Light in Darkness
Perhaps our reading should have started a few verses earlier:
They will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.
This is is the experience of the people of whom Isaiah speaks at the beginning of our reading:
The people who walked in darkness. . .
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness. . .
It does seem entirely appropriate to read these words from Isaiah at this time of year. It makes sense to hear words about gloom and darkness on this night which is one of the longest night of the year. Of course what is for Isaiah a metaphor, for people who live at the latitudes we do is an annual lived experience. Each year we go through a living parable that invites us to reflect on Isaiah’s words. The days become shorter. Today, here, there were just nine and a quarter hours between sunrise and sunset, and many of the hours between are twilight. And that was before the weather conspired to add to the gloom Even at noon at this time of year the Sun is never high in the sky, so the shadows which it casts are always deep and long. If nothing else Isaiah’s words fit our outside experience at this time of year. His metaphor is our reality.
Isaiah is actually addressing the people who live in Zebulun and Naphtali. That is the part of the Promised Land which lies to the north-west of the Sea of Galilee. These were the people who had borne the brunt of the Assyrian invasion which had swept down from the north and the east. Their darkness was of a different order from ours. They are the ones who have felt the weight of the Assyrian yoke across their shoulders. They are the ones who have received the sting of the oppressors rod on their backs. Their darkness was one of oppression, sorrow, pain and loss.
Though perhaps this year Isaiah’s words are doubly appropriate. They are apt for the time of year. But they are also apt for the whole year which we have just lived through. And maybe “gloomy” is a fitting adjective to describe what this year has been like. It hasn’t been quite the devastation of an invading army. But the Corona Virus certainly has “invaded” our awareness and has wreaked havoc with just about every aspect of our lives. For some the devastation has been like that of war, most especially for those who have lost loved ones. But no aspect of our lives, has been untouched. Everything has be disrupted, at the personal level, among our families and friends, for our neighbours and community, for the nation and for the whole world. We don’t seem to have emerged from gloom for so many months. As this has been happening, once again racial and economic injustices have been brought into focus. I don’t think the virus and the social and political discontent and disturbances we have been witness too this year are unconnected. The virus is in some sense a natural occurrence, just one of those misfortunes that happens to have happened. But it has served to increase and to expose some of the injustice that was already there. We have been living this year in a land, in a world of deep darkness.
I said, as began preaching from Isaiah at the end of November, that were in need of an “Isaiah Advent.” Perhaps above all we have needed to hear the hope expressed in the words we have heard from Isaiah tonight. The point of those metaphors of gloom and darkness, and especially when they are related to the shortness of days in the middle of winter, the point of those metaphors is that darkness turns to light. We are already past the mid point of winter, even if winter’s coldest days are yet to arrive. The longest night is behind us. In the last few weeks we may just have begun to sense that we might have turned the corner with the virus. There is a vaccine. Even if there is still restrictions and possibly more to come And as yet there is no end in sight to the suffering, loss and sorrow associated with the virus. And perhaps those voices raised against racial and economic injustice have made themselves heard. Even if there is as yet no conclusive will to resolve the issues that they protest against. Even in the darkness of winter there is reason to hope.
Isaiah though promises something more dramatic. The people he was speaking about at the beginning of the reading:
. . . have seen a great light.
. . . on them a light has shined.
It is the habit of prophets to speak of the future as if it were already present. Isaiah is so confident that God will bring relief to his people he can speak as if it has already happened. For his friends in Zebulun and Naphtali he is able to promise that the war which they have been living through is over. The battlefields around them will be cleared of the debris of conflict.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned for fuel for the fire.
The crisis which they have been living through will come to an end. And when it is over they will be able to look back and see God’s hand in their relief. So too will the crises which we are experiencing pass, and with the eyes of faith we too will see that it is God who has brought us through. The source of Isaiah’s confidence and hope solidifies around a single image: the birth of a child. The arrival of children in the world is always reason for hope. But Isaiah has a particular child in mind. Earlier, when he was offering hope to people far to the south of Zebulun and Naphtali, he spoke of a child. When he was reassurance to King Ahaz in Jerusalem that this same crisis would pass he had said:
The young woman is with child and will bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Isaiah’s hope has become more confident and more immediate, he now says:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.
The hope of God’s people crystallises around this child. This is the Messiah. The one in whom all of God’s promises are fulfilled. The one who will establish God’s reign on earth for God’s people He is a king in the line of David. He is one whose rule will be focused justice and righteousness. He is the one who will bring about everlasting peace for all people of goodwill. No wonder we want to hear these words now. In the darkest days of the year we want to hear the brightest hope of all. Of course we read these words on this night of all nights, because it is the conviction of Christians that these hopes find their fulfilment in the child born in Bethlehem, Jesus. Jesus whose own ministry and mission begin in that same land of Zebulun and Naphtali, is the one who bears those exulted title and brings the hope of God’s people to reality. Jesus is:
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Because he is we too can speak of the future we hope for, a future without pandemic, a future without the kinds of restrictions we have experienced in these recent months. We can speak of a future in which there will be both racial and economic justice. There will be liberty and equality for all We can speak of this future as if it were already present, because God has already acted. The Kingdom of God is already here in Jesus Christ. These things will be so, because, as Isaiah puts it:
The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.
Perhaps Christmas this year won’t be quite the celebration we have had in the past, and would like to share now. Few of us will be able to gather in Church, and even those of us he do will not be able to do quite what we would most like to do. Still we will not be able to hold our loved ones a close as we’d like and share our our joy with them as much as we long to. Around us still there is to much sorrow and loss, sickness and anxiety. And still there are victims of economic and racial injustice. But God promises that these thing will end. And then there will be a great celebration. Like children tearing off the wrapping paper on Christmas morning
as joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
Because this celebration is certain in the future, Our hope is so real that we can speak of it as if it had already come about, Even in the face of what we have gone through and still must go through, We can celebrate now! Happy Christmas!
Light in Darkness by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0