The Light of the World (Isa 9:2-7)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached December 25th, 2022*

2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

–       Isa 9:2-7

One of the classic images that comes to our mind when we think of Christmas is the image of light amidst darkness. Whether that is the Christmas lights on your house, a candlelight service, or just a warm fireplace. These are conditioned by our culture of course (movies and advertisements), but perhaps our collective unconscious has been shaped by Christianity more than we realize. It is in the dark of night that Jesus, the light of the world, is born. It is shining angels who proclaim the good news to the shepherds watching their flock by night (Luke 2:8-9), and it is a star—a diamond of light in a coal-black sky—that leads the wisemen to Jesus (Matt 2:1-2). Light in the dark is part and parcel of the entire setting of the Christmas story, but the setting isn’t merely incidental or ornamental, but essential to the meat and meaning of the Christmas story. We know that the scene of child birth isn’t idyllic but typically traumatic, especially if it is taking place on the floor of a barn. Jesus wasn’t glowing when He was born, He was covered in blood with a smooshed face and umbilical cord that had to be cut. The Thomas Kinkade-esque scene of light streaming out of a manger into a dark night, the rosy cheek child with “radiant beams from thy holy face” lying in the hay, all that you have seen portrayed in so many paintings and nativity sets and church plays–so false as history–may be closer to the truth of prophecy than we realize. What is Christmas? It is, in the words of one author, “Uninhabitable darkness riven with unbearable light.”

Isaiah the prophet, writing nearly six hundred years before Christmas, looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, the King of Israel, and depicts it just as such: In the night a sight of Light.

Night

In the previous chapter of Isaiah, though the prophet has taught clearly about who God is, the people don’t care (Isa 8:16-19), so God warns: “If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn,” (Isa 8:20b). There is no sunrise of enlightenment in Isaiah’s contemporaries, there is no light, so what do they see? “And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness,” (Isa 8:22). That final phrase, “thick darkness,” is used in the story of the Exodus to describe the plague of darkness that descends on Egypt, a darkness so oppressive that we are told it was “a darkness to be felt,” (Ex 10:21), like God reached down and painted the dark onto their eyeballs. Isaiah’s contemporaries are being thrust into that, only with the eyes of their hearts, not their heads, blinded; the kind of darkness that Paul warns of in Romans, where we are told our “foolish hearts [are] darkened,” (Rom 1:21).  What is the great human dilemma? Not only that we dwell in darkness, but that darkness dwells in us. 

In the beginning, when the earth was without form and void, it was darkness that clung to the face of abyss; it covered everything. The darkness represented the chaotic disorder that God conquers through His Word–God spoke: Let there be light, and there was light (Gen 1:1-3). The people of Israel have turned from God’s Words, they don’t care about them, so it is as if their minds and hearts are thrown back into that inky black of chaos and disorder. If the Bible tells us that God is light (1 John 1:5), then where are we if we turn away from Him? Even at our best of times, we are dogged by the darkness of our sin. Lest you think I (or the Bible) is being overly dramatic, this darkness doesn’t turn us into cartoonish villains. The sin Isaiah addresses is ignoring God’s Word—fairly mundane as far as sins go—yet it leads to unthinkable places. The “ponderous chain” that wreathes Jacob Marley, the first ghost that visits Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is a chain that represents Marley’s greed and selfishness, is fashioned not in one great act of evil, but Scrooge is told Marley made it, “I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, yard by yard.” A thousand small steps will take you places you never thought you would go. We use our creativity, relationships, and talents with noble intentions, yet we surprise ourselves with our selfishness, with our tempers, with our two-facedness.

Sight

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

–       Isa 9:2

In the land of deep darkness, light spills in and gives sight. The imagery Isaiah uses of light/dark is so powerful because, of course, no night is so dark that it cannot be pierced by light. But is the light coming on always a pleasant experience? In Plato’s allegory of the cave, when one of the prisoners is freed, he sees the fire that was responsible for casting the shadows on the wall and the brightness of the flames hurts his eyes. He decides he would rather go back to the comfort of the familiar dark—the only reason he ever leaves the cave is that Plato imagines he is dragged out by force into the bright noonday sunlight.

Turn your bedside lamp on in the middle of the night, and your eyes wince. Transitioning from dark to light can be a painful experience, depending on how deep the darkness is and how brilliant the light is. If you are napping under the shade of a tree, and the sun moves to shine on your face, its uncomfortable. If you have been dead asleep in a dark room and someone turns the light on, it’s alarming, you get angry. But if you have been dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death, the land of thick darkness and a “great light” shines on you? If you are submerged in inky black, and the blazing light of heaven falls upon you? What then? Many, like the figure of Plato’s cave, recoil. 

But this is why what follows in Isaiah is so critical for us. Verses 3-5 show us the result of this great light shining on those in thick darkness. What does this Light bring?

Joy 

You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

–       Isa 9:3

The people of God, who had languished and dwindled by Isaiah’s time, will be multiplied. They, who have dwelt in darkness, will become what Abraham was promised long ago: as numerous and shining as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5-6—those who were in darkness, will not only come into the light, they will become light (Dan 12:3). And as the people multiply, so do their joy. They are glad with the joy of harvest, like workers on payday, like a child on running to the tree on Christmas morning. They are glad like warriors who have just won a battle, like football players in a locker room after a big win. That’s what this Light brings. 

