Sermon for January 26, 2014

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

January 26, 2014, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Text:  Isaiah 9:1-4

Sermon Theme:  “The Light That Penetrates Even the Blackest Hole”

(Sources:  Concordia Journal, Fall 2013, Vol. 39, No. 4; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Anderson’s Cycle A Preaching Handbook; original ideas)

 Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

 I enjoy fables, — these legends, myths, and fictitious stories, sometimes about animals, sometimes about mythical beings, are told to make a point.  Today I want to begin by telling a 19th Century fable by George MacDonald.

Here’s the fable:  A witch steals a newborn girl and raises her in the total darkness of a cave.  The witch experiences both light and darkness, but not the girl.  She is completely immersed in the black world.  Even as she grows, the witch will only allow her to step outside during the nighttime hours.  Her name is Nycteris.

Long before the dawn’s graying blush, Ncyteris would be back inside her dark cave home.  Although she may have been meant for light by birth, the witch’s training kept her now in the dark.  In fact, one night when she strayed unusually far, her running steps were driven by fear of pursuing light as she fled home near daybreak.

There was another young person in the same world.  His name was Photogen, and he had been raised to experience only the bright light of day.  His guardians made sure that he was never in the dark, not even to sleep.  By the time the sun set, bright lights burned in the castle where he was raised.

Yet there came a day when Photogen hunted too far, and was caught beyond the point of no return when dusk filtered the skies and darkness crept in.  In terror, Photogen stumbled into a garden and hugged himself in distress.  Fortunately this happened to be on a night and in the vicinity where Nycteris’ nocturnal roaming brought them together.  Nycteris comforted Photogen, and helped him understand the world of the night.  Intrigued, Photogen began to plan forays that prevented his daylight return home, and Nycteris became the nighttime guide and friend.

Friendship grew into love, and eventually Photogen helped Nycteris endure the blazing sun of a day.  In the end they were married, each appreciating the world of the other, yet both gravitating toward the day and the light.  MacDonald’s tale ends with Nycteris expressing confidence that ever-greater lights will lead them forward.

Fables can be deceptively simple.  Think about what this one is trying to say to us.  We are like Nycteris, stolen away from our original life in the glory and care of God by a witch we might call the devil.  We are raised in the dark night of sin and evil on planet earth.  But into this world comes Jesus, our Photo-gen.  He grows to understand our nighttime existence, and loves us as we are in it.

Yet never does He become part of its darkness.  Finally, we are able to wed him (the Bible says Christ is the groom and we the church are his bride), and share a brighter way of life, partly because of His love, and partly because of our originally created nature that knows the world of light is truly our home.

In our sermon text, Isaiah’s metaphor of people wandering in darkness is in many ways more haunting and more desperate-sounding than the Fable of Photogen and Nycteris.  God laments that His people choose to look for meaning in all the wrong places.  They seek wisdom from mediums.  They get directions from sorcerers.  They look among the dead for answers to the questions of life.  In this, they have become like zombies, animated corpses without souls.  Where once the glory of God shone and gave light through Israel to the other nations of the world, the light in the tower is now turned off.

Verse one of our text looks back to the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom, which included two of the northernmost tries, Zebulon and Naphtali, in 722, 721 B.C.  In 701 B.C., the southern kingdom and Jerusalem itself were threatened by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib (                                 ).  Although spared at this time, Judah would eventually fall to the Babylonians almost a century and a half later, just as Isaiah foresees and warns.

With the north subjugated, Jerusalem threatened, and eventual captivity a sure thing, a cloud of darkness hung over Jerusalem and Judah, because of their sins, especially their sin of falling away from, denying, rejecting their God.  Oh, how desperately they needed Isaiah’s words of hope and comfort:  “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress,” Isaiah promises.

In our text, Isaiah looks back to the time of the conquest of the two northern tribes when Ahaz was king, and it looks forward to God’s promise of salvation , because it was precisely out of this region that the promised Messiah would emerge in the person of Christ, the very Son of God made flesh.  It was in this very region of Palestine that Jesus Christ would spend His childhood and begin His ministry!  How can anyone doubt this as a prophesy of the Messiah’s coming?!

In these very territories, mentioned by Isaiah, Zebulun and Naphtali, Jesus performed not only His first miracle (changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana), but other famous miracles as well, — such as, healing the centurion’s servant, the paralytic man, and Peter’s mother-in-law, and the raising of Jairus’s daughter.  It was also here that Jesus began teaching in the synagogue and preaching His message of repentance, — and most importantly his awesome Sermon on the Mount.

You see, God placed Israel in Canaan, rather than on other real estate properties, for a reason.  The reason is that tiny little Palestine was in those days at the crossroads of international commerce.  The “way of the sea” (Via Maris), used in the first verse of our text, was essentially an international “highway” running from the nations of the Fertile Crescent (Asyria, Babylonia, Persia) and beyond (India, China) through Canaan and on to Egypt.

In other words, God positioned Israel right on the major commercial highway of the time!  Now don’t think for a moment that He did it for the purpose of making His people rich in commerce and trade!  No, no, no.  God positioned Israel in that crucial spot to establish them as a witness to the other nations as to who God was and how life with God should unfold. 

So you see how awful Israel’s deserting of God was!  In turning away from God, as the Israelites did, the light went out in Israel, and it also killed the streetlights for the nations traveling through.  So this was one humdinger of a darkness!!!!

First, Isaiah says in our text, “the people . . . walked in darkness,” and then he follows that with “those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness.”  It wasn’t just darkness, it was deep darkness.  And the darkness was not just economic and political, but it was also spiritual and emotional and mental.  For most people it was the darkness of deep depression.

I can’t help but think of the black holes in outer space that scientists discovered not too many years ago.  Scientists do not fully understand this phenomenon, but they have observed regions where nothing seems to escape and no light can penetrate.  It’s an incredible, impossible darkness.

But also a black hole might be thought of as a grave, a grave you could describe as a rut.  Someone once defined a rut as a grave with both ends kicked out.  That could describe the Israelites in their state of deep depression. 

It could also describe us, couldn’t it? 

Instead of being a light for the many nations traveling through the great commercial corridor of their day, the Israelites had become worldly like those traveling through.  Today, we too are living in the midst of spiritual darkness, gloom, and apostasy from God, and we, too, with what God has done for us and through us, should be a beacon of light for the other nations of the world. 

It should be pointed out that the un-repented sins of Israel did not go unpunished, – oh, how they suffered in subjugation in exile!  Even the righteous few had to suffer the consequences of the majority. 

The great sins of our day may seem to go unpunished, as more and more join in that sinning.  But how long will they go unpunished, and how tragic that the faithful few will also suffer as we are led into the black hole of apostasy.

Yet we and our world are never without hope.  Verse 3 of our text refers to the joy of the harvest.  Isaiah’s prophesy brings the hope, comfort and joy of the coming Messiah.  Isaiah reminds us that God is still the giver of all good things even when people do not deserve such blessings.  Midian’s defeat at the hands of Gideon in verse 4 reminds us of the fact that God does indeed remember and redeem His people no matter what their sins have been.  The Good News is that a great light has come in the form of our Savior, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and it has shone in the darkness and continues to shine, so powerful that it can illuminate even the blackest of holes. 

Make no mistake about it, whatever darkness we may encounter, — whether it’s the moral corruption and apostasy of our times, or the fears, anxieties, insecurities, terrors in our hearts, — it shall always, always be penetrated by the light of Christ!  Amen.

 The peace of God which passes all  understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.