Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Isaiah 8:19-9:2
Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Did you ever notice how often we use light as a symbol or expression for life? When we celebrate someone’s birthday, we light candles on the birthday cake—and if we’re really going all out, we have the same number of lit candles as the number of years that person has lived. When a person’s life is cut short by tragedy, we say that their life was “snuffed out”—a candle light illustration to describe life’s end. We use that same symbolism in church. On Good Friday, we gather in a darkened church and snuff out a series of candles to remember how Jesus’ life was snuffed out on the cross, and we return to a fully lighted church Easter morning with the addition of the large, lit Easter candle as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection to life. Whether we’re thinking of something secular or sacred, we are accustomed to using light as a symbol for life.
Perhaps one of the reasons we make that connection is because it is biblical! Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, he says this about Christ: “In him was light, and that light was the life of men” (John 1:4). The Bible often describes Jesus and his Word as “light,” because Jesus offers souls spiritual life through his Word. That image and that truth can be seen in all of today’s Scripture lessons, and especially the First Lesson from Isaiah. Hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah described the coming Savior’s ministry in terms of light. “Jesus Christ is the light,” Isaiah teaches us today. Jesus is the light that shines from the Word. Jesus is the light that shines to the world.
When I was a vicar (i.e. pastoral intern) in Los Angeles (1999-2000), I remember how often I saw signs and advertisements for psychics. When I listen to my favorite Los Angeles radio station online, there are quite a few psychic ads during the commercial breaks. Although not as prevalent, you can still find plenty of psychics and palm readers right here in the Bay Area. I still have a hard time believing that people would spend their hard-earned money trying to find out the future that way. And I have a hard time believing that people would trust the vague and generic predictions for their future in the newspaper’s daily horoscope.
Isaiah shows us that there is nothing new under the sun. At the start of our First Lesson, he complains how God’s Old Testament people, who should have known better, were consulting witches and wizards. “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” You can’t miss Isaiah’s ironic observation. Why would living people try to find advice from the dead? The only explanation was a complete lack of trust in the Lord.
Isaiah diagnoses the problem and points out the solution. “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” If people have questions about the future, the place to turn was not to spiritists, but to God’s Word. “The law and the testimony” was Isaiah’s way to refer to God’s Word. God’s Word contains God’s objective and reliable message for all people. God’s Word in the Old Testament shines with his promises to send his Son to save the world from sin and to secure an eternal future for all believers.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t a message that the people in Israel always wanted to hear. But anything else they sought after would ultimately leave their souls unsatisfied. That’s what Isaiah has in mind with the next statements: “Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” Without the Word of God, souls are left hungry for real nourishment and angry over their spiritual starvation. Without the Word of God, people find themselves in spiritual darkness and distress.
When you think about life’s big questions and concerns, where do you turn? We’ve already seen the age-old tendency to turn to horoscopes and psychics. That may not be a temptation for most of us here today. But that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with the tendency to find our spiritual “life” from something other than the Word of God. How many popular spiritual ideas do you agree with simply because that’s the majority opinion in the Bay area? How many televangelists tickle your ears because what they say sounds good and it isn’t technically wrong—even though there is little if any mention of sin or a Savior?
You see, the real sin of ancient Israel was not simply turning to witchcraft. The sin behind the sin was ignoring the Word of God. When we understand the sin behind the sin, we see that we are no less guilty. How easy it is to turn away from the light of God’s Word when its law exposes the darkness of our own sinful hearts. How quickly we replace the bright, clear statements from the Word with the muddied uncertainty of our own guesses and opinions. How frequently we assume that God isn’t really in control of my life, and that things would be brighter and clearer if I took charge. How often we shade the light of the gospel from our eyes so that we can stumble around, blinded by our own sinful stubbornness and self-made beliefs.
The Scriptures are like a light. Jesus Christ, the light of the world, shines from the pages of his Word. Scripture points us to Jesus, the Son of God, the Light of the world who has rescued us from sin’s darkness. But when our sinful flesh convinces us to ignore the Light, we not only wander in spiritual darkness, but we trip over our sin and may even find ourselves stumbling into the eternal darkness of hell.
When you walk into a dark room, the first thing you want to do is to turn on the light. A couple of months ago, I came back home from my office late one night, and all the lights were off. The light switch is on the other side of the room, and I hoped to get across safely and turn it on. But I didn’t (and couldn’t) see my kids’ toys right in my path, and so I managed to trip over them and spill my tea on the floor. If you could have seen me, I’m sure I would have looked pretty foolish. But that nighttime fall is a good way to picture ourselves without God’s light. Visible light makes a big difference for walking; so does spiritual light for living.
In the second section of our reading, Isaiah predicts the entrance of Jesus, the Light of the world, to a region that was once caught up in spiritual darkness. Jesus’ light would make a major difference. Isaiah wrote, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan— The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
Isaiah mentions two tribal regions in ancient Israel—Zebulun and Naphtali. These tribes were part of the northernmost region of Israel. Because they bordered foreign nations, they were easily influenced by the heathen gods of those nations. Because they bordered foreign nations, they also were the first regions in Israel to be attached by enemies from the north. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were darkened by idolatry and humbled by foreign armies.
But now, this previously humbled region would see the Light of the world. Matthew quotes this section in today’s Gospel, and he said that Jesus’ ministry in this region fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. Matthew wrote primarily for a Jewish audience, and so he loved to quote the Old Testament and to show how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies. Jesus was the Light of the world that came even for this corner of the world, a region that had all but rejected his heavenly Father throughout the centuries. Jesus honored them by preaching repentance and proclaiming the gospel. By his Galilean ministry in this precise area, he showed that he did not come exclusively for an elite group, but that he came for an entire world that would have otherwise been lost in sin’s darkness.
An unlikely place for Jesus to visit welcomed the Savior’s ministry. We also realize that our hearts are unlikely places for Jesus to direct his attention. Sometimes our conscience leads us to think, “Yes, but…” when we hear the gospel. “Yes, Jesus came to save the world from sin, but if you knew what I’ve done in my past, you wouldn’t be so quick to tell me I’m forgiven.” “Yes, Jesus is the Son of God and the Light of the world, but if you knew the sins I struggle with and the shame I carry in my heart, you wouldn’t be eager to share the gospel with me.”
We are as unlikely candidates for the gospel as anyone else is. We have even fallen into the basic temptation to downplay and ignore God’s Word just like ancient Israel. But the undeserved light of the gospel that Jesus brought to Galilee is the same undeserved good news that comes to you and to me today. Jesus Christ has enlightened your heart with his Word of grace. The Holy Spirit has enlightened your soul through faith in Jesus, the light of the world.
If Jesus would come to a place like ancient Galilee, then there’s no question that he came for the entire world. And if Jesus came for the entire world, then there’s no question he also came for you. For you the light of the world filled the night sky with the angelic announcement of his birth. For you, Jesus’ gleaming white holiness now counts as your holiness before God. For you, Jesus faced the darkness of your sin’s punishment on the cross so that you would be freed from that awful darkness and torment. For you Jesus filled the morning sky with another angelic announcement—the announcement of his resurrection back to life. For you he shines his grace into your heart through his inspired Word and forgiving Supper.
Are you one of those people who seems to be in a better mood when the weather is sunny? You’re not alone. That’s a pretty common phenomenon. Psychologists even use “light therapy” to help some people struggling with depression. Visible light makes a difference. So does spiritual light. Faith in Jesus Christ fills your heart with his undeserved grace, and fills your future with eternal life. Open up his Word, listen to it, and take it to heart, because that’s where you’ll find his light for your life. Amen.