child.  In Isaiah’s day, this prophecy probably referred to the birth of an heir to the throne.  An heir to the throne would always be an occasion for rejoicing.  It was a sign that there was hope that the Kingdom would continue.  

 But as we read the name of this child, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, we see and understand that this prophecy is also looking forward to the birth of Jesus the Messiah.  

 Apart from Christ, our world is in darkness.  We live under the tyranny of “foreign powers.”  The foreign powers of our world are more frightening than Assyria.  They are sin and death.  For as the Bible tells us, “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God… and the wages of sin is death.”  I call these “foreign powers” because they were not God’s intention for this creation.  But apart from Christ, they rule every life.  Apart from Christ, we cannot free ourselves from sin.  And apart from Christ, we have only death to anticipate.  They are foreign powers that we cannot defeat.

 But the light of the world, Jesus Christ, breaks the chains of these foreign powers.  And he comes to establish an everlasting Kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness.

 It is a kingdom of peace.  Peace is a restoration of right relationships.  Christ comes to restore us to a right relationship with God.  And he comes to restore us to right relationships with each other, even a right relationship, peace with ourselves.

 It is a kingdom of justice in which the penalty that our sins justly deserve is paid by Christ himself on the cross.  God in his perfect justice could not just ignore our sin, but in his perfect love he created a way for our sins to be atoned for. 

 And it is a kingdom of righteousness.  The Holy Spirit comes into us and helps us to live rightly as children of God.

 God did all this through the most unlikely of events:  the birth of a baby in the most humble of circumstances.  That’s not where we might expect to find the Savior of the world, lying in a feeding trough for animals, being worshipped by shepherds.  

 But God does great things through small things.  Isaiah reminds us of the victory of Gideon in verse 4.  God sent Gideon to deliver his people from the Midianites.  But God would only allow Gideaon to have 300 men to fight against 140,000 Midianites.  Why?  So Gideon would know beyond a doubt that the power came from God, not him.

 In the same way, God saved his people through the birth of a humble child named Jesus so that we would know that it was only the zealous love of God that accomplished this.

 Light has come into our world.  And our world will never be the same.  And our lives never have to be the same.  We don’t have to live in darkness.  We don’t have to live in fear or doubt or despair.  Christ is the light of the world.  We have in him a source of light and hope and confidence that the world can never take away.  

 My hope for you is that Christmas is not just a celebration of family or food or gifts, but a celebration of the Light of the World that drives away darkness.  May that light be in your life, and may your life never be the same because of it.

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