Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2016
This evening, I’m basing my homily on a well-known passage from Isaiah, one that is often read during the Christmas season. The opening 2/3 of the book of Isaiah is pretty much doom and gloom, but within the prophetic judgment are a few kernels of hope. This is one of those and, as we’ve just past the winter solstice with the longest night of the year, it’s good to be reminded that darkness never has the final word. Read Isaiah 9:2-7.
Our dog, Trisket, will be seventeen years old in February. He’s a wonderful dog: loyal, sweet and kind. It’s sad to know he won’t be with us much longer. In dog years, his age is far beyond what any of us will hope to make—somewhere just shy of 119. Over all, he’s aged gracefully, but in the last year there have been more dramatic changes. He wears diapers and doesn’t hear very well. He’s lost most of his sight and stumbles around, not seeing chairs and tables. He runs into door frames. He can still see light and he’s drawn by it, which has led him many times into the glass panels that frame the front door.
When you are blind or are in darkness, it’s like that. You stumble around. Without vision, there is no comprehension of what’s out there, what’s around you. It’s all about what’s with the next step or within our reach. You walk slower and try to avoid running into things. It can be scary. We become confused and find ourselves lost. We’re become anxious and apprehensive. And that’s the situation Isaiah addresses in this oracle. People walking in darkness, living in a land of absent of light. It’s frightening, but Isaiah offers hope. There is a promise of light filling the land. The light brings joy, there is a renewed confidence. As with the breaking of dawn, things are changing.
We take light for granted. We flip the switch and like magic, light appears. And we are troubled in times such as after Hurricane Matthew when neighborhoods were in darkness for days and nights. Candles and flashlights just don’t do it for us anymore. Especially now, at the time of the year when the nights are at their longest. Yet, despite the easy availability of light, we still suffer from depression and want. The metaphor of darkness still applies to us as we worry about the present and fret over the future. We need to hear and experience Isaiah’s words again.
This passage of Isaiah, probably originally written for the birth of one of Jerusalem’s kings, offers hope to a people oppressed. As a nation, Israel and Judah stood at the crossroads of mighty nations. In world affairs, they were a pawn, standing in the middle of a chessboard, with the powers of the Fertile Crescent on each side. The dark pieces of the chessboard could have been Egypt and the white pieces could have represent a variety of nations (Assyria, Babylon and Persia) depending on the era of history. Sitting in this crucible, Israel was always insecure. But at the time of a new king there would be hope that alien rule would come to an end and their enemies would be defeated as the new king restores the prominence of Israel to what it had been under David.
In verse 4, Isaiah recalls the victories of Gideon at Midian, where he led the Israelites into battle. Over 32,000 Israelite men responded to the call to arms to save their nation, but God had Gideon whittle down the number of soldiers. In the end, he kept a force of only 300 who slipped into the Midianite and their allies, the Amalekites, camp and routed them. With just a handful of men, but more importantly with God’s help, they were victorious over a much larger army. The promises in our passage all link to God working to end their oppression as God had done in the days of Gideon. This leads to verse 6, which is perhaps the most hopeful verse in scripture, where Isaiah’s oracle announces the birth of a child. But sadly, no such king was born during Isaiah’s era.
The early church quickly realized how this passage applied to Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tonight. Jesus came in humility, yet had the authority of God, was God with us, and offers us a new way of enjoying peace. Of course, his reign hasn’t been fully realized and there are still those who oppose him, but his victory over evil and death has been won on the cross and it’s only a matter of time. For as we celebrate his birth, we also long for his return and the everlasting kingdom.
On these cool winter evenings, I love walking from our house down to the Delegal marina. On a number of lagoons, people have decorated small trees with lights that shine in the darkness and reflect off the water. I often stop and look and am amazed. Even in the darkness of winter, light is shining in the world.
There is a legend that one winter, the great church reformer, Martin Luther was walking in the woods at night. There was a cedar tree frosted with snow on a hill above. As he looked up at this sight, he could see the stars flickering behind and through the branches of the tree. He was so moved that he had a tree cut down and brought inside his home and decorated it with lights as a way to recapture the glory he’d witnessed. This season, I hope you can capture that same glory when you look at the lights all around us and be reminded of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate this evening. For in Jesus Christ, born of Mary, God came into our world and lived among us, showing us how to live, and reminding us that we’re not alone. We should no longer live in the fear of the darkness, for unto us a child has been born…. Amen.