Rest

For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

–       Isa 9:4

“Midian” refers to one of the ancient enemies of Israel who exploited and exhausted and exacted much. The dark of night didn’t only leave you confused, but it also has left you wearied, burdened like a pack mule sinking under an oppressive yoke. But then, a great blast of Light, and freedom, relief. The enemies that had aligned themselves against God’s people find their weapons of oppression, their staffs and rods broken in their hands. 

Peace

For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

–       Isa 9:5

There will be a day when conflicts will cease, when every mechanism of war, every board of tyranny will be pulled down and heaped onto the bonfire of the grace of God’s Light. That’s what God’s Light brings. Joy, Rest, and Peace.

Light

The Light, of course, isn’t just an abstraction or energy or set of ideals from God, it’s a person; it’s a king. A King from Heaven, come down to us.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;

–       Isa 9:6a

When Zechariah sang about the arrival of Jesus being born, he understands that the time has come for God, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,” (Luke 1:79). 

Light from heaven sounds positive, but how could it be? Does it lead us to be exposed? Exploited? Jesus taught, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil,” (John 3:19). Those who have nothing to hide don’t mind the light. But if the darkness is helping you hide, if the darkness gives cover to indulge what want, but the the flood lights of Heaven turn on, you squirm, you’re embarrassed, you’re angry, you hide. How terrified would any of us be were someone to know everything about us? Jesus does. 

Yet, Isaiah says that it doesn’t lead to shame, but joy; not an exhausting pace of never measuring up, but rest; not a cowering fear that the barrel of heaven is aimed at you, but peace. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, after the individual is dragged out into the light, he is so dazzled that he longs for his fellow prisoners in the cave to escape and see this beauty. But when he attempts to convince them and lead them out, they kill the man in fear and anger. Plato is touching into the very human reality of our suspicion and hostility towards those who have experienced something above us, who look down on us, and summon us into what it is uncomfortable. Now, imagine in Plato’s cave that the figure who descends back down into the cave is not merely a witness to the light of the Sun, but whose face shines like the Sun, whose clothes are white like lightning, whose eyes burn with fire? What if Light embodied approached them in the dark? They would scream, howl, and try to kill Him if at all possible. And that’s exactly what they did.

The powers of darkness laid a plan to conspire with the darkness in men’s hearts to extinguish the Light of the world. So, at Gethsemane, in the dark of night, they plot to capture, arrest, torture, mock, and kill. At Golgotha, the heavens themselves darken, the Sun hides its face, thick darkness descends upon the land in the middle of the day as Light incarnate is pinned to a tree. Night gloats at the sight of Light, slain.

But they don’t realize they have been tricked. There are greater, older, more formidable plans unfolding at the blood-dark cross. The candle light of Good Friday, snuffed out, is going to explode into the dazzling brilliance of the Resurrection. They don’t realize that the Light of the World has died so that dark sinners like us could be forgiven, could be made into children of Light (Col 1:12-13).

To be loved, but not known, is what we all know. It is sentimental and trite. To be known, but not loved, is our greatest fear. It is exposure, shame, and condemnation. To be both known and loved is what our hearts long for most. In Jesus, we can be known to the bottom, and somehow loved. To be loved because you are beautiful make sense, because you have, in some sense, earned it. But if you aren’t beautiful? Then you can’t earn love. But to be made beautiful by love? To be loved into beauty? To be brought into light, not because there is no darkness in you, but because this is a light that melts darkness away? That is our great hope. That is what Jesus does. Jesus’ death on the cross is the means by which your darkness of sin can be siphoned off of you into Jesus, and His glorious unapproachable light can be given to you through faith. So…

Jesus teaches us, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full,” (John 15:11). Jesus brings you joy. There is no joy like the joy of forgiven sin.

Jesus teaches, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,”(Matt 11:28). Jesus gives you rest. Sin exhausts you, but Jesus brings relief.

Jesus teaches, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” (John 14:27). Jesus brings peace. Sin sets you at war with God, but Jesus brings resolution and peace, He eases your guilty conscience through His atonement.

And, as Isaiah explains, the good news of the Light will go on forever.

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

–       Isa 9:6b-7

The empire of grace will continue to expand, the kingdom of Jesus will grow and grow until it covers the face of the earth. Jesus is our Wonderful Counselor; He is wise, we are fools, but we can take counsel in Him. Jesus is our Mighty God; He is strong, we can hide in Him. Jesus is our Everlasting Father; He connects us to the Father who will love us with an eternal love. Jesus is our Prince of Peace; His kingdom and rule and lordship and authority lead to our everlasting peace. We are so terrified of individuals who are over us using their power to exploit and hurt and take advantage of us. But what if there is One over us who has all the power in the world but uses every millimeter of it for our good. What then? We have only to fall down on our knees before this gentle and lowly and glorious King of Kings and say, “Command me.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5

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